Effective Self-Promotion in Cover Letters

How do you effectively promote yourself in a cover letter or similar pitch urging someone to hire you — as a lawyer, a law clerk, or whatever else? Law students often ask me about this, so I thought I’d blog some tentative thoughts of mine, and invite suggestions from others.

1. Business manners aren’t social manners, and excessive modesty can hurt you badly in business. You don’t start a conversation in a social context by saying that you were #1 in your law school class, but you often should say this in a cover letter.

2. At the same time, the rule in cover letters isn’t “anything goes”; some self-promotion will indeed be seen as excessive.

3. My tentative sense is that the main peril with self-promotion in cover letters isn’t the reaction “the applicant it too self-promoting” but rather “I’m skeptical of the applicant’s self-promoting claims.” So objectively verifiable credentials are good, but unverifiable claims are often bad: “I got an A+ in my Legal Writing class” works, but “I’m an excellent writer” — without any accompanying evidence — doesn’t. Readers are on guard for what they see as overstatement of one’s abilities, and any unsupported self-promotion will reinforce their initial assumption that the applicant isn’t to be trusted.

4. The same applies, though to a lesser degree, to unadorned claims of enthusiasm. “I’m really excited about the possibility of working at your firm, because I’m very interested in ERISA law” won’t be that effective. “I’m really excited about the possibility of working at your firm, because the Employee Benefits class that I took made me very interested in ERISA law” will be considerably more effective, because it gives concrete evidence of interest that overcomes the reader’s skepticism.

5. Relatedly, framing your concrete accomplishments in the language of enthusiasm is a nice way of promoting yourself while minimizing any visceral disapproval of perceived immodesty that some readers might have (notwithstanding item 1). “I published three articles in law school” is OK in a cover letter seeking an appellate clerkship, but “I’ve long loved legal writing; my experience publishing three articles reaffirmed this for me, and made me realize how much I would enjoy clerking” is better.

6. If you have several excellent relevant credentials, focus on them, and don’t dilute them by discussing your more mediocre ones or your much less relevant ones. If you have a degree in German literature from Ohio Wesleyan, you should mention it on your resume, which is supposed to provide a relatively complete summary of your educational career; but you shouldn’t mention it in your cover letter unless you think the reader will for personal reasons find the matter particularly interesting (e.g., because he went to Ohio Wesleyan). Everyone has some undergraduate degree. The point in your cover letter is to show how you’re better than the great majority of applicants, not how similar you are to them.

7. Finally, proofread your cover letter, and your resume, especially carefully. Many readers will assume that if you erred in documents that are so important to your own success, you’ll also be sloppy on other matters.

In any case, these are some quick thoughts of mine; I’d love to hear what others might say.

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