We get asked a good number of times one simple question regarding Letter of Recommendation (LOR):
Do they matter?
The answer is yes, but most often not in the way you think. Most LOR can only hurt you. WHAT? How in the world can that be if they are indeed recommendations? Let’s explore and, in the process, look at the subtle ways they can help.
After reading tens of thousands of letters of recommendation over the years, we can tell you that the vast majority of letters of recommendation are somewhere in the good to very good category, so most will not have a significant impact on your application. They are ripe with statements such as “Kristen was one of my favorite students in “Why the Sky is Blue” (a real Princeton course, btw), or “Despite his slightly bumptious writing style, I can’t help but look forward to reading John’s essays. He is a true pleasure to be around and will be a powerhouse litigator.” Indeed, because of this, the ones that are neutral or lukewarm, e.g. “I see from my ledger that Sandor got an A in my class, but I don’t really recall much about him” will be a standout statement. Because 90% are warmer than that – it will negatively stand out. Know thine recommender well! The above statement and a terse letter will deelevate your admissions status. We saw it ever cycle in admissions.
But don’t take that to mean that they can’t help – they can! Even if the positive comments simply serves as a confirmation of what the reader sees in the rest of the application, it will be seen as a voice of support which is always a good thing. Asking for a letter or figuring out who should write your letter shouldn’t be a huge source of stress for you, but it is something that you should be mindful of as you think about your application. Even though a terrible letter of recommendation can be devastating to an application, you shouldn’t worry too much about that because those bad ones are really rare and, importantly, completely avoidable. Here are a few quick tips that we hope will be helpful as you go through the process of getting recommendations.
Who should write them?
You are going to be the best judge of who is going to say the nicest things about you, so that is a good starting point. You should choose people who know you well and can speak to your abilities. Professors who you have worked with in an upper-level class (as opposed to an intro-level class) are ideal, but that may not fit best into what everyone has as an option. You are applying to an academic program, so it makes sense that academic letters of recommendation are preferable. The readers want to know how you performed in an academic setting and this gives some insight. This is particularly true in schools where the faculty is a part of the evaluation process because they will look to other faculty opinions of you. The important thing to always remember is to go for the person who knows you best and most favorably, not the faculty member with the splashiest title or name recognition.
If you have a supervisor from work that is willing to write a letter, this is often a nice supplement to academic letters – especially if you have substantive work experience. If you are multiple years out of school it may make sense to only have work LOR, but it also might be a good idea to try to take a former faculty member out for coffee and reconnect. You might be surprised how well they remember you. It is also OK to not have a work-related letter if you don’t want your boss knowing that you will be leaving in a year.
The least helpful letters are from family friends, parents (true story), clergy members, or friends’ parents who happen to have nice letterhead.
How do I ask my recommender?
Be aware of your professor’s communication preference. Sometimes an email might work, but if an in-person meeting is possible, it might be preferable. Ask if they are willing to write a letter. If for some reason they hesitate or aren’t sure if they could write a supportive rec, you should stop right there, thank them for their time, and find someone else. You do not want a bad or lukewarm LOR.
You may want to give your recommender a few things to help them write the letter: transcript, resume, personal statement (if you have it), and time.
What should they say?
Letters should be substantive and speak to your abilities. Perhaps they can cite specific examples of demonstration of those abilities? Or compare you in general to your peers, e.g. “I would place Arya in the top 5% of all students I have talk in respect to her ability to perform in law school.”
They should not comment on your physical appearance or discuss your passion for making your own sausage (true stories).
*How many should I submit? *
Pay attention to the requirements at each school here. Many require two, some will require one but this is not an area where more is better. Thirteen letters is too many (again, true story) In fact, many schools have a limit of how many you can send. If the requirement is two, then two well-chosen recommenders is all you need. If you choose a third, you may want to make sure it is going to say something different or that knows you in a different context. (example: two academic letters and one work-related letter). Sometimes four letters can make sense, but we personally think that is the limit.
In general, letters do not need to be personalized to each individual law school. In fact, we would advise against that. Have them sent to LSAC so that they are part of your CAS report, and you are good to go!