Letters of Recommendation

The Law School Application Process:
Letters of Recommendation

In applying to law school, letters of recommendation are one very important aspect of the process. A letter of recommendation should serve to provide the admissions committee with a unique perspective on your work and personal qualities, as seen through the eyes of a third party. The third party is most often a professor but can also be an employer, community leader, organization leader, military commander, or close acquaintance. The potential impact of a letter of recommendation demands that you carefully think through the selection of those who will approached and asked to write on your behalf. The decision process is a complex one which must take into consideration all of the factors which will be discussed here. Law schools vary in their individual guidelines for letters of recommendation. A law school may specify the number of letters required or may leave the number open. One school may specify academic letters only, while another may not specify the kind of letters required. Some require a Dean’s Letter, although a far fewer than in years past. Schools vary as to the form of the letter as well. Some schools issue a standard form to be given to all recommenders; this is essentially a checklist to assess specific areas of the applicant’s ability which are of interest to the admissions committee. Typical questions include:
  • Rate the esteem in which applicant is held by peers
  • Rate the applicant's ability to communicate orally and in writing
  • Rate the applicant’s emotional maturity and stability
  • Rate the applicant’s ability to work with others.

In contrast, other schools simply specify that the applicant may only submit two letters of recommendation: one academic and the other at the discretion of the applicant. Each letter should be accompanied by a signed waiver form and enclosed in a sealed envelope with the signature of the letter writer over the seal.

You must first determine the number and kind of letters that each law school requires. The best recommendations come from people who know you well and can size you as a potential law school student and lawyer. Although the recommender’s rank may not matter, if a person of impressive rank can evaluate you up in this fashion, that is all to the good.  Remember that law schools are institutions which are interested in your academic potential. University and college faculty are the people whose judgment tends to carry the most weight with admissions personnel. Therefore, try to obtain at least one letter from a professor in your major field of study, even if you have been out of school for any period of time.

The faculty member whose letter is most likely to help your chances for admission is someone who:

  1. knows you well
  2. knows your academic potential
  3. has written recommendations for former students admitted to the law school to which you are applying
  4. is willing to compare you favorably with those former students.

A number of law schools state that they do not consider letters of recommendation in the admission process. Others ask for letters but use them only to distinguish among applicants with similar test scores and great ranking. However, many law schools –including some of the most competitive- regard letters of recommendation as a vital component of the admissions process. In any event, it is wise to obtain the best possible letters of recommendation.

When requesting an academic letter of recommendation, approach a professor whom you feel is familiar and impressed with both you personally and your academic abilities. To be valuable, the recommendation must be written by someone who can comment with specificity and favorably on your ability to do the following:

  • write and speak with precision, fluency and economy
  • read and listen carefully
  • think analytically
  • communicate your thoughts clearly and concisely.

All of the above factors play a pivotal role when admissions committees must consider a student’s possibilities for success in law school and in the legal profession.

In selecting an academic source, consider how many classes you have had with the particular faculty member. A recommender must be able to evaluate and confirm your demonstrated ability. In general, you should not request a letter from a faculty member who has not observed you in the learning environment. Be fair to the person whom you select, however, and provide a graceful exit. Keep in mind that a faculty member, for whatever reason, may not support your application, and so you should provide that person with an easy way out –without having to say "no".

In addition to academic letters, you may submit letters of recommendation from the private sector as well, if they are allowed by the school to which you are applying. You may call upon various people such as an employer or a leader in the community, the church, or the military.

Should you decide to request a letter from an employer, be sure that the person to whom you make such a request has observed you in the work environment for a substantial period of time. The writer must be able to comment on:

  • leadership capability
  • maturity
  • enthusiasm
  • motivation in relation to work.

One caveat exists, however, in that many employees are unaware of the fierce competitiveness of the law school application process. The employer, or other non-academic recommender, should therefore be informed of the need to describe your unique and outstanding qualities in detail.

In addition to approaching an employer as a non-academic recommender, you might approach a community leader. Be sure to approach someone who has known you for a considerable period of time and can comment on your character. What does very little for an applicant is a boiler-plate letter of recommendation from a "big-shot" with whom no personal connection can be shown.

Other non-academic writers to consider are coaches, religious leaders, or an alumnus of the school to which you are applying. A coach may be able to focus on leadership qualities, ambition, and "team spirit". A coach may also be able to soften the blow of mediocre grades because of a student’s involvement in college sports. A religious leader should generally be sought out only if the school to which you are applying is a private, religious-affiliated school. Such private schools with religious affiliations may want a letter attesting to your personal character and involvement in pertinent activities. If you choose an alumnus of the school to write a letter, it should be someone with whom you have had professional contact or someone who is a close acquaintance.

