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Paralegal Job Ads: Response Dynamics

published February 07, 2013

By Author - LawCrossing
Published By
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In the search for a paralegal job responding to a formal advertisement is the most challenging. Because the odds are against you, it puts the written presentation and other job search basics in the forefront.

Paralegal Job Ads: Response Dynamics



The person who is told to throw out 40 resumes will do so with a number of different standards in mind. The first elements we will deal with have to do with basic standards. These basic standards are fairly universal and must be met by all applicants. There are exceptions (people who get hired in spite of violating one or more of these standards), but they are exceptions that prove the rule.

In the hurry and tension of the job search process, the paralegal applicant must meet the basic requirements and craft a letter that creates an ''above average" image. The most beautifully crafted letter, loaded with skills and meaningful experience-but unsigned-will most likely be rejected. This is the pressure you are under-write a good letter, cover all the basics, and don't forget to sign the cover letter.

A cover letter printed on a top-of-the-line laser printer on the most expensive bond that has misspelled a name in the firm is headed for the wastebasket. The best applicant who seems to fit the job better than any other can be rejected in the first disqualification stage, if there are typos on the cover letter. These standards are used because they reflect upon professionalism. They are also the easiest way to bring a group of 50 down to 10.

Your goal must be nothing less than making sure you are not disqualified. At times when individuals are frustrated, they call and ask me, ''Why can't I get any interviews?" The first thing I tell them to do is to take a look at those cover letters. They could be too wordy, awkward, unfocused, impersonal, abrupt, or just riddled with grammatical and usage errors. In short, the cover letter could be the enemy; they did not even get to your resume. The disqualification process, especially at the early stages, can be dealt with by simply taking care, writing professionally, and going over and over your work.

The cover letter that is simply "correct''

Many people simply write cover letters that are mistake-free, short, and "correct." This approach works because (1) you do not disqualify yourself with mistakes and (2) a short, terse cover letter points the reader to the resume, which is one of the purposes of the cover letter. There is great virtue in not getting yourself disqualified by saying too much or being overly wordy. But the merely "correct" letter often does not "jump out" at the reader and create a compelling reason to interview.

Why should you have a cover letter anyway? Many frustrated paralegals might ask this question. Cover letters serve some basic, but important, purposes:
  1. They show the "person" behind the resume.
  2. They test basic writing ability and level of professionalism.
  3. They show how well you "fit" the particular job, firm, or situation that you are seeking.
  4. They serve as a way of comparing applicants before interviews to help make interview decisions.
These four purposes show you why writing a letter that is merely "correct" and creates "no impression" can be a liability in the overall hiring process. A letter that is short and merely correct does not show much of the "person" (Purpose #1), but it does not hurt you, per se. It does reduce "reject ability factors" and thus helps you (Purpose #2). Since it is short and terse, it may not show how you "fit" the job, unless you are a "perfect fit" based upon your resume (Purpose #3). Since it shows so little of you, it probably does not give a full picture to assist in "comparing" you with competitors. And competition is the key word here.

Writing an impressive cover letter: how to beat the competition

If this were not a competitive job market, a "safe" cover letter might do. But in a market in which many applicants are seeking positions (and thus more people are as qualified as you), impressive cover letters must have the following characteristics:
  1. Personality
  2. The right fit
  3. Extra value offered
Ironically, one of the enemies of persuasive, enthusiastic, compelling cover letters is the personal computer. Because people can write standard cover letters and print them out as a "freshly created" letter, they do. They simply plug in different addresses and names and dates and print away.

Before the PC, cover letters had to be typed individually each time. This put more stress on job applicants, but it also forced them to create individualized cover letters. You can get disqualified immediately if you send a cover letter printed out on a dot matrix printer on low-quality paper, with the feed guides torn from the side of the paper.

