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

We’ve done two posts about recommendation letters for the law school application process.  The first described some basic conceptual features of recommendation letters and the second provided a couple of more specific recommendations.  Here, we’ll give other specific pointers.

“Specific” only means so much in the context of a public blog, of course—it really means “guidelines.”  The vast majority of the strategic and tactical decisions about your letters or recommendation and your law school application as a whole depend on your particular circumstances and profile.  And there will always be unanticipated events to which you’ll need to adjust.  Ultimately, only you and your law school admissions consultant can make the right calls.

In addition to choosing your recommenders carefully and getting a sense of their willingness to write a good letter for you, both of which we discussed in the post of June 26, you should be clear about why you are asking this person to write a letter.  This includes being specific about what you want them to write.  You do not want duplicative letters and overlaps should be strategic (you should know what they will be and why you want them).

These discussions are frequently difficult for students who do not have a long work history and daily experience subtly negotiating with employers and colleagues.  Students realize they are asking for a favor and are reluctant to ask for too much.  That’s a good instinct but there are ways of approaching letter-writers in ways that show (without actually saying it) that you are being helpful.

And you are being helpful.  In my experience as a professor, I found that most students who asked me for letters hadn’t thought enough about why they wanted me to write a letter, other than that they’d done good work with me and we liked each other.  We usually ended up talking about the program they were applying for, the rest of their application, its strengths and weaknesses and so on.  It usually took a couple of hours.  Then and only then could we decide, first, whether I was the best person to write for them and second, what I would say.

If all of your recommenders are willing to make that kind of effort, you’re extremely lucky.  You’re lucky if even one will.  As for those who won’t extend themselves that far, it’s hard to fault them; it’s not really their job but yours and your advisors’.  If you’re well-prepared and clear about what you need, the conversations will be shorter and more productive.  You need to have them, though.  It is an immense help to your recommender if he or she understands the programs you’re applying to, how you’re thinking about your law school application package and the specific role that you want him or her to play.  If your prospective recommender seems unwilling to have that conversation or resistant to that role (as opposed to sharpening her or his role or suggesting modifications—never ignore someone who’s trying to be helpful to you), well, you should probably find someone else.

Next, follow up.  You should agree on a schedule for completion (be sure to mention any deadlines and make clear your availability for any questions your recommender may have of you) and politely follow up.  People get busy and sometimes letters of reference slip their minds.  Don’t be a pest but do monitor.

Finally, a few words about the tricky matter of confidentiality.  One of the difficulties of recommendation letters is that you generally sign away your right to see them and, if you don’t, those letters are almost always looked upon as less reliable by admissions committees.  The confidentiality of letters of recommendation is why trust and confidence in your writers—and specificity about the function of their letters—is so important.

Developing and timing your approach to potential recommenders, thinking through what you want each to contribute to your law school application and making adjustments as necessary are all vital to producing your best application, and you and your admissions consultant should work to conceive your initial plan carefully and build in unexpected contingencies.

None of our guidelines guarantees that any letter will be perfect, in itself or in the context of your law school application, but each increases the chances of yielding a better letter.  The best guarantee is seeing the letter.  There are writers (I was one) who are clear that a student’s waiver of the right to see a letter is neither the writer’s waiver nor the student’s waiver of the privilege of seeing the letter; consequently, I always shared my letters with students.  But that’s very rare and, without extensive consultation with your application consultant, you shouldn’t float that possibility with a recommender.  It’s a tricky and potentially counterproductive subject to raise.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on June 29, 2010.

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

  1. […] talked before (the link to the last post follows) about the unique place of reference letters in your application package—they occupy an important spot between your personal statement and […]

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