Cover letter or no cover letter?

Some legal job candidates don't submit them with their resumes, assuming it's a practice that's been rendered obsolete by online technology. But serious job seekers will still make the effort to write one, even if it's sent in the body of an email.

Many prospective employers still like cover letters because they offer insights into a candidate's personality, work ethic and soft skills, such as written communication abilities and attention to detail. Cover letters can also help emphasize strengths or assets that may not immediately pop out in your resume.

Whether you're trying to find a job after law school or you're an experienced lawyer looking for a new opportunity, a cover letter can help your legal resume get noticed by hiring managers. Here are three cover letter tips to help you grab a potential employer's attention:

1. Get personal

Direct your letter to an actual person whenever possible. If you're still in law school or a recent graduate, your career services office may be able to help you identify the right contact at a target employer. You can also look for the name of the hiring attorney or recruiting contact on a firm's website, LinkedIn page or by calling the firm directly.

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One of the easiest cover letter tips is this: Name drop. (If it's legit, of course.) Legal employers place significant weight on experience and personal recommendations when recruiting candidates. More than half (56 percent) of respondents to a Robert Half Legal survey said that the prestige of a former employer or previous work experience are the best indicators of a job applicant's potential for success in his or her current organization. Twenty-two percent of lawyers mentioned a referral from a current employee or member of their network as the primary indicator of success.

With this in mind, state in the first part of your cover letter any mutual professional connections or interests you may have. These could include individuals, practice areas, schools or locations. Maybe you earned your undergraduate degree in the same city in which the law firm is headquartered, for instance, and hope to capitalize on your connections by returning to that area.

2. Keep it brief but tailored

No list of cover letter tips would be complete without talking about the meat of the document. Use the middle paragraph to further describe relevant points of your background, including past employers or cases, relevant coursework, or legal publishing credits. Illustrate how your background can benefit the employer, as opposed to what the opportunity would do for you. Be sure to convey what you know about the firm and why you're enthusiastic about it. Avoid rehashing your resume, but do highlight what differentiates you from other candidates.

3. Be professional

Excellent writing skills are central to most legal work, which makes cover letters especially important as a showcase for these abilities. Take as much care with your cover letter as you do your resume. Review additional cover letter tips to ensure yours is carefully composed and edited. Lawyers are expected to draft error-free documents, so consider your cover letter to be a work sample.

Close your cover letter with a call to action. For instance, if you're going to be in the prospective employer's geographic area soon, request an interview during that time frame. If you say you're going to follow up, do so. Most employers expect candidates to follow up. It may be the extra factor in making the cut for an interview.