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The Talk about Law School Letters of Recommendation

Just how important is a letter of recommendation (LOR) to your law school application? 

Strong letters are a must; lukewarm or negative letters can be fatal. 

But don’t just take our word for it.  Get it straight from the experts, including top deans of admissions, admissions consultants and prelaw advisors.  Here’s what they said in our podcasts — read why strong LORs can help your application and how to get them (then click on the links below and listen to the audio shows for more great application tips).

TIP 1 – Admissions committees want LORs from people who know you well, not from people with important titles.

 “The key to recommendations are not necessarily what’s in them, but that they are from people who know the candidate well, because letters from people who barely know the applicant are usually not very helpful in assessing the kind of attributes [the admissions committee is evaluating].”

˜Vanderbilt University Law School Dean of Admissions, Todd Morton in our podcast, Law School Personal Statements & Letters of Recommendation.

TIP 2 – Academic LORs are the best as they provide insight into how you will perform in the classroom.

 “I think all law schools have a 1st choice and that would be people who have taught you at the university level, whether it’s a TA (Teaching Assistant), a GSI (Graduate Student Instructor) or a professor.  Those are the very best letters, because we are looking for a 3d party’s candid assessment of your potential to study law.  The 2d best sorts of letters will come from colleagues at work, internship supervisors or your supervisor in a job, especially if they can, in their letter, talk about any kind of legal-related, writing-related or research- related experience.”

˜UC Berkeley-Boalt Hall Dean of Admissions, Edward Tom in our podcast, Law School Personal Statements & Letters of Recommendation.

“I think the most important thing is, how are they in class and what are they going to contribute to this academic environment? So we look, for example, when I look at letters of recommendation, I often will look for two things in particular. One is how they behave in class. Are they active? Are they participatory? Do they treat others with respect when they have different opinions? And also, how do they write when recommenders write that the person is a wonderful researcher and writer? That is something that obviously counts very heavily in favor of the applicant.”

˜Jason Wu Trujillo, Senior Assistant Dean for Admissions, University of Virginia School of Law, in our podcast, Avoiding Application Pitfalls.

TIP 3 – Skip the lukewarm recommendation. It can only hurt.

Negative letters of recommendation aren’t the only letters to be aware of. “The lukewarm references can be sort of really bad in the sense that the recommender might harm the candidate with their ‘faint praise.’ So that’s always a thing to look into as well.”

˜Ann Richard, Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid, George Washington University Law School,  in our podcast Mitigating Weaknesses in Your Law School Application.

Tip 4 – Establish good relationships with your professors from the onset, so that when you ask for recommendations in your senior year, they already know you.

“Certainly, as a freshman, you don’t need to walk in to your professor’s office and say, ‘I’d like a recommendation for me,’ but certainly you should be talking to your professors at that time. You should be meeting them, getting to know them – getting so that they know you in a good way, right, or that they’ll remember you in a good way. And so, once you have established these relationships with your professors, first of all, it’s going to help you get better grades, but second of all, it’s going to make requesting a letter or an evaluation a lot easier when the time comes. 

˜Rebecca Gill, prelaw Advisor at UNLV, in our podcast, Planning Your Law School Application Timeline.

Tip 5:  Ask a recommender directly if they can write a great LOR.  If possible, ask in person and at a convenient time.

“Ask them up front, say something like ‘law school is important to me, I really need an enthusiastic letter. Are you comfortable writing a really strong, detailed and enthusiastic letter for me?’ And then you need to gauge their response.”

˜Paul Bodine, author of Great Personal Statements for Law School and Perfect Phrases for Law School Acceptance, in our podcast Law School Personal Statements & Letters of Recommendation.

“On my timeline, I suggest that you talk to your professors at the very beginning of the senior year. I say either the week school starts or perhaps the week before school starts. As you know, some professors, just like students, the beginning of the semester seems rosy and there’s time and all of this stuff, and as the semester continues, duties get piled up on us and it gets more and more difficult for us to be able to turn around letters of recommendation quickly. So, it’s best to get your professors at the beginning of that semester. I also recommend against just sending an email to a professor, requesting a letter of recommendation. If you send an email, you can’t see the look on your professor’s face. And, you really want to know if you – you want to be confident that the professor you’re talking to really is going to write you a positive letter or give you a positive evaluation. So, what I recommend is that students send an email a couple of weeks before school or perhaps even at the end of the last semester of the junior year and on it say, ‘I like to meet with you early next semester about the possibility of you writing a letter for me.’ But, you certainly want to ask that question in person.

 ˜Rebecca Gill, Prelaw Advisor at UNLV, in our podcast, Planning Your Law School Application Timeline.

Tip 5 – Be organized. When asking a recommender for a letter, do it as early as possible, and provide proper materials:

“They should give the recommender a couple of months notice and they should come to the recommender with a resume, with any kind of documentation that the recommender is going to need. If it’s an online recommendation form, then the URL for that recommendation, the questions the recommender is going to be responding to, anything that can possibly help the recommender. The student presumably will have researched the school and will have some idea of why he or she is applying to the school and that should not be just the ranking. It should be something within the program and the philosophy of the school and then the student should also give the recommender a brief synopsis of both reasons to applying for that particular program and highlighting their interactions and the student’s achievements.”

˜Linda Abraham, Founder, Accepted.com, in our podcast Law School Personal Statements & Letters of Recommendation

“And then when you show up, it’s a very good to have a really quick memo to the professor, here’s what classes I had with you, here is what I did in your class, and here are the skills and characteristics that I hope you’ll be able to emphasize in your evaluation, then you’ll want to include an unofficial copy of your transcript. If you have a copy of your personal statement, which you should have a draft by this time, you’ll want to include that and if you can, it’s always a good idea to attach a copy of whatever paper you turned in for that class, especially if you can turn in the copy that your professor wrote comments on that, [that’s a] particularly good thing to do. All of these things help your professor to write really good, really targeted and personal evaluations of you.”

˜Rebecca Gill, Prelaw Advisor at UNLV, in our podcast, Planning Your Law School Application Timeline.

Tip 6- For applicants out of school for several years and who cannot obtain recommendations from faculty, you can still boost your application with solid LORs from those in a supervising capacity.

“If a person who graduated 15 to 20 years ago and still the faculty members remember him or her, that’s obviously a plus. On the other hand, after 15 to 20 years, most faculties would have forgotten many of the students. So if we don’t see letters of recommendation from the people who have been out of school for a decade or so, we’re not – it doesn’t hurt, but if we do see letters from people, that often, that’s a positive, so I think there’s a plus.But I guess what we look for are letters of recommendation from people who have been in some supervising capacity who could speak to the person’s intellectual or academic ability.  So obviously, the best ones are the college professors they have had but also their jobs in which there is a great deal of intellectual firepower that’s necessary. And if the supervisor could speak to that, that’s very helpful to us in making those decisions.”

˜Frank Motley, Assistant Dean for Admissions, Indiana University Maurer School of Law, in our podcast, Non-traditional Law School Applicants

 “For a nontraditional student, where there may be questions of what their motivation is for going to law school, there may be questions about their recent collaborative experiences and team work. There may be questions about their maturity and academic focus.These are areas where someone who writes a great letter of recommendation can really help answer those questions.”

˜Veritas Prep admissions consultant, Adam Hoff, from our podcast Non-traditional Law School Applicants.

For more information on this topic, listen to the following podcasts:

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