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Who to Ask for Law School Letters of Recommendation...and how important are they really?

If you’ve been wondering who to ask for law school letters of recommendation, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to go over all the requirements and strategic decisions you should consider when deciding who are the best recommenders to choose.

For many applicants, figuring out law school letters of recommendations is a stressful part of the process; it’s something they have to rely on others for, and something they feel they have little control over.

I’m guessing you have at least one of the following fears:

  • worrying a recommender won’t write something unique or impactful;
  • not knowing who to ask for academic letters of recommendation because you failed to make any close relationships with professors in college or you’ve been out of college for a while and have lost touch with former professors;
  • working most closely with colleagues rather than supervisors, so not having anyone in positions of authority who can talk substantively about your work;
  • not having any letters of recommendation from attorneys;
  • not having any letters of recommendation that have a connection to the school you’re applying to; 

These are all valid fears, but ones that many many applicants face. Every cycle, I work with clients who face these challenges and together we figure out a way to navigate them strategically and as stress-free as possible. My aim for this post is to help you do the same.

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What is Required for Law School Letters of Recommendation?

Let’s first go over a bit of the basics on what law schools require for letters of recommendations and the logistics of getting them submitted to law schools.

  • Law school letters of recommendation are required for almost every law school application.
  • Every school has its own requirements, but typically a school will require at least two and allow anywhere from two to four letters of recommendation.
  • Some schools may specifically require letters come from professors or some academic reference, especially if you are still in school or recently graduated. 

Your letters of recommendations will be submitted directly by your recommender to your LSAC account. Once you fill in your recommender’s information, an email will be triggered to your recommender asking them to set up an account with LSAC and upload their recommendation directly themselves. This can be confusing for many (cough, older) recommenders, so you may need to give your recommender some handholding.

You’ll want to follow LSAC’s guidelines, but essentially you’ll fill out your recommenders’ information in your LSAC account, which will trigger an email to your recommender providing them a link to upload their recommendation. You will be able to select which letters you want each law school to receive.

 

Who to Ask for Law School Letters of Recommendation 

The biggest question I get is who to ask for law school letters of recommendation. The answer varies depending on an applicant’s situation—you’ll make different choices depending on how long you’ve been out of school, what kind of weaknesses you might need to make up for in your application, and how to represent different perspectives of you from your various recommenders.

To really understand who to ask for your law school letters of recommendation, it’s important to understand what you’re trying to have your letters do for you and your application.

You want to use your letters of recommendation to:

(1) show that you have the skillset, experience, and character traits to succeed in law school—primarily the ability to write well, think complexly, and thrive in a stressful and rigorous academic environment; and

(2) paint a holistic picture of you and your rationale for going to law school—you don’t want every letter to say the same thing about you, but to instead point to different parts of you to give admissions officers a well-rounded view of who you are.

With that in mind, regardless of an applicant’s situation, here are a few nearly-universal law school recommendation letter tips I share with my consulting clients about who to choose for your law school letters of recommendation:

1. You do not need to have a letter of recommendation from an attorney

Law schools do not care AT ALL if you have a letter of recommendation from an attorney. As I talk about below, the best law school recommendation letters are those that come from someone who knows you, your intellectual abilities, and character traits law schools care about.

2. Get at least one academic letter if you can

Regardless of whether they require it or not, law schools primarily want to see academic letters of recommendation. They are using the letters to assess whether you’ll be successful at their school and able to handle the rigors of law school and the legal profession.

  • If you’ve been out of school for less than five years, I strongly encourage you to get at least one letter of recommendation from a professor or other academic supervisor (like an advisor or thesis committee member). Even if it’s awkward, even if you don’t think the professor will remember you, you’re going to need to get over it and reach out. I’ll guide you later in this post on how to set your recommender up well so that even if the recommender doesn’t know you well, it won’t be just a generic, template letter.
  • You don’t have to ask only those professors where you got an A in their class. You’ll want to ask those who know you and/or your work the best—even if it was in a class where you didn’t get an A. Especially if it was a demanding class, the professor can talk about how that B was hard-earned.
  • Even if you’ve been out of school for more than five years, it is worth trying to get an academic letter. Reach out to professors and see if they might remember you—you may be surprised.
  • If you have a low GPA, no matter how many years you’ve been out of school, getting an academic letter is even more important in order to convince law schools that your GPA isn’t reflective of your academic capabilities.
  • If you truly can’t get an academic letter that will say more than “Mara got an A in this class,” try to think of a recommender who can speak to your ability to handle rigorous academic-type work or thrive in a high-pressure setting. Maybe this is a supervisor at your job who saw you handle a very complicated project, or a colleague at the non-profit you volunteer for who worked with you on a rigorous grant proposal. 

