Letters of recommendation are a required component of nearly every law school’s application, and most law schools require 2 or 3. Below we address: (1) the role and importance of recommendation letters (2) how to select effective recommenders; (3) how to help your recommenders write the very best letters on your behalf; (4) how to use the LSAC’s Letter of Recommendation (“LOR”) Service; and (5) why you should waive your right to see letters of recommendation.
The Role & Importance of Recommendation Letters
Effective letters of recommendation help your chances of admission to law school. Particularly good ones can push you from low on the wait list towards the very top, or open the door for someone who is otherwise merely a borderline candidate — but they will never gain you outright admission if your LSAT and GPA numbers are otherwise insufficient. The very best letters all share the same three characteristics:
They are written by people who credibly and enthusiastically testify to your academic record and future potential;
They highlight in concrete terms specific academic traits and accomplishments that are likely indicators of future success in law school and as a lawyer; and
They compare you favorably to other students the recommender has known.
You should think of letters of recommendation as a way to emphasize in your application certain positive academic accomplishments, character traits, and hardships overcome without sounding self-serving or arrogant. For example, it would be great if you could simply say to an admissions committee: “Look, I’m an exceptionally gifted analytical writer, I am among the most talented Political Science majors at my college, and I know my major advisor thinks I’m one of the smartest students she’s ever taught in her 15 years as a college professor.” But it sounds a whole lot more authentic and effective if your major advisor writes a letter of recommendation and says the same things.
Ineffective Letters of Recommendation
Ineffective letters of recommendation are more likely to harm your chances for law school admission than effective letters are to help you gain admission. That’s because a lukewarm, cookie-cutter, or even slightly negative letter not only fails to give you a strong endorsement, but it also calls into question your own judgment: Why would you ask someone to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf if that recommender does not really want to recommend you in the first place?
How Many Letters Should You Submit?
Like most applicants, you’ll need to submit more than 1 letter of recommendation. If you select 2 or 3 professors to write recommendation letters, each will obviously comment on your academic accomplishments in their respective classes. Beyond that, however, you may want to coordinate what else they say by suggesting that each highlights different themes, accomplishments, or hardships you’ve overcome in your life. In that way, you can be sure that each major positive in your application is highlighted by a recommender and that they do not spend significant time essentially duplicating their efforts on your behalf by highlighting the same thing.
Unlike everything else in your law school application — your LSAT, your GPA, your personal statement, etc. — the letters of recommendation depend upon the work of someone other than you (i.e., the recommenders). Yet, you have significant power to positively affect the strength of your recommendation letters, and you would be foolish not to follow these simple steps to ensure you obtain the most effective recommendation letters in support of your law school candidacy.
Selecting Effective Recommenders
If you’re applying to law school immediately after college or within 2-3 years of graduating, then the very best recommendation letter writers are college professors who know you well academically and personally, and who are themselves impressive individuals.
Academically, you have taken at least a couple of their classes, including small-group, advanced classes in your major area, and you’ve written several substantial papers, presentations, studies, and/or exams which they have personally graded.
Personally, you’ve met with them at least a few times outside of class, and through those encounters they have come to know your strong character traits and interests outside the classroom. You can do a lot to make sure your professors know about you academically and professionally outside the classroom. Make a point to talk with them after class, visit them several times during office hours, have them oversee an independent study class, attend any workshops or readings they conduct in the community, and even take them to coffee or lunch. Just remember: you want them to know you well but not so well that you become a pest or your motives are too blatant!
Finally, your professors should be impressive professionally: they are tenured faculty, they teach in one of the more sought-after majors for pre-law students (e.g., economics, hard sciences, English, engineering, political science, or history, rather than marketing or criminal justice), and they teach in your particular major.
