At this stage of the law school admissions process, you probably have Application Season Fatigue Syndrome. Corralling people to write your letters of recommendation (LORs) may be the last thing you feel like doing, a nagging and seemingly redundant task. After all, haven’t you already proven your worth through your polished essays, work experience, LSAT score and GPA?
We understand. But take a deep breath and give your LORs your full attention. They carry considerable weight with adcoms and are read carefully. A convincing LOR can become the icing on the cake of your already polished application.
In this article, you will learn:
- How effective LORs build a more holistic image of you and therefore boost your competitive advantage
- Who you should choose to write these letters–and who you should not approach
- The specific traits and qualities that recommenders must be able to discuss convincingly on your behalf
- How to make your recommenders’ job easier and therefore make the letters more effective
- What to do if your recommender insists, “You write it; I’ll sign it.”
- BONUS! Two sample law school letters of recommendation for two very different applicants (go there)
6 ways that strong LORs can boost your candidacy
Compelling letters of recommendation accomplish several important things that expand on what you have demonstrated in your essays:
- They affirm that what you have claimed about yourself is true because they are written by a third-party.
- They reassure the adcoms that you are capable of the rigorous academic work required in a top-tier law school.
- They can help offset a weakness in your application, such as a dip in your undergraduate GPA, especially if one of your college-level instructors attests to your success in an academically challenging course load.
- They showcase distinct qualifications and personal characteristics that you didn’t have room or opportunity to discuss in your personal statement.
- Since they offer a complementary (and complimentary) perspective about your intellectual abilities and personal qualities, LORs also help the adcom develop a more complete picture of you beyond the numbers. You will emerge as a well-rounded person of high academic ability and good character, one who will fit well with the school and its environment.
- When applying to a specialized law program, a LOR from a supervisor where you worked or had an internship (a business and IP law practice, for example) will prove your commitment to that specialty field.
For all these reasons, an adcom wrestling with the decision of choosing between two otherwise equally qualified candidates will naturally favor the individual who has provided LORs that were written with genuine enthusiasm and that highlight specific academic and personal strengths. Conversely, LORs that are written in lackluster fashion without adding any new insights about who you are or your career potential can be the kiss of death to your application.
Our LOR package will save you precious time and stress while submitting a powerful recommendation for the applicant you want to help. Learn more by clicking here!
Who should write your recommendation for law school?
Choosing the right people to write your LORs is vital, yet there are probably only a few people who are qualified to do them justice.
Effective letters of recommendation highlight a range of qualities that adcoms look for in predicting success in their law school programs. At competitive programs, these qualities include:
- Intellectual abilities, particularly analytical, verbal, and writing skills
- Commitment to academic excellence
- Leadership potential
- Good character and strong ethical grounding
Nearly all law schools require at least one, and often two, letters from professors or other college-level instructors who can affirm your academic promise. Some schools require two academic recommendations even if you have been out of school for two or more years. Ideally, you will have cultivated a relationship with at least one professor with whom you have taken two or more courses and who can speak of your intellectual and personal growth and performance over a longer period of time. Strong recommenders could include an advisor on a research project or someone else who can offer evidence of your success in completing advanced coursework.
The professor you choose should know you well enough to be able to compare you favorably with other students whom she has taught. She should be convinced beyond a doubt of your academic abilities and potential. This may seem like an obvious point, but an LOR written by a professor from a political science or history class will carry more weight than one written by the instructor of your “History of Film and Social Change” course.
Unless the law school only wants academic recommendations, if you’ve been working for several years or have served in the military, one LOR should be written by an employer or supervisor. Here too, the recommender should be able to write knowingly and enthusiastically about your intelligence, focus, character, leadership, research and writing abilities, and other relevant skills and qualities.
If you are working currently but don’t feel you can afford to reveal to your manager that you are applying to school, go to the next-best source, such as a former supervisor. Do not seek a recommendation based on a position that you held more than three years ago.