The quality, specificity, personality, and focus of cover letters would dramatically rise if people labored over cover letters just a few minutes longer each time one was written, to make sure that that particular written presentation was their best attempt at being compelling. A compelling cover letter stands out because it reads as if it were written for the first time. When a letter does not specifically address the job description, practice area, or some other unique quality, then it seems like a literal "cover letter"-something written to go on top of a resume simply because the rules say you have to write one. A successful cover letter will do the following:
  1. Addresses key issues in ad
  2. Shows enthusiasm
  3. Written for specific firm or practice area
  4. Uses best quality paper and good typewriter or printer
  5. It is well-constructed (reads easily and logically)
  6. It is well-written (with correct grammar and vocabulary)
  7. It avoids all errors
  8. It calls for action (asks for interview or phone call)
The concept of extra added value is one that is heard in seminars concerning new management techniques and philosophies. Suffice it to say that the simple act of listing the contributions you can make, or qualities you bring to the job, or skills that constitute the package that is you, will make you stand out. The concept of added value is one that you must take with you to the interview and the resume, but it must begin with the cover letter. When you craft your cover letter, you are focusing on your best qualifying features. If all goes well, the recipient will meet you and discover the totality of you and your attributes. Eighty percent of the hiring process takes place in the interview, so getting called for an interview is the primary goal of your resume and cover letter. An impressive cover letter gets you noticed. If your cover letter has some personality and stands out from the crowd, it could be the edge you need to be interviewed. Paralegals who think the cover letter is just a "cherry that goes on top of the ice cream" are missing the dynamics of this very important part of the effective job search.

Guidelines for writing an effective cover letter

A cover letter must be:

1) One page in length. No exceptions. A letter that is longer than one page means you are probably gushing, pleading, or explaining too much.

2) Three paragraphs. Make the following three points of emphasis: a) why you are writing and who you are, b) skills, value, contribution you make to specific job or situation, and c) action step-ask them to take action or tell them the action you will be taking

3) Written in the active voice. Avoid the passive voice. Instead of "One point of emphasis is," write "I emphasize"; do not say "some of the skills that should be considered are," say, "Consider these skills." The passive voice tends to be a weak construction that people use when they are writing instead of when they are speaking. The direct active voice gives a feeling of vitality to your letter.

4) Easy to read. Do not use multisyllabic words when short, simple words will do. Overcomplicated letters that only attempt to impress and intellectualize defeat the purpose of the cover letter.

The First Paragraph of the Cover Letter

The first paragraph, generally, should be no more than three to four sentences. State the purpose of your communication in the first sentence. The K.I.S.S. Rule (Keep It Simple, Stupid) applies here. This rule simply means, do not over think this process. Get to the point, and when you are done, go on to the next; when you are done with all your points, quit.

Start with your most important points in the first paragraph: Who you are and why you are writing.

THE "WHO": A recent graduate of a paralegal program, a paralegal with experience in an internship, a paralegal with a certain kind of experience in certain practice areas.

THE "WHY": If it is a networking letter, begin by referring to the name of the person who is the key reference name. That immediately identifies you with the reader; the advertisement to which you are responding; the practice area around which your interest/experience and their firm revolve.

A geographic area to which you are moving; a specialty kind of experience or educational background which will make you stand out instantly.

In the first two sentences you should have covered the basics:

I am a recent graduate of ABC Paralegal Institute and recently had a stimulating internship experience with a busy personal injury firm here in town. Since you practice in this area, I would like to speak with you about the potential of performing some contract work for you and your firm.

If you have a four-year degree, be sure to include that in your first paragraph.

In this opening, you are immediately addressing who you are and why you are contacting them. You have already qualified yourself in two ways and have offered a proposition. Since in this example we are not responding to a formal job advertisement, we lower the stakes with an offer of contract work. Attorneys are often much more willing to talk about occasional work than a full-time offer. Remember, your goal is to obtain an interview-to get seated in front of a decision maker. If you have not referred to full-time work in your cover letter that does not mean therefore that you cannot talk about it in the interview. This is a secret to all approaches, whether they be written or oral. If in your opening statements you say something like. "I am available for part-time, temporary, contract, or full-time work," you will get more interest than if you ask for a full-time job alone. The reason is simple: The total number of full-time permanent openings is smaller than the total number of paralegal employment opportunities.

