Applying after taking time off

Taking time off is the norm for more than two-thirds of applicants. Your work experience is an asset, not something you need to explain away.

Applying to law school after you have been in the workforce may present some special challenges, but remember that you’re in the majority: over two-thirds of applicants are no longer in college. Among the most common questions for “returnees” involve letters of recommendation and the weight accorded a college GPA that may be years in the past.

The second issue is the easier one to address: your GPA takes on less importance the farther away you get from it. By five years out, the law schools will care much more about what you’ve been doing with your life since college than your undergraduate GPA. Note that this only works in one direction: you’ll get the benefit of a strong GPA, even if it was years ago, but a mediocre GPA will no longer define your academic capabilities. Your work experience, and what you have gotten out of it, will almost always be considered a plus in law school applications.

Letters of recommendation require a bit more thought. Should they be academic or professional? How can you track down an old professor? What if the professor doesn’t remember you?

Here are some suggested guidelines for choosing between academic and professional recommendations. If you have been out of school for one to three years, your two primary letters of recommendation should still be academic ones. Depending on the circumstances, you will probably want to submit a third letter from your employer or supervisor, especially if it will substantially add to the information from your professors. If you have been out of school for three to five years, you can feel safe substituting one of your academic letters with a professional recommendation. If you have been out of school for five or more years, you should definitely forgo the academic letters and instead submit two professional recommendations. If you have taken any courses since graduation—through a continuing education or graduate program—you should strongly consider obtaining a recommendation from one of those instructors.

If you are still in school and contemplating taking time off, consider asking professors for letters of recommendation now, while their memory of your academic performance is still fresh. You can purchase the Credential Assembly Service (CAS) from LSAC now and have the letters uploaded there—your account is good for five years. Or you can take advantage of the UMass Career Services’ credentials service—this is a service for confidentially storing letters of recommendation until you need them.

If it is too late to plan ahead—you are already a few years out of school and are worried about locating a professor who may or may not remember you—you should try the following steps. First, find out if the professor is still here at UMass by visiting the departmental website. If not, then contact the department staff directly to ask what information they might have about the professor’s whereabouts. Usually, they will know where a professor has moved to, and will often have this information for former graduate students as well.

Once you find the potential recommender, be prepared for your initial contact. Refresh your own memory about the course(s) you took with the professor, and how you did (your transcript is the best source for this information). If you kept any work you did for that professor, dig it out before you make contact so you can refer to it. Once you have as much information as possible with which to spark the professor’s memory, make an initial contact via phone or email. (If by email, consider including a link to your LinkedIn profile so the professor can refresh their memory with your profile photo.) Ask specifically if the professor remembers you well enough and has a favorable enough impression of you to write a persuasive and detailed recommendation. Only if the response is affirmative should you go ahead and send out the necessary materials to the professor. Do not just send out the materials without first making contact with the professor.

If you cannot locate the professor, or the professor does not feel comfortable writing you a letter of recommendation, you will have to move to Plan B. This may include using professional recommendations instead of academic ones. While this is not ideal, rest assured that it does not necessarily spell disaster for your application chances. Much depends on the quality of the recommendations you do obtain.

Professional recommendations should, to the extent possible, address skills that are applicable to the study and practice of law. A supervisor who has worked closely with you is usually the best recommender. As with academic recommendations, the big name CEO who knows you only in passing is a less credible reference than the no-name manager who can write in detail about your stellar performance on the job. If the employer is unfamiliar or uncomfortable with writing recommendations for law school, refer him or her to our Tips for Recommenders page.

If you have other questions about applying to law school after taking time off, you should feel free to contact the Pre-Law Advisor directly—our services are available to alumni on the same basis as current students.