Law School Recommendation Letter Difficulties

LSAT Blog Law School Recommendation Letter Difficulties
The below excerpt about the difficulties involved in choosing law school recommenders is from A Guide to Law School Recommendations.


Balancing the Pool of Recommenders

The greatest difficulty regarding letters of recommendation often arises for applicants who have been out of school for several years and who simply don’t have any professors or instructors they’ve remained in contact with or who they believe will remember them well enough to write a personal letter of recommendation.

For those applicants, it may seem impossible to follow both the instruction to make letters “academic” and the instruction to obtain letters from people who know you well and can speak in specifics.   And, of course, no matter how well a letter fulfills all of the other criteria, “I knew John Smith 16 years ago…” isn’t the most powerful opening for a letter of recommendation.

For applicants in that situation, it’s necessary to think a bit more broadly about the term “academic”.  The purpose of the focus on academic recommendations, after all, is to allow law school admissions officers to make an educated guess about how well you’ll do in law school, and how inclined you will be to make the necessary investment to do well and see your legal education through to the end.

While your track record in college may be a strong indicator in those areas, it’s not the only one-particularly if you’ve been out of school for several years. If that’s the case, think about the things you do in other contexts that draw on academic skills, particularly those you’ll need in law school such as analytical ability, critical thinking, writing, oral communication and attention to detail.

Recommender education will be all the more important if you find yourself in this situation, because most employers aren’t used to writing recommendations at all.  If they do offer recommendations, they’re based on job performance in a way that’s geared toward getting that employee another job, usually in a similar industry.

But no one on the law school admissions committee cares how friendly you are to the customers or how clean you keep the kitchen or how consistently you exceed your sales quota. They want to know about how you think, research and express yourself.  Your work ethic is relevant; your ability to keep your head under pressure is relevant.  But in the final analysis, they want to know how you’re going to perform in the classroom.  Chances are that you have employers and colleagues who can tell them that, once you start thinking about the jobs you’ve held and what those people have observed in terms of what law school demands.

Of course, this applies to current and recent students as well, and it’s not written in stone that every letter for those applicants should come from an academic source.  However, there is an additional factor in play when you’re a current student or a new graduate:  while it may be easily understandable that an applicant who has been out of school for ten or fifteen years has trouble obtaining relevant academic recommendations, it’s not quite so intuitive if you’re a current student or recent graduate.  You definitely don’t want to start admissions officers wondering why you’ve just spent four years at a school and achieved respectable (or even excellent) grades and yet can’t get a single professor from your undergraduate institution to recommend you.

Of course, there are exceptions and special circumstances and each applicant has to analyze his prospective recommenders individually and in combination. But the general rule boils down to this:  if you are a current student or recent graduate, at least two and probably all of your letters should be from within the academic community.  Try to balance those letters so that they don’t all focus on the same skill sets.

If you’re further removed from school, it’s possible for non-academics to write solid letters relating to the skills you’ll draw on for academic success, but you’ll probably have to work with those recommenders to help them understand what law schools are looking for and what particular aspects of your performance might be most relevant.

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