The best letters of recommendation contain specific examples of the applicant's stellar skills, not just conclusory statements.
If you are a graduate student, faculty member or employer who is new to writing recommendations in general, or to writing law school recommendations in particular, this page is for you.
Law school admission committees look to recommendations first to confirm their sense of the student’s academic potential, and second to learn anything else they can about a particular applicant’s motivations, skills or experiences. Some schools place great weight on the recommendations; others, not so much. In writing a letter of recommendation, however, you should assume that it will matter very much—both in terms of what you say, and what you don’t say.
It is very important that you have an honest conversation with the person who is asking for the recommendation. If you don’t feel positively toward the student, or if you don’t remember his/her work well enough to write a persuasive letter, please say as much, and as directly as possible. This is admittedly a hard conversation to have, for you and for the student, but you are not doing the student any favors by sparing his or her feelings at this juncture. Be straightforward and state clearly the reasons why you feel you cannot offer an enthusiastic recommendation.
Often, students choose a potential recommender based more on title and perceived prestige than on how well the recommender knows the applicant. This is a bad idea, and one that the Pre-Law Advising Office strongly counsels against. If you are one of those prestigious title-holders, you should feel free to assure the student that your recommendation is going to be far less persuasive than one from a professor or instructor who knows the student and his/her work more closely. In particular, students in large lecture classes who have developed closer working relationships with graduate student teaching assistants than with the professor should be encouraged to seek a recommendation from the TA—the personal connection will come through in the letter and result in a far more compelling recommendation.
If you do feel favorably toward the student and his/her work, then it’s time to tell the admissions committee why. The best letters of recommendation contain specific examples of the student’s stellar skills, not just conclusory statements. Tell the committee what the basis for your opinion is—what was the nature of the project, paper, or assignment that Sally completed which proved she had such great analytical reasoning skills? What did it require of all students, and what did Sally do in particular that set her work above the others’?
It is especially important to emphasize those skills that will make the student a good law student: e.g., writing, analytical reasoning, critical thinking, reading, self-discipline/work ethic, etc. You should feel free to ask the student for any additional information or materials that would assist you in drafting the letter—for example, a copy of any papers s/he wrote for you, his/her resume, or even a draft of his/her personal statement.
The corollary of the injunction to include as many specifics as possible is to avoid writing in generalities. To suggest that the student “will succeed in any endeavor s/he attempts” sounds great, but will likely make the admissions committee members think you don’t know much about this particular student or his/her ambitions. In turn, that can lead them to question the student’s judgment in choosing you as one of his/her recommenders.
It is also very helpful to committees to see comparative information—how does this student stack up against others you’ve had, and in particular against other students you’ve had who have gone on to law school?
If you have gotten to know the applicant personally and, as a result, have additional information about, for example, the person’s ambitions, commitment to the law or to public service, or obstacles they have overcome, you should feel free to include that information as well. Because law schools do not generally offer personal interviews, they use the recommendations (as well as some other written materials) to really try to get an idea of who each applicant is. Your additional input is very helpful in that regard.
There is no prohibition on sharing a draft of your letter with the applicant. In fact, an applicant can often be helpful in reminding a recommender of something that might be missing, or in correcting any misinformation. But you should not feel obligated to show the student the letter either. It is really a point of personal preference for each recommender.
You will not need to write a separate letter for each law school. Law school letters of recommendation are now centralized. You will write one letter, and either mail it along with a pre-printed form the student provides (from the Law School Admission Council) or upload it via a link provided in an email from LSAC (your choice—let the student know which you’d prefer). LSAC will forward your letter to the schools the student applies to. If you have a strong connection to a particular law school—for example, you are an active alum, or have taught there—you can submit a specific letter to just that law school. Discuss with the student the specific procedures for this. Please keep a copy of the letter until the student confirms that LSAC has received it, just in case there is a mix-up.
One final note on timing: applicants should give you ample time to write and submit the letter. Please be as direct with the applicant as possible about whether you can meet the suggested deadline, and communicate with him/her if any new problems develop. If the applicant has spoken with the Pre-Law Advising Office, s/he will have been instructed to be clear about deadlines, and to refrain from nagging the recommenders to the extent possible. Open communication on this point works best for everyone.
Questions? Feel free to contact the Pre-Law Advisor by email or by phone at 577-0396.