You are not committing yourself to every offer you get. The mere fact that you have broadened the area of discussion to include a wider array of work does not obligate you. You must consider every offer, query, and interview and then decide which to accept.

The "Law of Mutual Arising" is a Chinese concept that simply rephrases a Newtonian law of physics --For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. People in sales are often instructed on how to lower resistance. They are told to be more "soft sell” so that people will be less defensive. The same thing applies in the cover letter. Ask for a job and the corresponding resistance will be, "Why, I don't have a job!" Ask for less (time for an interview or a part-time or temporary job) and the resistance to your request is lowered. So, one approach is to state that you are available for all types of work, instead of limiting your scope to a full- time job. This opens up more possibilities and reduces rejection. It is likely that a firm will have some kind of work, whether it is temporary, part- time, or contract. The other way to lower rejection through lowered stakes is not to ask for employment at all, but rather ask for time.

I would appreciate an opportunity to sit down with you and discuss the role of paralegals in your practice area.

This can be phrased a number of ways, but the key point is that you are not asking for a job, you are seeking time to talk about the market place, the practice area you have designated, what it is like to work in a firm such as this, what particular problems or challenges the attorney faces which you might specifically be able to help with. This method is employed particularly in face-to-face networking, telemarketing, and just chatting with people socially; it starts with a paragraph in a cover letter.

In a fully engaged job search, you will be called on to write different kinds of cover letters. With most advertised leads, the direct approach is natural and logical. You are writing because of an ad easy. Most networking leads, however, were generated through your own effort and the efforts of your friends and associates, so the natural approach is to ask for an interview or a session in which you can freely discuss all upcoming potential openings.

In direct mail, the theory is to open you up to as many possibilities as can be activated. You are working a "numbers game" and you invested dearly in a large mailing. Any conversation you can get, over the phone, or in person, has a monetary value to you. In the case of direct mail, you want to appear as accessible and flexible as possible. So, every time you write a cover letter, remember the first paragraph is to focus on where you are coming from and what you are after.

Your opening paragraph should cover the WHO and the WHY and then close so that you can quickly get to your skills, value, and potential benefits.

The second paragraph

The second paragraph is the Skills/Value paragraph. This is your personal sales pitch. The core of your bio (oral presentation) in the interview lies in the structure of this paragraph. As you assemble your qualifications in the construction of this paragraph, you are also preparing the outline of your interview.

Remember, in these sentences you are trying to tie together your virtues (skills and values) in a logical and readable style. You can write like thus:

I gained paralegal experience as an intern where I assisted attorneys with trial preparation, deposition summarizing, and document organization.

I also used well-developed computer skills in drafting motions and preparing indexes. Since I have three years of office experience in a busy medical clinic, I combine a strong knowledge of medical terminology with a real sensitivity to client contact issues.

The elements covered in this sample second paragraph are: 1) Reiterated elements from first paragraph with an expansion of specific skills and experiences gained. If you have a four-year degree, be sure to introduce that fact in your first paragraph. Never neglect to include all of your paralegal training in this paragraph.

2) Technical/computer skills need to be in almost all cover letters. Elaborate on the systems you know. Mention the technical skills you have developed! Your competition does.

3) Introduce pertinent skills and experience from your past background such as work habits, or similarity of situation, that could be particularly meaningful to a practice area. Transferability of skills is the goal of each "Transitional Person." Since this profession is filled with "transitional persons," this is a goal you should strive for. Don't fail to extract transferable skills from your background in a meaningful and credible way.

Paralegal buzz words organizational skills: stay calm under pressure . . . enjoy handling big projects . . . handle high interruptive environment . . . know how to stay on top of a large case load ... am able to put out a great deal of work.

Writing/Research skills: Researched, drafted, and prepared reports or motions or pleadings, etc. . . . drafted correspondence . . . prepared lists, reports, tables, statistics . . . know how to research . . .

Office skills: Word-processing skills . . . able to type . . . willing to do own support work . , .