Always choose a recommender who is authentically supportive of you over a semi-stranger with a big-shot title
What if you’re self-employed, or run your own company? In that case, choose a partner, consultant, major client, vendor, supplier, attorney, or accountant. You should have a longstanding relationship with anyone you choose (at least two years) as well as the type of relationship where you had opportunities to display your intelligence, integrity, professionalism, and other strengths. The same holds true if you work in a family business – but don’t make the mistake of asking a relative to write your LOR, especially if that relative shares your same last name.
Never choose a recommender based on his or her title alone. It’s infinitely more effective to have a TA or internship supervisor write about you with authentic enthusiasm than getting the Chair of the Political Science Department, or your brother-in-law’s stepmother who is a judge you met once at a summer picnic, to write a vague semi-endorsement that could have been written about almost anybody.
A heartfelt LOR from someone who really knows you and believes in your academic and personal strengths will trump one from a relative stranger with a fancy title every time.
Writing a meaningful and beneficial LOR takes time and thought. It’s a lot to ask of an already busy person, so you may feel a little intimidated at the prospect. But you won’t know if your professor, boss, or mentor will be available until you sit down and make your request. Asking a professor shouldn’t take long – college instructors are used to these requests and will understand what you need. Still, it will help to explain even to your professors something about your career goal, why you have chosen the schools and programs you have targeted, and what you’d particularly like them to highlight in their letters.
If you are asking someone outside of academia for a letter, that person may be less familiar with this process. Make sure to explain why these letters count so much. Be upfront about the time you estimate it will take for her to draft the letter, and tell her that if she agrees, you’ll make it as painless as possible by providing a copy of your personal statement, your resume, and a list of highlights from your work/internship experience that will help underscore your abilities and skills. Once you’ve laid it all on the line, ask if she feels she is the right person for the job. If she doesn’t feel she can endorse you enthusiastically or knows she won’t or can’t give the letter the time it requires, she can politely decline. If that happens, just move on to the next prospect.
By the way, if at all possible, you ought to give this entire process a good three months from the time you approach a recommender with the initial request until the date the letters are due to avoid adding additional pressure to your already packed schedule or that of the recommender. This is especially true when asking professors, who are at their busiest during the fall season and are receiving many similar requests.
Make your recommenders’ job easier by doing these 8 simple things
Now that you’ve secured commitments from recommenders, give them the tools they need to get the job done well. Include as many of these as are relevant:
- Your personal statement.
- However, if your personal statement focuses on a personal topic and does not highlight academic or professional achievements or aspirations, then you should also provide a note detailing how you are positioning yourself and your profile to the school, and what you would especially like to have emphasized in the LOR that was not covered in the personal statement. A description of your short- and long-term goals is also a good idea.
- Your resume
- Your college transcript
- Any significant work or reports you did for the recommender, with their grades/comments highlighted. This could be in addition to, or in place of, copies of work evaluations and/or a list of projects, experiences, or other anecdotes that your recommender will be familiar with that will further demonstrate your academic strengths, analytical abilities, collegiality, creativity, maturity, personal or academic growth, and integrity. As much as possible, the examples you suggest should be different from what you wrote about in your personal statement.
- The specific wording from each school regarding what they are requesting in an evaluation letter. Most are open-ended requests for material that verifies an applicant’s academic abilities and character. However, many law schools explicitly list the qualities they want to see confirmed by evaluators in LORs. These may include intellectual ability, work ethic, analytical skills, maturity, and leadership potential. Check each school’s website to see how specific their requests are. Pay attention to nuance and details in different schools’ requests.
- Deadline to submit through the Law School Admissions Council’s Credential Assembly Service (LSAC), which is used by most ABA-approved law schools as a clearinghouse for law school applications and supporting materials. Some law schools will accept additional letters above and beyond their baseline request, but in such cases they are usually required to be submitted directly by the recommender to the school and may not be accepted at all if sent by the applicant. You might also want to check out the LOR preferences among the Law School Admissions Council’s participating law schools.
