Letters of Recommendation for Prelaw Students: Basic Procedures
Most law schools require letters of recommendation (LOR) from persons who can evaluate your potential. This normally means professors, although AI's or grad students are preferred if they know you better and can write about you in more detail. In general, they use letters as another tool in predicting whether you will be successful in law school classes. So--do not remain anonymous in class!
Employers, volunteer or internship supervisors, etc., can also be helpful, especially as supplemental letters.
[for instructions on getting the LOR you have to the law schools--which means getting them submitted to your CAS account, click HERE.]
Introduction—LOR for Law Schools:
- Law schools use letters as another tool for predicting your success in a law school class. Recommendations are most influential when the applicant's grades and LSAT score are borderline for the particular school, or the student is an average applicant (neither an automatic accept or deny). However, at certain schools, especially those that are extremely competitive, recommendations can play a major role. Having a detailed, personalized letter is always a plus.
- Law schools vary in the number of letters they want (2 is often the minimum). Writers need only supply one copy of their letter. It will be copied and distributed to all law schools to which you apply via the the Credential Assembly Service (CAS).
Most letters of recommendation will be generic—that is, they will be able to be sent to any law school to which you will apply (the CAS calls these “general letters”). However, if any of your writers has a connection to one of your schools (e.g., they attended the school themselves), you could ask for a "school-specific" letter. For example, they could write about their knowledge of the school, their knowledge of you, and what a good fit you’d be for their institution. In that case your writer could compose two letters--one school-specific and the other to be sent to all other schools to which you will be applying. But this situation is relatively rare--the vast majority of LOR are general.
- Try to give your writers at least 6-8 weeks notice--more if possible. Avoid asking for letters at the last minute--it may be viewed as less than professional, and the writer may not be able or willing to accommodate. Plan ahead!
- It can be risky to wait until senior year to ask for letters. Keep in mind that some writers will go on sabbatical, change jobs, retire, etc. Others may not deliver their letters on time, and some may not come through at all. Some professors are extremely busy in the fall semester. While most writers provide their letters promptly, there are always individual exceptions. Plan on asking for more letters than you will need, just in case. Be proactive now to minimize stress later.
- Ideally, all applicants should have arranged for at least two letters by the end of the junior year.
- The most valuable recommendations come from those recommenders who are very familiar with your particular strengths and weaknesses. These are difficult to obtain if you go through college anonymously. Taking small, discussion-oriented classes, taking multiple classes from the same professor, participating actively in class, and visiting instructors during office hours (even if you don't have questions about the material) are a few ways to develop the academic and personal relationships necessary to obtain effective recommendations.
- We recommend: starting junior year, target at least one professor per semester. Resolve to always be prepared, to arrive early, to sit near the front, to speak up in class, to visit office hours several times, and to do well in the course!
- HPPLC has guidelines for writers (see the relevant section below)—we tell them what to include in a letter and how to make it effective for law schools.
Who to ask:
- In general, law schools will say they prefer academic letters. Therefore, choose professors, AIs, or graduate students who you have had in a class and who have given you a grade. It is preferable to have a letter from a graduate student who knows you well and who can write about you in detail, than from a famous professor with whom you've had limited contact. If you do not have at least one academic letter, the law schools will wonder why. Note that most professors would be more than happy to write a LOR for you. It is a big part of their job, so don't hesitate to ask.
- Others with whom you have had at least a semi-professional relationship can also provide meaningful letters. [Admissions officials sometimes sum this up by saying they look for letters from people who could "fail you or fire you."] Thus, employers, internship or volunteer supervisors, coaches, etc., might also be considered as sources for supplemental letters.
- Many applicants make the mistake of asking the famous politician or university official in whose office they interned but with whom they had little, if any, contact, to write a letter. The result is often a short boilerplate or form letter that says little about the applicant's abilities. While the name itself may be impressive to the general public, it carries little weight with law school officials. Instead, it is usually preferable to ask the immediate supervisor who is much more familiar with your performance.
- If you have been out of school for a number of years, the law schools are more understanding about a lack of academic letters. However, such a situation should be explained in a letter of addendum or cover letter.
- If you know that you will be taking some time off after graduation, you may want to obtain academic letters before you leave campus.
- What law schools generally do NOT find useful are letters from persons with whom you have not had a professional relationship: for example, family friends who may be attorneys, judges, etc., who can say little more than you are a fine person from a good family. Local politicians, relatives, high school teachers or counselors, clergy, or other "character references" for whom you have not worked are similarly considered less useful.. The one exception may be the attorney who knows you and who attended a law school to which you will be applying. In this limited case, a single "school-specific" letter that discusses what a good fit you'd be for that particular school may be useful. However, many applicants will submit such letters, so if these are all you have, feel free to submit them.
How to ask for a letter:
For detailed suggestions as to how to ask for a letter, please read "Recommendation Request Letter". The procedures and contents of the "Request Letter" can normally be done verbally or in an email to your writer. In the end, you are the best judge of the appropriate level of formality to use in approaching the writer. We suggest you ask something on the order of: "I took XYZ class with you and received an A. I'll be applying to law school this fall. Based on my performance in class, would you feel comfortable writing me a letter of recommendation?" By far most will say yes, so do not hesitate . If they happen to say no, thank them (!) and move on. You do not want an unenthusiastic letter (but this rarely happens).
Guidelines for the writers:
If your writers need suggestions as to what to include, here are some references:
- A checklist of information for the writer to include: "Evaluator of professional or graduate school applicant."
- Guide for writing an effective letter to law schools: "A Dean's Suggestions to Faculty for Reference Letters."
- We also recommend that you give your writers a resume, a draft of your personal statement, a short autobiographical statement, a copy of any work you have done for them, a summary of highlights of your college career, a statement of purpose in attending law school, etc. The idea, in effect, is for you to provide them with information that would make sense for them to include in their letter. Your writers will appreciate your assistance. It will make it easy for them to write a great letter for you.
The above represents a brief and necessarily incomplete introduction to the issue of LOR for law schools. Do not expect everything to make sense at this point! If you have questions or encounter problems in dealing with any of these organizations, we urge you to contact a HPPLC Prelaw Advisor (a quick email note is fine) and resolve the issue ASAP. Remember, when applying to law school, you must do everything right, and do it early. YOU will be held responsible for the mistakes and delays caused by others.
Remember that HPPLC is here to help you succeed! Please make an appointment to meet with a HPPLC Prelaw Advisor at some point to go over your individual needs and situation.