Scheduling/detail skills: Detail orientation . . . accounted for . . . accounting . . . systems analysis . . . numbers . . . calculations . . . handling the small stuff while still keeping the big picture

FLEXIBILITY:

willing to roll up sleeves and do the grunt work, but able to handle cli ents . . . stay late to get job out the door . . .

Interpersonal skills: Skilled at dealing with people under stress . . . warm personality . . . able to keep poise and confidence and yet am a team player ... not egotistical . . . not temperamental . . . can subordinate personal to the larger good . . . can adapt to various personalities . . . know how to deal with demanding people

Problem-solving skills: Resourceful . . . handled investigations . . . follow projects through to completion . . . can deal with theory and principle yet still armed with lots of practical skills that make me invaluable, know where to get answers, have professional skills to apply to problem-solving situations, believe in being able to get things done, and if I cannot, I ask the right questions and do the homework

The second paragraph

Paralegal buzz words referred to above describe the kind of work paralegals do and the prevailing atmosphere in many firms. It is a stream of descriptive statements that should assist you in emphasizing the skills and experience that are meaningful to the person making hiring decisions. The main point is to emphasize skills more than titles. Do not use all of these phrases in a cover letter (for example, some would be more fitting in an interview), but reading these buzz words helps you define those past skills and experiences which would transfer most readily to the legal/paralegal market. Focusing on these skills will help you separate those experiences that were important to your last job from the skills that are meaningful and impressive to the person who might hire you for your next job.

Two ditches to avoid

The cover letter is in many cases your first contact with a potential employer. It is crucial that you avoid typical pitfalls, and walk the correct and middle path in the job search process. This path speaks confidently about your virtues and skills, but does not boast, stretch credibility, sound excessive, or go to extremes. The "Superior Ditch" is the ditch into which many fall. Some think bravado will disguise itself as confidence, and that enthusiasm will "out-shout" a lack of qualifications. Overconfidence, boastfulness, and a "know-it-all" attitude get applicants rejected more than any other negative qualities.

The "Inferior Ditch" also causes rejection, because law firms are not in the business of acquiring muted, self-effacing, meek, and monosyllabic professional assistance. People who transmit the message that "they are not worthy" and that they are dwarfed by their surroundings get rejected at nearly the same rate as those who act too superior. Law firms and other legal settings need support personnel who can honestly present their skills and talents in a positive and declarative manner. Hiring managers want strong people who can handle the stress of professional life, not people who appear to wither under the pressure of stress and tense interpersonal dynamics.

While this problem is most visible in the interview, it actually begins in the written presentation phase of the job search process.

The Skills/Value paragraph of your cover letter is the first tangible experience you have with the delicate balance of inferiority vs. superiority.

In the cover letter you are challenged to present yourself in a credible and positive manner, not only as a believable "fit" but also a "perfect fit." As you craft your second paragraph, attempt to keep this dynamic in balance.

The Third Paragraph-Do Not "Fade to Black"

In movies and TV, the signal that a scene is about to end is the "fade to black"--the picture gradually darkens until the screen is completely black. The worst thing you can do in your third paragraph is fade to black. Avoid paragraphs like the following;

Thank you very much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to peruse my resume. Although I have little experience, I still think that someone with my particular background could be a good paralegal.

Thanks again for taking the time to read this.

This paragraph is weak and apologetic. It cries out for an action step. Compare it to this:

I am looking forward to discussing your practice with you, and I will be calling you in ten days to see if we can arrange an interview.

If you are arriving in town, note that in your last paragraph. Ask them to call you--it's the logical consequence of your letter. If you fail to call for some kind of action, your letter will sound weak and pleading or non-directed and unenthusiastic. A fade to black third paragraph is downbeat and leaves a wrong impression. Use the following steps to help you write your action paragraph:

The Third Paragraph - Do Not "Fade to Black"
  • Reiterate your interest
  • Talk about availability
  • Tell them to call you or
  • Tell them you will call
  • Explain special circumstances
  • Be professional
  • Don't beg
Common pitfalls to avoid

The following examples are not exaggerations. Most are taken from actual letters.