The last type of non-academic recommendation to consider here is one by a current or past military commander or supervisor. If you were on active duty and attended college part-time while assigned to a military mission, your grades might possibly be lower than they should. A letter from a commander or supervisor is the perfect opportunity to explain the difficulty of focusing upon college studies while assigned a military mission. A military commander might comment on an applicant’s tenacity, integrity, dedication and leadership qualities. Just as in approaching an employer, you must inform a potential military recommender of the import of the letter of recommendation.

Once you have determined whom to ask, it is perfectly acceptable to assist the writer of the recommendation by supplying the following:

  • an unofficial transcript of all undergraduate and/or graduate work
  • a copy of your personal statement (if completed)
  • an update resume
  • work performance reports (for employers)
  • military annual performance reports (for the military)
  • proof of honorable discharge (for the military).

If the writer is a faculty member, you should point out which courses have been taken with that professor and the grade received in each course. If your classwork was outstanding, you should also call that to the professor’s attention. If you completed an exceptionally well-written paper for the recommender’s class, that should also be included in the material given to the writer for reference. An appointment should be made with the faculty member to discuss the recommendation. Be ready to answer any questions that faculty member may have for you. You may also want to consider putting together an informal resume type letter listing work experience, your major, your academic background, and any pertinent extracurricular activities. All of these are perfectly acceptable practices in helping your recommender. What is not acceptable is ghostwriting your own letters of recommendation, even if your reference sources agree to sign their names. Make your request for enough in advance so that the person who has agreed to assist you has adequate time to do a good job. You may also want to provide the recommender with a copy of the informational sheet "Notes to the Recommender" which follows this essay.

Consider waiving your right to screen letters of recommendation. This can be accomplished by signing a form which is commonly referred to as the "Buckley Waiver Form." This form is normally supplied by the law school and is designed to allow the recommender to be more objective in assessing the applicant. Many schools require that such a form be filled out by the applicant, indicating whether the applicant agrees to waive his/her right to see the recommendation. Law schools may gain insight as to your confidence in the recommender’s perception of your abilities, depending upon the decision made on this form.

In a letter of recommendation, the emphasis must be placed on specific examples which distinguish one applicant from another. It is crucial to choose a recommender who is capable of speaking very highly of you, thereby elevating your abilities well above those of other applicants. As one experienced law school dean noted: "Approximately half of our entering class will have at least one letter expressing the notion that ‘This is not just a good student. This is the best student I ever had.’"

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GUIDELINES FOR WRITING LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION

FOR LAW SCHOOL APPLICANTS

The law school admissions process is a very competitive one. Please write as specific a letter as possible, bearing in mind that the law school admissions committee wants to know primarily how you rate the student’s demonstrated ability, if the student is capable of adapting to the discipline of law school, and whether the student will be a credit to the law school.

In writing your recommendation, the specificity and enthusiasm of your response are most important. If you are unable to demonstrate unqualified support for the applicant or if you do not know the applicant very well, then it may be best to suggest that the applicant approach another recommender.

Letters of recommendation should serve to provide the admission committee with a unique perspective of the applicant’s work and personal qualities. Indicate how long and in what capacity you have known the student. If you are familiar with any non-academic achievements (eg., extracurricular activities), please include these. Also note any background characteristics of hardships overcome which may be of interest to the admissions committee. In writing about the student, some areas to consider are:

How well do you know the applicant and the applicant’s record?
Points to consider:
a) Type and number of courses in which you have worked with student,
b) Quality of student’s performance in class in areas such as short answer exams, essays, papers, class performance, etc.
c) Level of difficulty of each course taken.

What do you have to say about abilities and characteristics which are important for the applicant's success in law school and in the profession?
Points to consider:
a) The ability to write and speak with precision, fluency, and economy.
b) The ability to read and listen carefully with an ability to notice fine points and subtle distinctions.
c) The ability to communicate his/her own thoughts clearly.
d) The ability to think analytically and independently.
e) The ability to deal with ambiguity and recognize exceptions or qualifications.

How enthusiastic is your support of the candidate’s admission to this particular law school?
Points to consider:
a) Student's approach to his/her work (organization, work load, etc.) and intellectual curiosity.
b) Student's level of maturity.
c) Your confidence in your own judgment about the student.

Additional factors:
a) Student’s motivation for obtaining a law degree (other than it being a lucrative profession).
b) Level and quality of involvement in extracurricular activities, or employment
c) Potential and receptivity for growth and development, both professionally and personally.

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This article was written by Kevin J. O'Connor, Esq., graduate of Montclair State University and Rutgers-Newark School of Law. It includes material presented by sources such as N.A.P.L.A., LSAC, Topics in Pre-Law Advising, and actual advisement experience at Montclair State University. The article has been updated by Dr. Marilyn Tayler, University Pre-Law Advisor at Montclair State University.
© MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY, 1992,1996,2000 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.