If you’re applying to law school several years after graduating from college, then ideally you still want to include at least 1 strong letter of recommendation from a college professor with all the traits described above. It’s best to obtain such letters even before you graduate from college. For example, if you think you want to go to law school someday but plan to have another career for several years before doing so, then approach 1 or 2 of the college professors who know your academic and personal qualities best, explain your career and law school plans, and ask them to write a general letter of recommendation before you graduate. This is helpful in at least 2 ways. First, your professor is apt to write a more effective letter while you are still in college and in regular contact with him or her. Second, you can ask your professor to update this letter several years later when you’re ready to apply to law school. During the interim period, make sure to cultivate your relationship with the professor by staying in regular contact, providing short updates every 6 months or a year on career and life developments. Then, when you’re ready to go to law school, you can send your professor his or her draft letter — as well as all the other materials listed in “The Information They Need” section (below) — and have a meaningful conversation about what his or her letter should include, secure in the knowledge that you’ve kept them in the loop of your life.
Beyond a college professor’s recommendation letter, though, it certainly makes sense to include a work-related recommendation letter from a boss with whom you’ve developed a significant working relationship. The hallmark of an effective work-related letter is a close working relationship with a supervisor for a period of at least a year, during which time you’ve produced significant analytical, written work-product that has been used in a professional setting. Maybe you performed high-level market research at a financial services firm, and your work-product formed the basis of presentations your boss made to secure client business. Or maybe you analyzed reports for a non-profit and synthesized this into a 20-page report on the state of academic and interest-group research on climate change that your boss used to prepare for industry panel discussions. These kinds of close work relationships and work-product allow a boss to write a letter that goes well beyond commending your ability to show up at work on time.
Beyond the typical college professor and career boss recommendation letters, you should carefully consider the particular strengths, themes, and stand-out achievements that can elevate you above a pack of applicants with your same academic credentials. Whatever these unique characteristics are, make sure that those who write your recommendation letters stress at least some of them, and if your professor or boss is not in a position to do so, then you should consider asking a non-traditional recommender to write a letter on your behalf that speaks to 1 or more of those characteristics.
Helping Your Recommenders Write Effective Letters
Helping your recommenders write effective letters is easy. Just give them the information they need, when they need it. Here’s how.
Here’s the information your recommenders need:
Your college transcript, with highlights indicating the course(s) you took with the professor and the grades you received.
A copyset of your best course work in his or her classes, including the grades/comments you received.
Your current resume.
The current draft of your personal statement (encourage feedback from your recommender).
A cover letter addressed to your professor that contains the following information: (1) your contact information for the time period when your professor will be drafting your letter; (2) the list of law schools you’re applying to that your professor is writing a letter for and the due dates (use the same date for all); (3) a 1-2 paragraph summary of why you’re applying to law school/your career aspirations; (4) a 1-2 paragraph summary of your academic high lights, as well as the positive themes you are trying to convey to law schools in your overall application; (5) a list of all the materials you have enclosed with the letter (e.g., transcript, resume, course work; personal statement, LSAC forms); (6) a statement reminding the recommender that you have waived your right to see his or her recommendation letters after they have sent them to the law schools (see below); and (7) your suggestion that the recommender write the letter on his or her official stationary, with a “See Attached Letter” reference on the pre-printed letter of recommendation forms.
Pre-printed letter of recommendation forms. You should complete them to the extent possible, including filling out the recommender’s name, title, and contact information, as well as your indication that you have waived your right to see the recommendation letters.
Stamped, addressed envelopes the recommender can use to mail off the letters.
Why They Need It
You should contact your professors to schedule an in person meeting no later than the first week of your senior year to discuss the possibility of them writing letters of recommendation. If you have already graduated from college and cannot meet in person, then make sure to set up a phone call during late August or early September before you apply to law school later that Fall. During your meeting, you should explain that’s it your intention to apply to law school and then ask them directly: “Would you feel comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation?” Pay close attention to your professors’ reactions — do they seem willing and enthusiastic? If they display any reluctance or you otherwise feel they would not write a strong, ringing endorsement of your law school candidacy, then politely move on to the next professor.