3. Aim for three recommenders

Some schools will limit you to only two letters of recommendation, but having three allows you to choose different ones for different schools (such as those schools that require all academic), and for those schools that do allow more than two (which most do), three letters will gives schools a nice holistic view of who you are and your capabilities.

In addition to academic letters of recommendation, you might get what I call “professional” recommendations, from those such as a boss, internship/volunteer work supervisor, etc.. Some general suggestions:

  • If you are applying straight from school or have graduated within the past year, two of the three should ideally be academic letters.
  • If you are applying more than two years out from school, you can have two of the three be professional.  

4. Do not get recommendations from family or friends

Every year I get the question about having a family member or family friend write a letter of recommendation. Oftentimes, it is an applicant’s parent’s friend who is somehow connected to the law school the applicant is applying to, and the applicant thinks this will give the recommendation more weight. Let me tell you right now: it won’t.

Law schools do not care what your mom’s friend thinks about you or your ability to succeed in law school unless that person has supervised or been intimately involved in your work. The mere fact that someone knows you well personally is not a good reason to have them write a law school letter of recommendation. In fact, letters like these can actually hurt your application because it looks immature and like you had no one to ask who could write something of substance.

If you did actually do work for a close family member, I still would not suggest asking them for a letter of recommendation if there is someone else you can ask. For instance, I had a client who often worked summers at her mother’s law firm. Even if her mom could’ve written her an excellent recommendation with lots of substantive examples, no law school would take that seriously—your mom is going to be biased! So instead she asked her Mom’s law firm partner to write the letter of recommendation.

5. Choose substance over notoriety

Another common mistake I see with choosing who to write for your law school letters of recommendation is selecting recommenders for their status and prestige over the depth of their relationship with you. Instead, choose someone who can write about you in detail and substantively. Not just a famous name.

The famous director of the lab you intern at may barely know your name or work, but the graduate assistant who you chat with everyday and directly supervises you, will be able to talk deeply about your contributions, your skillset, and unique traits—the latter is a much stronger letter of recommendation. Similarly, don’t choose a professor just because he/she is famous. 

This lesson was reminded to me this past cycle.

I had a client who was close family friends with President Joe Biden. Yes, let me repeat that . . . CURRENT PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES Joe Biden. She had worked on a lot of his campaigns and thought that he could write a substantive letter for her. I was cautious, even though it is the President, of how this might come across to schools—would they think she’s just trying to network her way in? Will Biden actually have time to write more than a form letter about her? 

But given this was the President of the United States, I agreed that the letter might be helpful, so we compromised, and she submitted it to a few schools, including University of Pennsylvania, where Biden was a professor and has close ties.

And you know what? She didn’t get into any of the schools where she submitted his recommendation. In fact, she was my client who performed the least spectacularly (she still got acceptances, but not at any of her reach schools . . . whereas all my other clients got into reach schools). 

Honestly this surprised me, but my guess is the letter from Biden was not very personal, was probably even written by a staffer, and may have ended up hurting her by making her look like she’s relying on connections instead of depth. This is an extreme example, because realistically, how many people have a letter from the President of the United States. But the point is law schools want to see who you are, not who you know.

To Summarize:

  • If you just graduated or are about to graduate, you should ideally get two academic letters of recommendation and a third of your choice—either another academic or a professional.
  • If you are multiple years from school, you should still aim for at least one academic letter of recommendation, and get two professional letters.
  • If you cannot get an academic letter despite getting over your awkwardness, then choose a professional recommender who can speak to your ability to think and write complexly, handle high-pressure environments, and other skills of that nature that law schools are looking for.

How to Ask for Law School Letters of Recommendation: Set Your Recommenders Up for Success  

Once you have decided who will write your letters of recommendation, it is time to reach out. Most applicants just make the ask and then leave it all in the hands of the recommender to. Don’t do this.

You want to take control of your letter by providing your recommender with specific things you’d like them to touch on. Trust me, as someone who has had to write letters of recommendations, your recommenders will be happy for the guidance. 

Here are the steps I have my clients take

1. Ask your recommenders early 

Recommenders, especially professors it seems, will procrastinate. So build in a lot of time for them to get it done. Ask them at least one month before you want them to submit the letter, but ideally much earlier. It can also take LSAC some time to process the letters, so this is usually one of the first tasks in the admissions process I suggest my clients complete.

