Recommendations on Letters

You’re a law student who’s found the perfect opportunity—a summer internship, a fellowship position, or a clerkship. You’ve suffered through drafting a cover letter. You’ve squeezed your resume onto a single page (or not, don’t @ me) and agonized over the formatting so much that you never want to see it again. But you’re not done. The application requires a letter or letters of recommendation. How can you position yourself to receive the strongest possible letters from your law school professors?

The good news is that there are steps you can and should take to increase the quality of the letters written on your behalf. The slightly-less-good news is that some of these steps should begin long before it’s time to ask a professor for a letter. Let’s break it down.

While you’re in the professor’s class.

Of course, you won’t always know from the beginning of your relationship with a professor whether you’ll ultimately be asking her for a letter of recommendation. If possible, you want to have all of the relevant information—including your final course grade—before asking a professor to write for you (though, as you’ll see, a lower grade doesn’t necessarily mean the professor is off-limits as a recommender).

Ideally, you would treat every professor as someone who might ultimately be your recommender. This is not only in your self-interest, but also the right thing to do. Still, if that’s not feasible, trust your gut. You probably have some professors with whom you find it easier to build rapport. At the very least, build on that.

Cultivate your relationship with your professors. Come to every class session prepared and engaged. Make the best possible use of any one-on-one time you get with them. Prepare diligently, ask thoughtful questions, and engage in the moment. If you don’t understand a concept, ask for clarification. If you have a reasoned basis on which to disagree on a particular concept, push back (respectfully, of course). Come to office hours. Accept feedback graciously and seek out additional opportunities for receiving more of it. Strive to maintain a growth mindset. Exhibit intellectual curiosity. And let them get to know you as a unique individual. If you feel comfortable, share with at least one of your professors any information that would help her contextualize your law school experience or any obstacles you’ve overcome before or during law school.

Once you’ve completed a potential recommending professor’s class, stay in touch. You may—though you need not—choose to take additional classes with her or to serve as her RA. But even if you don’t have a continued formal connection, stay in touch in less formal ways. Don’t just disappear for a year until it’s time to ask for a letter. Instead, keep her updated on your academic pursuits, your summer jobs, your post-graduation plans and generally how you’re doing. (Again, this isn’t just about what’s likely to produce a stronger letter for you; we really want to know!)

The goal with all of these interactions (besides, you know, developing a close relationship with a potential mentor and being a good human being) is to give your recommenders something to write about that wouldn’t be apparent from your resume or transcript alone. A letter that merely restates your academic success (which is apparent from your transcript) or your prior work experience (which can be found on your resume) adds very little to a prospective employer’s understanding of who you are. The more you give a professor to work with, the better she can paint a picture of you as someone who is more than simply a collection of grades and extracurricular activities. And that picture is what readers of recommendation letters are looking for.

Select recommenders strategically.

First, pick the right people. If you’re in a situation where you’ll need to submit multiple letters (most likely a clerkship application), think very carefully about what each of your recommenders will likely say about you and the picture that those letters, taken together, will paint of you as a law student and future attorney.

More specifically, you’ll want at least one professor who knows you well enough to write a meaty, detailed letter that specifically addresses each of the qualities a legal employer is most interested in (for example, your particular strengths as a legal researcher, writer, and thinker; how well you take feedback and your potential for growth; your impeccable work ethic and consistent communication skills; and what you’d be like to work with in a close-knit chambers environment). A legal writing or clinical professor will often be well positioned to write this kind of letter, as will most professors for whom you have served as a research assistant.

But there are a variety of reasons why you want to have letters from your doctrinal (“casebook” or “podium”) professors. One of those reasons is that judges and employers like to see an applicant’s ability to thrive in a variety of educational environments, including a larger class setting that requires a deep dive into a particular substantive area of law. But there are other reasons, too.

Second, while some professors may be unwilling to write for students who did not receive an “A” in their class, many others would be delighted to do so under the right circumstances. In fact, there could be a lot of value in a particularly strong letter from a professor who did not give you an “A.” Indeed, if that person has faith in your abilities and will agree to write you a strong letter despite having given you a lower grade, in some ways, that’s even more powerful.

Third, gather all of the intelligence you can about how particular professors approach letter-writing. Professors have different approaches to letters of recommendation. For example, they differ with respect to when they’ll agree to write a letter for a student, how much they’ll write in a typical letter, and the manner in which they express enthusiasm about a candidate (some of which read as more effusive than others, particularly when the reader of the letter lacks any context about the writer).

To gather this information, ask around. (Also ask the professor directly, if you’re comfortable doing so and the professor seems amenable.) For instance, if you have a clerkship advisor in your Career Services Office, he or she may have had the opportunity to read various faculty letters of recommendation over the years. If you’re on the fence about whom to ask, or are choosing between two professors who you think probably could write you equally strong letters, you might see if the clerkship advisor has any recommendations about whom to approach first. And listen carefully to her response—both for the things she says and also for the things she doesn’t.

Asking for the letter.    

Sure, my job is to teach legal writing. But another part of my job—one that takes up many, many hours every semester and every summer—is writing letters of recommendation for students applying for summer jobs and clerkships. I say this because I find that students are sometimes sheepish about asking for letters of recommendation. Now, it’s appropriate to be sheepish if you’re requesting an unreasonably quick turn-around (in which case the answer may be “no,” regardless of how much the professor wants to write for you). But under normal circumstances, when you’re approaching a professor whom you’ve always treated with respect, there is no reason to feel sheepish. It is literally our job.

That said, there are more and less helpful ways to ask for a letter, both from your perspective and the professor’s.

First, remember that it is in your interest to have as much information as possible about what your letter will ultimately look like. To that end, don’t just ask whether your professor would be willing to write you a letter; ask them if they would feel comfortable writing a strong letter. Many professors believe—as I do—that it is their responsibility to make students aware of any limitations on the strength of their letters on a student’s behalf, and framing the question in the way I’ve just described provides a natural opening for starting that challenging conversation. And if the professor does articulate that there will be some limitations on what they are comfortable writing, it is absolutely fair game for you to ask what those limitations are. Again, listen carefully to the response, not just for the short-term (the letter), but to figure out additional opportunities for long-term growth.

Finally, professors need at least the following things to write a maximally effective letter: time and context. Time is fairly self-explanatory; give your recommenders as much advance notice as you possibly can, and include your deadline/timeframe in your earliest communications with them (whether that’s written or oral). As far as context, make sure your professor knows where the letter is going, why you are especially interested in the position, and anything else you think she should know about the employer (including, e.g., a list of judges to whom you are applying). Provide your resume without being asked. You may also wish to pass along your transcript or even a relevant cover letter or personal statement. We won’t always explicitly write about these things—that’s because letters that just reiterate information from other sources add little value—but the extra materials may help us frame or tailor our letter and put it into some sort of useful context.

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Many law professors consider writing thoughtful letters of recommendation both an important and rewarding aspect of our professional obligations. Following the advice above will help make that part of our job easier—and result in stronger letters for you.

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