(Post updated September 14, 2023)
Now that you have written a superb personal statement, let’s focus on another aspect of your law school application – Letters of Recommendation (LORs) are another way that an otherwise average application may rise above the pack.
Although you do not have control over what your letter writer(s) may write, you certainly have control over the process. This includes ensuring that you select the individual(s) with the most relevant and positive things to say and that you provide them with all the information they need so that they can speak thoughtfully to your strengths and, if necessary, address any weaknesses your application may reveal.
It is important to note that a good letter of recommendation starts with you setting the tone. Once you’ve decided who you want to write your letter, it is important that you ask them if they can write you a strong letter of recommendation. While it may seem obvious that you are asking for a strong or good letter, you should leave nothing to chance. I have seen many lackluster letters that do not add value to an applicant’s file.
It is also important to note that your relationship to the recommender matters more than the title that the recommender carries. So, make sure that your choice of recommenders ‘makes sense’.
So, for example, if your personal statement discusses a professor who has been highly influential to you, ideally you would also have a law school letter of recommendation from that professor. And, in terms of addressing weaknesses, if your record illustrates academic struggles or nonacademic infractions, ideally we would see an LOR from someone who can address your persistence to improve or the corrective actions you have taken. These letters will add much more value to your file than a generic letter from a Senator, Congressperson, or prominent business leader.
Law school is an academic experience, so for many schools (including Seton Hall Law School), the general expectation is that letters of recommendation are from a professor whose class you have taken or under whom you have done research. This is especially true for recent college or graduate school graduates – admissions committees will scratch their heads if you are a recent graduate and do not have an academic letter, regardless of your GPA.
If you are a few years beyond graduation and have not stayed in contact with faculty, then at least one letter should be from a current supervisor or another individual who can speak to your work ethic, character, and other traits that make you well-suited for law school.
While academic and professional letters are the most persuasive (in that order), other types of letters can also be effective. Letters from individuals with whom you worked in volunteer pursuits and through social justice projects can be helpful alternatives. Even if these letters are peer (rather than supervisory) – they can be quite effective in further detailing positive personal qualities and characteristics. Only in rare circumstances should you approach individuals from before college for letters of recommendation.
Under no circumstances, should a letter of recommendation be purely personal in nature. Regardless of the name or title of a personal friend or friend of the family, admissions committees do not find personal letters helpful in assessing your ability to succeed in law school.
Here are a few helpful hints to keep in mind:
- Provide what is asked for – if a law school says it only wants two letters – it only wants two. All schools set a minimum and maximum number of letters through the LSAC Credential Assembly Service (CAS). These should not be seen as guidelines – they should be seen as rules. It is fine to send up to the maximum amount – but not more - and you will need to submit at least the minimum to have a “completed file” (ready for admissions evaluation). Seton Hall Law School requires two letters and allows up to three.
- Give your letter writers sufficient time and information to provide you with the best possible recommendation. Set an appointment to meet with your letter writer and update him/her about what you’ve been doing since you last were in contact. The difference between a good and a great letter is one that contains specific and concrete examples that back up an adjective or accolade. In-person meetings are the best for this kind of thing, but the phone works also, and an email updating the recommender on your recent activities is a final option.
- To reiterate, these recommendations are meant for a professional school environment – these are NOT personal references. Letters from relatives or friends of the family (regardless of stature in the community) are not appropriate.
- Send law school-specific (directed) LORs appropriately. If you are receiving a letter that is intended for a specific law school (i.e. Alumni LOR), be sure that you correctly identify the school(s) to which they should be sent in the CAS process.
- Follow up with your recommender(s) with a thank you note. You will know that the letter has been added to your CAS file by monitoring your LSAC account. Consider your thank you note to be one of many ways to maintain contact with individuals who are part of the professional network that you are building.
I hope you find this helpful in navigating and requesting outstanding letters of recommendation. If you have any questions about Letters of Recommendation ask me in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.