Snagging that perfect letter of recommendation
The letter of recommendation is perhaps the most mysterious element of the law school admissions process. Different schools require different numbers of letters; some schools put an explicit ceiling on the number you can submit, while others have a floor; some require only academic letters, while others strongly urge at least one from a work supervisor. And then there are the potential writers who fall into non-traditional categories but who may have valuable insights to share: the coach, the music teacher, the volunteer organizer, and so on. What to do?
Let’s start with one clear route to avoid: Don’t ask for letters from people who barely know you and who have not had the opportunity to assess your work. At best, those letters do not help. At worst, they reflect poorly on a candidate, suggesting a hope that the letter-writer’s fame and success will blind the admissions office to the candidate’s lack of same. So, yeah, I’m throwing shade on Carmela Soprano; the letter from the Georgetown alumna, which may or may not ever have gotten written, wasn’t going to help Meadow—indeed, maybe it’s why she ended up elsewhere.
While to my knowledge we in the Michigan Law Admissions Office have received few letters instigated by mob connections, we do commonly see letters from high-status individuals who are friends of a parent of an applicant. I admit to the occasional frisson from seeing a famous name, but I guarantee you, the fame of your letter-writer will not incline me toward admission. A variation on this theme is the member of Congress for whom an applicant briefly served as an intern (or maybe even only knew as a constituent). Inevitably, those letters are cursory and entirely free of useful evaluative content.
Instead, focus on people who have had the opportunity to gauge your skills in a meaningful way over an extended period. Further, because law school itself is an academic undertaking, having at least one letter from an academic context can provide particularly valuable insights for an admissions office—although most will recognize that if you’ve been away from an academic setting for, say, three or more years, getting such a letter may be impossible.
Whoever the author, the critical aspect is that person’s ability to address, in a detailed manner, the sorts of skills, qualities, and characteristics that are relevant to performance in law school and in the legal profession. A non-exhaustive list includes your intellectual and scholarly abilities, your capacity for original thought, your ability to analyze and critically assess information, the quality of your oral and written expression, your growth potential, and not inconsequentially—your personality and your capacity for positive interactions with others. While a professor should be well-positioned to speak to many or even all of these criteria, so will other people in your life. Spend some time thinking about the potential universe of your articulate fanbase.
While figuring out who might occupy that universe presents challenges, the next step may be just as tricky: actually making The Ask. I would strongly discourage you from letting a ricotta and pineapple pie with a side of veiled threats be your persuasive tool. In fact, I counsel the absolute opposite approach: Make it really easy for someone to say no. In my experience, most people are temperamentally inclined to help others, which means you can count on a certain baseline of good will in your favor. Professors tend to have a strong sense of obligation toward their students, and employers certainly feel obliged to their employees. In most cases, if you give the letter-writer an out, they will not jump at it. But if they do? That tells you that in all likelihood, twisting their arm would not result in a letter you would want. Further, the courtesy of providing a gracious way to decline will be recognized and appreciated by the would-be letter-writer, and incline them further in your favor.
Here’s a template for the approach. Well in advance of when you need the letter, draft an email to your target, telling them your plan of applying to law school; if this information will be news to them, consider including some supporting documentation—not pages and pages, mind you, but perhaps your resume or a draft personal statement. If you’re writing to a professor or employer who you haven’t kept in regular touch with, it is helpful to include some recollection-refresher, like a paper you wrote, or a reminder of interactions you had, or even just a prompt such as, “I sat on the left side of the class in the middle row in your Spring 2016 Principles of Macroeconomics class.”
Once those preliminaries are taken care of, ask if the person would feel able to write a strong (or supportive, or detailed, or some other qualitative descriptor) letter of recommendation on your behalf; if possible, explain what made you want to approach them—what do they know about you that others may not be able to speak to? Offer to provide them with any additional information they would find useful; offer to come in (or call) to discuss. Communicate a clear timeline. Then explain that you know the person is busy, and that you’ll certainly understand if they are unable to take this task on. Assure them that your prospects are not ruined if they do not feel capable of writing a letter for you.
Only the laziest of monsters would decline such a gracious request—or else, someone who doesn’t feel that they will do you justice. And that’s exactly what you want to suss out. In the event the answer is no, accept it with as much good grace as you can muster, and move on to the next name on your list.
I do not in fact mean to stress you out. You should be aware that in most cases, letters of recommendation occupy some great swath of middling territory—neither so rave-ish as to captivate the reader nor actually noticeably negative. Candidates who are otherwise excellent will nonetheless often come from circumstances where it was not feasible to develop the sort of close, supportive, mentoring relationships with excellent, energetic, experienced writers that lead to an off-the-charts letter. What I’m trying to say is—the bar for reasonable success in this realm is pretty low.
That said, it is truly imperative that you avoid a strikingly tepid letter, or one that drops hints of a decidedly negative tone. It is an unfortunate fact that a letter like that can sink a candidate, particularly in the absence of any letter that is strong enough to undo the damage. I may not be able to tell what the truth of the matter is—is the candidate really so terrible? Or is the terrible letter a reflection of a terrible person doing the writing?—but it’s not an area where I want to take risks. So, treat your letter-writers with respect and courtesy, and never, ever try to stop them if you see them sidling toward the easy exit.