The first time you ask you don’t need to inundate your recommender with information yet, you’re just trying to get their Yes. If you can, ask in person, but it is not a big deal to ask over email. Here’s a sample email you might send to a professor: 

Dear Professor X,  

I hope you’re doing well. I intend to apply to law school this Fall and was wondering if you would be willing to write me a letter of recommendation in the next 8 weeks?  

Your class Criminal Justice and the Law was a defining moment in my desire to pursue law school, and I believe your understanding of my academic work and interests will help give law schools a full picture of the type of student and future lawyer I will be.  

If you are generously willing, I will happily send over my resume, reasons for applying to law school, and more guidance for the letter.

Many thanks,

Mara

2. Follow-up with recommenders 

If a recommender gives you a noncommittal answer or says he/she may not have time, move on to a different recommender. You only want people who are unequivocal in their support for you to write your law school letters of recommendation. 

Once you get a recommender to say yes to writing you a letter, then you’ll want to send a follow up email with:

  • Date you’d like letter submitted by. Choose a date assuming your recommender will take an additional one to two weeks after that date.
  • Law school resume
  • Brief description of why you’re going to law school. Many recommenders will ask for your personal statement, but I don’t suggest waiting until your personal statement is done to get your letters submitted. Like I said, recommendation letters can often be a hold up for applicants, so kindly tell your recommender that your personal statement will not be finished by the time the letter of recommendation needs to be submitted. Providing your recommender with a brief (one paragraph) explanation of what is motivating you to go to law school and what you intend to do with your law degree is more than enough for them.
  • Mini outline of character traits with specific examples you’d like highlighted. Most letters of recommendation are going to be glowing, admissions officers know that. They all mainly also just talk about the applicant in general characteristics such as “curious, imaginative, a strong leader, etc.” The way to get your letter of recommendation to stand out is to have your recommender point to specific ways in which you have those traits. So for instance, you would want your recommender to talk about ways in which he/she personally witnessed you exemplify leadership—if that’s a trait that will be highlighted. 

But you can’t expect your recommender to remember everything, or even most things, about you or your work together. So putting together a mini outline for them will be incredibly helpful. I suggest providing broad character traits, and then making a list of all the ways in which you showed those traits. You can check out an oversimplified example below: 

a. Initiative: transformed the research I did for a paper in class into tangible action outside of the classroom – started initiative to roll back the University’s carbon emissions.

b. Academic rigor Wrote an extensive paper on xyz, that received a A grade.

c. Intellectual Curiosity: (i) Attended all office hours and asked insightful, stimulating questions that led to further discussion; (ii) Performed additional unassigned reading on my own. 

3. Follow-up again

Follow-up with recommenders two weeks prior to the date you’d like the letters submitted, asking them if they need anything else from you and a reminder that you’d like the letter submitted by x date. Some recommenders will need to be hounded if they don’t submit by the date you gave them. It can feel awkward, but politely do it or they’ll never get in.

4. Send a thoughtful thank you

It’s a big ask for busy recommenders to write you a letter of recommendation. Remember that, and thank them appropriately. They will also be part of your professional network going forward and are invested in your future. Keep them included!

Are Law School Letters of Recommendation Important? How much do they really matter?

Now, despite everything I just told you about making sure you get the best letters of recommendation, I am also here to tell you not to overly fret about them. 

For most of you, despite your best efforts, your recommenders will typically write a positive recommendation, but something very similar to letters everyone else is submitting—most of your recommenders, especially professors, have written a lot of these letters and they’re bound to have a similar if not nearly identical template they use each time. This is fine—it won’t hurt your application, but it isn’t going to be what gets you in. 

Now while the majority won’t help much, it doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Letters of recommendation rarely help admissions officers differentiate between applicants, but in the cases the letters do, it can make or break an applicant’s admission decision.

Bad letters of recommendation—like those I mentioned above: family, friends or some famous professor who has no idea who you are and who can’t speak to you substantively—can hurt you.

On the flip side, there are a small number of letters of recommendation that really do help push an applicant over the edge to an acceptance. These are the ones that are extremely sincere, personal, clearly knew the applicant well, and give admissions officers good proof of how the applicant will be a successful law student and lawyer. This happened with one of my clients this past cycle. In her acceptance letter, the Dean of Admissions commented on one of her letters of recommendation and how impressive it was.  

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ABOUT MARA FREILICH

Mara has helped countless law school applicants get into their dream law schools, even without a perfect GPA, the highest LSAT score, or most unique story. Mara used to be a litigator at one of the top law firms in the world and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School as a prestigious Toll Public Interest Scholar.

        

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