When Should You Include A Cover Letter?

June 15, 2023


Albert Tawil, Founder & CEO of Lateral Hub

One of the most common questions from laterals is when to include a cover letter.  And firms have varying feelings about cover letters, all the way from “We require a cover letter with every application” to “We don’t like cover letters, it’s another thing for us to read.”   So what should you do?

In my mind, there are three main scenarios, which I cover below.  

But if you take anything away from this post, it is this one rule of thumb. Put yourself in the shoes of the person at the firm reviewing your application - if that person will have any question as to why you are applying to that job or why you are qualified for that job, then you should include a cover letter.

So let’s jump in to the main scenarios regarding cover letters:
1) Scenario 1: The firm requires a cover letter.
This is an easy one.  If the firm requires a cover letter, then you need to include one.
If you try to be sneaky and include your resume again in the cover letter document upload field, that is a pretty sure way of NOT being considered.  At best, it is a failure to follow basic instructions.  At worst, it is you intentionally trying to go around the application requirements for a job you are trying to get.  Not a good look.
2) Scenario 2: The firm does not require a cover letter, and it is obvious why you are applying.
Many firms don’t require a cover letter in applications from laterals.  So, you’re first thought is probably: “Great, well then I won’t include one.”
This is only ok if it is obvious why you are applying.  For example, there is an opening for a mid-level M&A associate at BigLaw firm in NYC.  You are a mid-level M&A associate in NYC at another similar firm and your resume shows your M&A experience.  You may also be including a deal sheet to provide more specifics on your experience.
In this case, the firm will get a good idea from your resume (and deal sheet, if you include it) about your experience, by virtue of your current firm and the similarity in practice area.
Keep in mind that you can still include a cover letter if you feel it would be helpful - it usually can’t hurt.  More on that in a separate blog post.
(Side note: Many firms require cover letters technically in their application portal, because of the way it was set up by the tech team.  On the Lateral Hub job board, many of those firms don’t require a cover letter because it is not something the recruiting team actually needs from all candidates.  For many firms, Lateral Hub is the only place to apply directly without including a cover letter.)
3) Scenario 3: The firm does not require a cover letter, and it is not obvious why you are applying.
Again, many firms don’t require a cover letter in applications from laterals.  So, you’re first thought is probably: “Great, well then I won’t include one.”
Well, if it wouldn’t be obvious to the firm why you are applying, then you should still include one.  
The reason is simple.  Usually the first line of defense is the firm’s recruiting team, who are usually very experienced in evaluating associate candidates and working closely with the practice group leaders/hiring partners.  The firm’s recruiting team usually does an initial screen based on the basic requirements that the partners have for the role.  
Let’s say there is an opening for a mid-level M&A associate.  Which candidate is more attractive?
A mid-level capital markets associate.
A mid-level capital markets associate who has some M&A experience as a junior associate, has taken steps to learn more about M&A practice over the past few months to prepare for a pivot, has received positive feedback as someone who picks things up quickly, and has developed skills that transfer well to M&A work.
The former might not pass an initial screen.  The latter provides more color that isn’t on your resume, and gives the recruiting team reasons to consider you even though your experience isn’t squarely in line with the opening.
There are many examples of situations where a cover letter would be helpful:
Your experience is not exactly aligned with the opening / you are a “retool.”  This is of course true if your experience is in a completely different practice area - it is possible to get a job as a “retool,” but you need to make a case for yourself!
Keep in mind that this can be true even in the same general practice area.  For example, if you are a litigation associate mostly working on large white collar investigations, and you are applying for a commercial litigation role, a cover letter can be helpful to show your experience and the litigation skills you developed that can transfer over.
You live in a different location from where the job opening is located and/or you are not licensed in the relevant jurisdiction for the job opening.  Few things are more frustrating for a law firm recruiting team than posting an opening in one state and having an application from a candidate located in another state, with no bar license in the relevant state and further context.  Will the candidate be willing to move here?   Can the candidate do a UBE transfer/waive in?  Why is this candidate applying if they can't practice law here?
If you plan to move to that city and do a UBE transfer / take the bar again, then SAY IT!   It is common for laterals to move geographically, but if the firm requires you to be licensed in that state, then you need a cover letter to provide more context if you’re not.
You work for a firm that isn’t a “brand name.”  The unfortunate reality is that many firms have the “name” and prestige.  Other firms recognize it and know what your experience is by seeing where you work.  Now, you might work for a midsize firm that does sophisticated work.  Because of the firm’s size and the small teams, you might have gotten an even broader, hands-on experience than if you worked at a large, prestigious law firm.  But the firm to which you are applying may not know that unless you convey it.
So, it is a good idea in this case a cover letter is a great idea to overcome the lack of brand awareness for your firm and show why you’re a great candidate nonetheless.
You have fewer years of experience than the job posting requires.  If you are applying to a job posting looking for 4-6 years of experience, and you have 2 or 3, then you should include a cover letter explaining why you are still a good candidate.  The firm may very well consider strong applicants with fewer years of experience, but if all they have to go off of is your resume with only 2-3 years of experience, then you aren’t making a strong case for yourself.  This is particularly important in the current market, as many of the associates impacted by layoffs have been junior associates who often may not have the requisite experience listed in a job posting - in those cases, a stellar cover letter can be helpful.
There are of course various scenarios where a cover letter may be helpful, which may depend on your particular application and circumstances.  This blog post provides a helpful overview of the key situations where you should consider including a cover letter.  
Stay tuned for another blog post on pitfalls to avoid in a cover letter and errors in a cover letter can hurt you.

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