- Hand them a copy of this brief, excellent guide: 10 Tips for Writers of Letters of Recommendations
Help! My recommender told me, “You write it, I’ll sign it.” What should I do now?
It’s possible that even with all the supporting materials you have provided, your recommenders may doubt their ability to fulfill their commitment due to time constraints. In these cases, they may ask you to draft the letter on their behalf that they will then approve and sign.
However, it will be a huge red flag if you appear to have written one of your own evaluation letters. And, it is very difficult to pull off the trick of sounding like someone else, no matter how you try. Your distinctive voice has come through clearly in your personal statement, which was precisely your goal. Similarly, your LORs must reflect the evaluator’s unique observations, assessments, and voice. College professors are used to being asked to write evaluation letters. If they choose to beg off, it may be a sign that they are not comfortable writing a convincing one for you.
Employers or supervisors of applicants who are working full-time should also write evaluation letters themselves. However, if they insist it will take them more time or ability than they have, yet they sincerely want to submit an endorsement for you, in extremis you may have to default to this option. If your recommender is not a native English-speaker and it would be especially burdensome to write the LOR in English, suggest that he write the letter in his native language and offer to pay for it to be professionally translated.
Distinct voices in LORs are essential ingredients that add to their authenticity
If you see no way out of writing a draft for an important recommender, set up a time to meet, perhaps over lunch or coffee, and conduct an interview meant to elicit the recommender’s perspective on your work and your suitability for law school. Come to this meeting prepared with a list of highlights from your work history that will help her underscore the qualities you want her to discuss in the letter. You will already have given her a list of anecdotes and achievements, including projects you completed successfully and what was notable about them. With some luck she will have read this material, as well as your personal statement and resume, and will have ideas ready for you to jot down. If not, have the list with you so that you can ask questions to help jog her memory. Write down as many points and anecdotes that your recommender raises during the meeting. Take note of specific words and phrases that are distinctive to her personality and communication style as well as her point of view.
LORs are not long letters, so do not repeat information there that you have already written in your personal statement. However, certain achievements are so notable that it would only make sense for you and your recommender to have mentioned them. In this case, the recommender should shed some new light on the achievement from her perspective as a manager or mentor.
Remember that in letters of recommendation of this kind, comparative evaluations of the applicant are most helpful to the adcom. For example, “In my five years of running this department and supervising more than 50 employees, Justin has proven to be one of the most nimble thinkers I have ever supervised.” Or, “Shannon’s attention to detail and sense of responsibility have stood out notably from the dozen or so interns I have managed in recent years.”
Armed with your recommender’s recollections and your own notes, you’ll be ready to write a LOR made up of her observations with minimal prompting from you.
Here’s another idea: Have your recommender work with an Accepted expert to draft a winning, authentic, convincing letter of recommendation. Click here to learn more about this package!
Law school letter of recommendation sample #1: The Environmental Policy Analysis Major
Daniel is a 22-year-old recent grad who majored in environmental policy analysis. Although he had two internships in the field of environmental planning and research, after much thought Daniel decided to devote his personal statement to the life lessons he had learned from more than 14 years of studying piano and performing in music competitions. Daniel is counting on his LORs to affirm his capacity for challenging academics.
This letter was written by one of his professors:
It is with great pleasure that I recommend Daniel R. for admittance to your law school. I have been a professor of public policy and environmental law for the past 18 years, and first met Daniel during his sophomore year when he took a lower division course in environmental law, a challenging topic in which he earned an A-. This course doesn’t lend itself to a lot of class participation, and I appreciated that Daniel seemed thoroughly engaged during every class. He also approached me during office hours for clarification on points he had not understood to his satisfaction. I was pleased to have him return to an upper division course of mine during his junior year, in ethics in environmental policy. This was a much more participatory class that involved not only class discussions but also cooperative student projects. In class, Daniel’s questions and comments were always thoughtful and to the point. When responding to others who made comments with which he did not agree, Daniel debated them respectfully and often won over classmates with his logic and command of the facts.
