Making the Most of Your Law School Recommendation Letters: A Few Nuts and Bolts

LSAT PreparationEarlier this year, I talked about the basics of letters of recommendation for law school applications.  Recommendation letters often receive the least attention from law school applicants and their advisors.  To recall why they matter to law school admissions personnel: like an applicant’s GPA and LSAT score (and unlike the personal statement), letters of recommendation are third-party validations of an applicant’s quality.  Unlike LSAT scores and GPAs, letters are personal.

It’s hard to tell what kind of person you are from your GPA and LSAT score—and consequently hard to tell whether you should be admitted or be considered for law school financial grants, especially when many of your competitors will brandish “hard” data similar to yours.  Letters of recommendation should show what kind of person you are in the eyes of trusted third parties.

The earlier post made a couple of conceptual points (in more detail) about letters of reference for law school.

First, recommendation letters should be conceived as part of a full law school application package and should focus on the skills that law schools are looking for in their incoming classes.  As an applicant, you should think of your letters not in isolation but in terms of what they will contribute to the full picture you’re trying to paint.

Second, an effective letter will be specific about your abilities, your personality, whatever it is that the letter discusses.  It will be a letter that can only have been written about you.  Generic letters indicate to law school admissions reviewers some laziness on the part of the recommender or that the he or she was not sufficiently familiar with you.  In either case, you’ll have lost a valuable opportunity to demonstrate to a law school why it wants you in its incoming class.  Such letters are at best unhelpful and, at worst, damaging to your law school financial aid and admissions opportunities.

How can you increase the odds that you’ll get letters that will sparkle and leave a lasting impression on law schools and their admissions committees?  Below and in a later blogpost are a few tips.

First, choose your recommenders carefully.  One of the difficulties of letters of recommendation is that they are not in your control (that’s also what makes them valuable or, unfortunately, counterproductive).  Remember that whatever is in a letter, from style to content, reflects on you.  A lot of very nice, smart people are not great recommendation letter-writers.  That’s not a judgment on their morals, character or intelligence, or whether they’re great to talk to, etc.—it’s just a fact.  So whom should you choose?

Choose practical people.  A recommendation letter isn’t a dinnertime conversation.  It has a particular purpose, helping maximize your law school admissions and grant opportunities.  In choosing a recommender, you will need to assess whether a particular person will write with this particular purpose in mind.

Choose careful people.  You should not ask someone whose written work you’ve seen (classroom handouts, workplace reports, etc.) is filled with typos, grammatical errors or stylistic irregularities.  For that matter, you should prefer those who carefully review others’ work for just these things.  They are more likely to be careful and precise in writing your recommendation.

Second, gauge your prospective letter-writers’ willingness to be a recommender.  A lot of people will agree to write a letter (especially in the case of professors, it is a regular and expected part of their job).  But that doesn’t mean all writers do so happily.  Of course, it’s perfectly legitimate (and even though it may hurt your feelings, it’s ultimately in your best interest) for a prospective writer to decline to write a letter for you.  But among those who agree, you only want to be recommended by a person who takes the task seriously and is more than happy to write you a good letter.  Those who accept the task grudgingly are less likely to do a top-flight job.  Think of your request as an interview with the prospective writer.  Both of you must be comfortable before you should proceed.  Discuss your meetings with prospective recommenders with your law school admissions consultant in some detail.

As a sub-point, you should always ask whether someone is willing to write a “good” letter for you in your initial request.  You may think this goes without saying but it doesn’t always.  I knew professors who sometimes wrote quite critical recommendation letters on the ground that they had been asked for a letter and should tell the truth as they saw it.  The injury to a student’s education or career opportunities was, in their view, not their concern, so long as the student had asked for a letter.  I did not see a similarly cavalier attitude in private practice but I’m sure it happens.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on June 26, 2010.

One Response to “Making the Most of Your Law School Recommendation Letters: A Few Nuts and Bolts”

  1. […] some basic conceptual features of recommendation letters and the second provided a couple of more specific recommendations.  Here, we’ll give other specific […]

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