1) Awkward sentences and incorrect punctuation. "I have experience in drafting motions, motions for summary judgment and default judgment being some of them, though not all; with pleadings being occasional and sporadic."

2) Overly complex sentences. "Though I have a strong professional background with management and administration, I am still able to take orders and facilitate projects in a teamwork setting; taking into account that my best work is really done when I am unsupervised and in a self-directed situation."

3) Excessive explaining. "I used to work on WordStar and the initial WordPerfect system and feel that my typing skills, though adequate now, could be rapidly improved. Since you have asked for experience on Macintosh, I think that I could easily train into that in a matter of days."

4) Too personal. "Through a series of personal changes that took place in my life in the last two years, I find myself in your city and very anxious to reestablish myself so that I can get on solid ground and ..."

5) Too desperate. "I am anxious to speak with you about this opportunity. The combination of my enthusiasm, curiosity, and ambition will make me a great employee. If I can only be given the chance to speak with you ..."

6) Too formal. "Please be informed that I am submitting my application for employment in the form of this letter and its accompanying resume. Note my educational background and an attached letter of reference for your perusal and consideration."

7) Flattering assumptions. "A firm with your commitment to the highest of ethical and professional standards with a strong reputation in the community and a dynamic and progressive point of view would be . .

8) Too short. "Enclosed is my resume for your advertised job opening. Please call me if we can arrange an interview."

9) Sounding overqualified. "With my 20 years of administration and management experience, I am certain that I possess all the needed skills to accomplish whatever task that might arise in the office."

10) Using self-limiting statements. "Though I have no legal experience, I feel I could ..."

11) Not employing "buzz words"

12) Not signing your letters

13) Not using language appropriate to specific practice areas

14) Misspelling

15) Date, margins, spacing errors Cover Letters: Tiny Works of Art Good cover letters are made up of many elements. First, they get to the point. You will notice from many of the negative examples just cited that they have a shapeless quality. They try to include too much, but say little. Good letters are easy for an intelligent, interested person to read. They do not belabor points, but breeze along quickly. They are straightforward, avoiding timidity or brashness. They attempt to be descriptive to a certain degree, using adjectives and adverbs when appropriate. They sound

Cover letters are tiny works of art

Like a real person they are enthusiastic and positive. They envision a relationship of mutual benefit, derived from the value that the applicant offers, and from the opportunity within the firm. They do not sound ostentatious or haughty; they use appropriate vocabulary and correct grammar.

All of these elements together make a good cover letter. The challenge is not to write an ''unforgettable piece of literature/' but to spend enough time crafting these "tiny works of art" so that they beautifully reflect you, the professional paralegal, and your particular individual worth!

The Direct Mail Cover Letter

Creating a written presentation for a direct mail campaign is a particular challenge. You must write a letter that can go to a group of 50, 100, or 200 attorneys in a given city, or practice area or combination of geography/practice area. The goal then is to write a presentation that will have broad appeal and present a basically qualified and professional image.

A good direct mail cover letter neatly and crisply sums you up and supplies a snapshot of a qualified applicant. Without an advertisement or other connecting element to refer to, the letter should get to the point: Talk about your qualifications, ask for an interview, tell them you will call them, and close. It helps you focus on your basic skills and qualifications, and forces you to formally delineate them. A well-done, direct mail, written presentation can be the backbone of all of your other letters and the core of the "bio" that you create for your interviews.

A direct mail cover letter written to a specific corporation or firm focuses on the company. As the company is mentioned in the letter, it will be read with more interest by the employer. This kind of treatment can also be done with the use of a variable document. The name of the firm is in the body of the letter, because a command has been set up to insert it at that point.

The letter can be written this way:

I have recently completed the ABA-approved General Practice program at ABC Paralegal Institute and am interested in working in the Chicago area. I would be interested in talking with you about how I could assist you in your practice.

As noted on my enclosed resume, I graduated from the University Center at Tulsa with a degree in business management last May. In addition to my education, my background includes an internship with Mr. Dick Tracy, Esq. of Investigative Reporting Services in Tulsa. At this internship, I gained experience not only in the legal profession but in investigative practices as well. I also have training and experience in WordPerfect 5.1 and Lotus and am proficient in their use .