Because Daniel was extremely bright as well as very personable, when my research assistant graduated I offered Daniel the job. He seemed both flattered and enthusiastic about the prospect, and with his help I was able to expeditiously collect research on a paper I am now finalizing on the performance of incentive-based policy instruments as they relate to industrial greenhouse gas emissions. My trust in Daniel’s abilities was not misplaced. He was organized, responsible, and showed a refreshing ability to conduct extensive literature reviews with little direction from me. These included data-driven literature reviews and small-scale studies from which he extrapolated the relevant data. His analytical abilities, organizational skills, and sense of responsibility will help him perform at the top of his game in law school and beyond.
I’d also like to point out that Daniel’s major in environmental policy analysis is highly demanding. It requires coursework in both hard science and social science, including biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus, as well as environmental and natural resource economics, ecology, spatial and dynamic bioeconomic modeling, and policy analysis. This makes Daniel’s 3.8 GPA in the major that much more impressive.
This past year, I supervised Daniel again for his senior thesis on water quality planning and public policy. He asked me for feedback on the critical analysis of his data collection methodology a good month earlier than most of his classmates, and also asked me for advice on whom to approach to learn about the latest research on the topic that hadn’t yet been published. His thoroughness and planning showed: His thesis was an outstanding and incisive analysis of this complex issue, particularly his focus on the longstanding issues of water shortages and political turf wars over water in the state of California. Daniel does have a tendency toward perfectionism, but I have seen him learn to trust himself more over the last year and worry slightly less about the final results.
In addition, he has a friendly, collegial personality and many interests, including piano, which I understand he has played at the competitive level for many years. His written and verbal communication skills are of a very high level. (In fact, I have rarely heard him use the irksome verbal tic “like” every third word, as so many other young people do nowadays.) Daniel’s training in environmental analysis and public policy will serve him well in the field of environmental law, andI give him my highest recommendation for admittance to your program.
Let’s look at some of the aspects that make Daniel’s evaluation letter so effective.
His professor established his credibility as a recommender from the start, noting his tenure as a professor at the university and examples of interactions with Daniel that attest his long standing relationship with him. These examples include:
- Distinguishing Daniel from his peers on a comparative basis by detailing the rigors of his major and his impressive GPA in that major.
- Quantifying Daniel’s organizational, verbal, and analytical strengths, evidenced through his work as a research assistant and how he planned and carried out his senior thesis project.
- Noting his class participation, which also underscored his collegiality and respect for others.
- Putting his weakness of perfectionism in context, noting it is understandable in such a high achiever and also giving credit for Daniel’s efforts to relax and overcome it.
All in all, Daniel comes across as not only extremely capable, but likable and well rounded.
Law school letter of recommendation sample #2: The Social Worker
Now let’s look at our second applicant. Sonya is 27 and has worked for three years at a not-for-profit agency serving immigrant, refugee, and low-income women and children in need of housing and other social services. This letter of recommendation was written by her direct supervisor:
I have known Sonya D. for the past three years since she joined our agency as a novice case worker. Last year, during a management shake-up, Sonya was promoted from case worker to housing specialist while I became her direct supervisor. Sonya brought an abundance of enthusiasm to both her roles, successfully going to bat for clients who were entitled to housing and other publicly funded benefits but whose applications had fallen into the quicksand of government bureaucracy. She is firm and unyielding on behalf of her clients, a trait that will make her a very effective legal advocate on behalf of the underprivileged.
In my eight years as a supervisor in the world of social services, I would rank Sonya in the top 1% of the dozens of case workers and volunteers I have worked with. Most people enter this field with a strong emotional commitment to helping the underprivileged, but far fewer also have the intelligence, ability to see the bigger picture, and even business smarts that can make their efforts most effective. For example, Sonya joined the agency during a rocky time when finances were perilous, employee turnover (including management) was rapid, and morale was low. Despite her youth and relative inexperience, within three months Sonya suggested creative initiatives to streamline and improve our services and to boost morale.
