Updated: Mar 7, 2020
Your story, on a page. A good cover letter intrigues its reader about the candidate, inspires them to continue reading the application and (hopefully) offer them an interview. Approach the cover letter as your first impression -- what do you want the recruiter to know about you before they read your resume, transcript, or anything else?
You should view your cover letter as the bow that ties together the various elements of your application and serves as the starting point of the coherent narrative you should have developed a few weeks ago. While inherently personal, meaning your letter should be completely tailored to you and your application, there are some consistent talking-points and themes that everyone should include.
To help get you started, I've created some templated guidance for both firm articling/summer applications and court clerkship applications. In addition to providing the proper format for a business letter, these templates outline the various elements that you should cover. I'll go through these elements in more detail below.
Content is key, especially for internationally trained applicants who fall outside the normal education and recruitment route. Here are the key paragraphs you should have in your letter...
Paragraph One - Introducing Yourself. Use this first paragraph to give the recruiter the lay of the land and pre-empt some questions that may arise around your international status. Include 1) where you went to school and the degree you achieved, 2) your citizenship, confirming your eligibility to work in Canada, 3) your intention to work/practice in Canada going forward, and 4) your NCA completion date/status and eligibility to write the bar in your province.
Including these details ensures the reader is aware that hiring you won't present any visa challenges and that your international education and NCAs won't be in the way of your ability to article/clerk -- remember, you can't start articling until you've completed all the NCAs and the law society has cleared you. Additionally, confirming that you intend to article, qualify, and practice in Canada gives the reader confidence that investing in you will be worthwhile as you are dedicated to pursuing a Canadian legal career going forward.
Paragraph Two - Expressing Your Interest. This paragraph serves two key purposes: the first is to demonstrate your knowledge of the firm/court by outlining why are are interested in articling with them and the second is to tie that interest to your personal legal interests which, in turn, demonstrates your knowledge of the legal profession and markets. This is the paragraph where you put all your firm/court research to work and where you can mention any interactions with lawyers/students currently at the firm (with their blessing).
But, be careful. The goal here isn't to give the recruiter a bunch of facts they already know about their firm, but to demonstrate how these factors align with your interest in a way that makes you a perfect fit. Thus, what you include here should be relevant information about the firm's work/culture/model that you can link to your own legal interest and career goals. For more on this, take a look at my post on effectively researching firms.
Paragraph Three & Four - Your Experience. Here, you outline your work and/or volunteer experience and the professional and legal skills acquired. Provided you have enough experience, I recommend splitting paid and volunteer experiences into separate paragraphs as appropriate.
Again, it isn't sufficient to fact-drop here. Outlining your experience is more than just saying "I have done x, y, z" -- you need to ensure it reads as relevant by linking the experience and skills you have gained to how they make you a good candidate. For firms, you can focus on soft and hard professional skills and how they will help you in your articling/summer role. For clerkships, you'll need to spend more time highlighting your research and writing skills.
Paragraph Five - Closing! Keep this short, sweet and positive by expressing a hope to hear from/work with them in the future. International candidates currently residing outside Canada should also explicitly express that they would be willing to travel to Canada for interviews as required.
The general formatting of your letter should be simple and clean. You'll see on the templates that I've used a simple Times font and all my text is the same size. This may seem painfully boring, and it was incredibly hard for me not to take a bit of a creative licence when writing my own cover letters, but less is more and a clean format erases distractions from your content.
Spelling and grammar matter as well! Be sure to proof-read carefully; there's no point putting effort into a letter and having its reader turned-off by simple mistakes that could have been caught with an extra once-over. If you can, get a friend (or a lawyer!) to review your first few letters and take their feedback into consideration. I benefited from this immensely and can't thank the people who took time to make my letters better enough (you know who you are!). As a last check, I have my computer read the final product to me; hearing your letter audibly read often highlights mistakes that you gloss over in your 100th read.