At the meetings you set up, you should bring all the materials listed above, discuss the reasons why youwant to attend law school, and ask whether your professor is willing to write an enthusiastic letter of recommendation on your behalf. Be patient and offer to answer any questions your professor may have–remember, this is your time to convey in no uncertain terms that you greatly value a legal education and believe you would excel in law school and beyond. Make sure to go over all the materials and highlight the deadline to complete and mail the letters. While you’ll need to do a lot of the talking in these meetings, make sure you also pay close attention to your professors’ reactions, because by the end of each meeting you need to be certain that he or she is willing to write a letter that will set you apart from other applicants with similar credentials. If you cannot get a good read on the professor’s inclinations, then it is appropriate to ask politely whether the professor has any reservations about enthusiastically recommending you. If you have any doubts about the willingness of your professor to write a very strong letter, then politely move on to the next professor.
How to Use the LSAC LOR Service
The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) not only administers the LSAT, but also provides a very helpful Credential Assembly Service (LSDAS), which “collects the U.S. and Canadian academic records of law school applicants and summarizes the undergraduate work according to a standard 4.0 system to simplify the admission process.” The LSDAS report consists of: (1) an academic summary report; (2) LSAT scoring and writing sample(s); (3) copies of your undergraduate, graduate and law/professional school transcripts; and (4) copies of recommendation letters, if requested or required. Almost every ABA-approved law school, as well as many non-ABA approved law schools, requires applicants to use the LSDAS when applying to law school.
The letter of recommendation collection and distribution service (“LOR”) is available to all applicants who have registered for the LSDAS. As the LSAC succinctly states:
Use of LSAC’s LOR service is optional unless a law school to which you are applying states that its use is required. This service allows you to use your LSAC.org account to have your LORs sent to law schools based on each school’s requirements or preferences. Identify your recommenders, print out your pre-filled letter of recommendation forms, and give the forms to the appropriate recommenders. Your recommender must sign the letter, insert it in his or her own envelope along with their letter of recommendation form, and send it directly to LSAC. LSAC will send your letters to law schools as assigned by you. You must assign each letter to each school to which you want it sent.
When you go to the LOR area of your LSAC.org account, you will be asked to provide the names and contact information of your recommenders, and to select the number of letters that each recommender will submit (the number will be “one” if it will be a letter to be sent to all of the schools to which you will apply). Identifying your recommenders ensures that your letters can be quickly matched and routed when received by LSAC. Identify your recommenders, print out your pre-filled Letter of Recommendation forms, and give the forms to the appropriate recommenders. Your recommender must sign the letter, insert it in his or her own envelope along with your Letter of Recommendation form, and send it directly to LSAC.
The LSAC website has a list of ABA-approved law schools and their letter of recommendation requirements here.
After mailing his or her letter(s) to the LSDAS service, you and your recommender both will receive a confirmation email once the LSDAS has received and electronically processed the letter. This usually takes about a week.
The LSDAS has you categorize your letters as either “General” or “Targeted”. Typically, you send General Letters to all the law schools you apply to, while sending Targeted Letters either to only 1 particular law school or a series of law schools with the same specialty program, like joint JD/MBA or Tax Law. You may submit up to 4 General Letters and an unlimited number of Targeted Letters to the LSDAS.
Many applicants wonder whether they should waive their right to see any recommendation letters written on their behalf. Both the standard LSAC LOR Form and many law schools’ application/LOR forms ask applicants whether they consent to waive their right to see recommendation letters after law schools receive them in the application process. The temptation to read such letters is obvious: Who doesn’t want to know what recommenders said about them?
Resist this temptation! If you do not waive, then the recommenders you select will be wary of giving an unvarnished assessment of your academic abilities and character. Plus, admissions committees understandably will question not only whether the letter truly represents what a recommender thinks about you, but also why you lack self-confidence in the overall recommendation process. There is simply nothing to be gained by failing to waive other than to satisfy your own prurient interests.
Trust your judgment in selecting the correct recommenders. And if it turns out you made a rare mistake in judgment, you cannot avoid the consequences of that judgment just by knowing who said what.