Sonya caught my attention in particular when she documented the inefficiencies in our client intake system and made specific recommendations for streamlining that system. She lobbied hard for these changes, which were approved and have allowed us to save countless hours of paid staff time each month. Notably, it has also saved as much as two weeks from the time a client registers with us and when she is transitioned into safe, appropriate housing – a dramatic difference in the life of someone who may lack any adequate or safe housing at all. Sonya also offered to manage several volunteers to work on staff-initiated projects, freeing up the time of employees for other casework and reducing administrative costs. Although she is much younger than nearly all of our volunteers, she was granted approval. Despite a few bumps along the way, she was able to earn respect from our much-older volunteer corps. She is clearly a young woman who is eager to improve her performance in every task she undertakes.
In addition to these achievements, Sonya suggested organizing a series of community events in collaboration with our local police precinct to raise our profile in the community. She also successfully targeted local media for these events and engaged social media to further spread the word. Two other community events are already on the calendar for next year.
When Sonya joined our agency, we desperately needed to increase our client base to secure more government funding. Within nine months of implementing her initiatives, we more than doubled the number of clients we had served from the year before, to well over 300 a month. Sonya has been the driving force in helping to reverse our agency’s fortunes. Her ability to see the broader picture, to think creatively and with a business mindset, has made our agency more stable and better equipped to fulfill our mission of helping a vulnerable population find safe housing.
Sonya’s outstanding performance as a case worker and significant contributions to improve workflow agency-wide resulted in her becoming the first staff member to receive a raise during the two years our agency suffered under severe financial constraints. Last year, she also earned the Best Employee Recognition Award for her service.
Her biggest weakness, in my opinion, has been learning to deal with frustration when faced with inefficiencies or ineptitude in the network of government agencies and other social service arms we work with. She is impatient when waiting for weeks for housing when a more efficient system would have transitioned her clients within days. But she has learned that she must swallow her frustration, because many of these colleagues are often overwhelmed by their own workloads and also lack her ability to see a better way of getting things done. I am satisfied with her progress in this area and am confident that her growing maturity and experience will continue to make her more savvy and patient, even in these trying situations.
Sonya will undoubtedly bring the same commitment, drive, intelligence, and initiative to her studies in law school that she brought to this agency. Our loss will be your law school’s gain.
Sonya’s evaluation lists an array of extremely impressive achievements. While none are related to academics or research, it’s clear that someone of this level of intelligence, foresight, determination, organizational skills, creativity, and an ability to problem-solve is also someone who is likely to excel in law school. Her achievements include:
- Pushing bureaucrats harder to get clients desperately needed safe housing.
- Diagnosing problems and conceiving solutions to streamline client intake processes and other efficiencies, improving agency functionality and staff morale.
- Helping the agency double the number of clients served and earning more government funding.
- Raising the agency’s profile through community events, including targeted social media presence.
- Leading a volunteer corp to ease the workload of the paid staff.
- Expressing frustration (probably a nice way of saying “anger”) as Sonya’s weakness is understandable given her work with governmental channels, but here, too, the supervisor noted that Sonya’s growing maturity was serving as a corrective to the problem.
Now you’re ready to supercharge your applicant profile!
Choosing the right recommenders and giving them the tools they’ll need to write a powerful LOR can upgrade your profile in an already competitive applicant pool.
Remember, there’s no better feeling during application season than knowing you have a supportive, experienced expert guiding you every step of the way. Whether your recommenders would appreciate guidance in writing their letters of recommendation, or you would like help with your application strategy, we have helped thousands of applicants gain seats at top law schools across the country and we can help you, too. Want to get Accepted? Click here to check out our flexible services!
By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!