I would like to discuss your practice with you and explore ways in which I could make a contribution to your firm. I will call your office within the next week to set up an appointment.

Thank you for your interest and consideration, and I look forward to meeting you.

Sincerely yours,

Your skills for writing effective cover letters will improve with practice. In preparation for your job hunt, you may want to write a few sample cover letters before you are under the gun to respond to competitive job opportunity.

Try writing the following:
  • Write your own general direct mail cover letter. Include your background, education, skills. Conclude with a positive action step.
     
  • Write a cover letter based upon a third party networking connection, in which you are asking for time to discuss paralegal work in a specific practice area, and any additional names of individuals who might be in need of paralegals in this practice area.
     
  • Write a cover letter to an advertised lead from your school's placement board or the local newspaper.
Sample Cover Letters

Compare these sample letters and decide which letter you like the best and for what reasons. These letters were all written to the same employer, in response to the following newspaper ad: Statutorily created company which acts as a kind of Receiver for Insolvent Insurance companies seeks trained paralegals to deal with policyholders and policy issues. Insurance background ishelpful. Must be able to deal with people under stress and explain insolvency situation and policyholder options.

All three of these people were interviewed and hired from a large group of applicants.

Dear Sir or Madam:

I am very interested in a Paralegal position with Deere & Company. Growing up in Iowa has made me very familiar with your company.

I have a Paralegal Certificate from ABC Paralegal Institute, which is ABA approved. In addition, I have practical paralegal experience that has provided on-the-job knowledge of court rules, legal procedures, terminology, and legal research and writing. I have obtained this practical experience from my internship with the Illinois Attorney General's Office in the Antitrust and Consumer Protection Sections. I am continuing to perform paralegal duties with the Illinois Attorney General's Office.

I am proficient with West Law, WordPerfect, and Quattro Pro software. Employers and references state that I possess good oral and written communication skills, a good work ethic and professionalism, and the ability to work well under pressure.

I am looking forward to discussing my qualifications with you. I hope to hear from you soon.
Sincerely,

Aaron Schmidt

Dear Sir or Madam:

I have recently graduated number one with a 4.0 G.P.A. in a class of fifty-nine at the New City Paralegal Institute. I was given your name by the Career Development Counselor about a temporary position with your firm. I feel that an excellent way to begin a paralegal career is through temporary work and would be most interested in interviewing with you for this position.

In addition to my education, my background includes over three hundred hours of internship experience dealing with Plaintiffs personal injury claims. Because of my experience in dealing with insurance companies, I feel I would be an excellent candidate for this position.

I am presently on a temporary assignment which ends this Friday, but I would be able to interview with you at your convenience and will be available for work starting Saturday. I am very much looking forward to meeting you and can be reached at the numbers on my resume.

Sincerely,

Jerry Frank

Dear Sir or Madam:

Ellen O'Hara has informed me that you have a temporary position open for a paralegal with an insurance background. The position sounds very interesting to me. I have a paralegal certificate from New City Paralegal Institute, and many years of experience in the insurance industry.

I am very enthusiastic, detail-oriented, a good listener who can follow instructions, and a quick learner. I feel that my experience and qualities would make me an excellent candidate for your position, and I would sincerely like to meet with you personally to discuss it. I am available for work immediately.

Thank you for your time, and I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

Danielle Kenney

Dear Sir or Madam:

Ellen O'Hara has informed me of the opening for a Paralegal to work on insurance company insolvency. I would very much like to be considered for this position.

As detailed within my enclosed resume, I have a strong and varied background in business management. During my many years of past management experience, I was directly involved in various forms and degrees of customer and client contact. By virtue of this experience, I have perfected my customer service skills by utilizing effective communication and listening techniques. As a result, I am very sensitive to the customer's needs.

I feel very strongly that my previous work experience, along with my legal education and strong work ethic will allow me to meet your objectives. Thank you for reviewing my resume; I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Denise Allen