What if what you provide makes sense for almost all law firms?
I honestly don't think that one firm is all that different from another (or if there is a huge difference in culture, 1Ls applying for jobs aren't really going to be able to figure out what it is), unless you are talking about IP boutiques, or something similar.
I'm a 1L, but I also have some pretty good experience in HR, especially on the hiring side of things. It's totally transparent when people have researched the company on the internet and put some irrelevant thing that is unique about it just to prove that they "know something" about the company. It's not a bad thing, but there's far more important factors that will get you somewhere, and I doubt it really helps all that much. Knowing unique things about the company when you write your cover letter probably has no correlation with whether you will be a good worker or not, and people in HR are aware of this. I doubt law firms are all that different, but I could be wrong.
I get what you're saying, and up until I worked at two firms for 1L summer, I also felt that firms weren't all that different from one another (so I guess like you said, 1L's really aren't going to be able to figure out those differences). After working in two different environments and getting a feel for how they both operated and what they both wanted, I realized that marketing yourself to law firms was all about finding the things each firm feels differentiates them from their competitors, and using them "against" the firm. Just like girls, firms like to hear you tell them about the things that make them more special than any other firm/girl.
I agree that it's totally transparent to spew a random fact about a firm. What I advocate for though is lining up a list of what you're best at and what you want, and finding a place that seems to look for/value that. That means going deeper than just reading the firm's website.
When I researched firms, I asked my self questions like: Are they a young firm?
If the answer was yes, to me that meant they were still in a place where they want people with energy who want to take ownership of what they do, so I would sell hard that I'm that type of person, who can hit the ground running, and come in and be profitable early.Do they emphasize their own way of doing things?
(i.e. "The XYZ Way") Often times firms are really enamored by this idea that they do things a different way than others. It's easy to spot and easier to exploit. If a girl really likes a particular feature of hers, the easiest way to get her to go home with you is to play up that feature.I looked at the firm roster and attorney bios:
If I noticed a lot of midlevel associates and junior partners had worked at the major biglaw shops and then lateraled in, it was easy to infer that they were one of those elusive "lifestyle firms." (I guess as good a lifestyle you can get working at a large firm...) Another thing I looked at in the bios was just how they were written and constructed. A few of the firms I looked at seemed to go out of their way to promote each individual's own practice. To me that meant that the firm wanted you to have client interaction, to get out and meet people, and to eventually develop your own practice and book of business. I know that is always the point, but some firms seemed to emphasize it more.
That stuff isn't transparent. If you do that stuff, if you really learn what to look for, you'll have tremendous success with writing cover letters, and in interviews (and honestly, that advice is more for interviews than cover letters). Like I said, general cover letters work fine. They aren't there to make sure your file gets really looked at, they're more of a formality. The point of them is just to make sure the person who reads it doesn't trash your stuff because it sucks/you made errors. If you're at a great school and/or you've got great grades, write the general cover letters to your hearts content. My only point was that if you really want a specific job, or you don't quite have the grades, or you have little/no ties to an area, you need to take the time to research the firm/org and write a good targeted cover letter.
My goal here isn't to prove you wrong. Lord knows I was wrong about half the stuff I did when applying to law school/for jobs as a 1L. I've learned a lot in a really short time though, and I'm telling you this stuff works. Like I said in my original post, I thought that cover letters were just a formality..."don't make any mistakes" was my only goal (on top of that, when I did do a "targeted" letter, I used to think that meant changing out 2-4 sentences with something transparent from their website). For the most part this year I still sent out ones that were pretty generic because targeting em for every place would take way too long. However, a good cover letter that is well researched, and considers and presents how you fit at a specific firm or org is ALWAYS preferable. On top of that, the knowledge you get will prepare you to rock the interview. Experience has taught me that...