Law school admission, including admission to a top law school, is primarily based on the applicant's LSAT and GPA. Letters of recommendation do not carry a tremendous amount of weight in your application, but poor recommendations could be detrimental to your case. In some cases, exceptional letters of recommendation will help a borderline applicant become an accepted applicant but, in general, do not pin your hopes of a great letter of recommendation. The statement in italics is from the University of Georgia Pre-Law Guide.
From your first semester, start to think about whom you may want to ask for letters of recommendation and keep in touch with them. Consider taking more courses with them.
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION: LINKS
HOW TO OBTAIN STRONG LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
PREPARING THE RECOMMENDERS
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION: INFORMATION
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION: SHOULD YOU WAIVE YOUR RIGHT TO ACCESS?
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION AFTER BEING OUT OF SCHOOL FOR SEVERAL YEARS
Also see an animated demonstrations about different aspects of LSAC's Letter of Recommendation Service are now available. The DEMO include general information about the LOR service, how it works, what a general letter is, what a targeted letter is, and how to direct particular letters to specific law schools.
The University of Kansas Freshman and Sophomore Pre-Law Advising does an outstanding job of answering eight frequently asked questions about LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION.
PRELAW AT RICE UNIVERSITY (Houston) indicates that "Most deans of admissions read each [letter of] recommendation with three questions in mind" and then goes on to deal with these three questions individually.
HOW TO OBTAIN STRONG LETTERS OF RECOMMENDAION
A student with a strong undergraduate record should be able to obtain strong letters of recommendation. Here are some suggestions on how to obtain strong letters of recomendation from faculty; this list is inspired by the University of California at Berkeley Career Center, University of Chicago Pre-Law Guide, and the New College of Florida Pre-Law Handbook.
Make an effort to know your instructors. This begins your freshman year.
Selecting recommenders requires an early start. An early start is required in order to allow the recommenders time to get the letters of recommendation in (four weeks) and time for you to make sure that the letters of recommendation are received (three weeks).
Choosing recommenders. Before the beginning of your senior year (before the beginning of the spring quarter of your junior year if at a college on the quarter system), make a list of the faculty about whom you feel confident will give insight into you and your abilities and will be one of your best advocates. Hopefully you will be able to have all your recommenders from this list.
When to set up appointments with potential recommenders? At a college on the semester system, no later than the beginning of your senior year. At a college on the quarter system, early in the spring quarter of your junior year (do not count on faculty members being around in the summer).
Setting up an appointment (ideally done in person) for a meeting about a letter of recommendation. For each desired recommender, make arrangements with the potential recommender for an appointment for a meeting to discuss the possible writing of a letter of recommendation. Setting up this appointment should be done in person (preferably) or by phone (if necessary); this will enable you to detect any hesitation or reluctance about setting up an appointment. If hesitation or reluctance is noticed, be polite but do not set up an appointment and look elsewhere for a letter of recommendation; two signs of reluctance are claiming to not know you well enough and claiming to be too busy. Do not set up this appointment using e-mail.
Meeting with the recommender. At the meeting to discuss the possible writing of a letter of recommendation, articulate your interest and reasons for wanting to attend law school. Assuming the person seems sympathetic, ask if the possible recommender would be willing and able to write a strong letter of recommendation for you. If hesitation or reluctance is noticed, be polite but look elsewhere for a letter of recommendation.
Preparing the recommender. See below for this topic.
Deadline for recommender. Give your recommenders a deadline for getting the letters of recommendation in (four weeks is reasonable unless these four weeks overlap a university break; make sure that your deadline to the recommender is at least three weeks before you intend to submit your complete application folder; this will allow you time to make sure that the letters of recommendation are sent on time and received.
Monoring receipt of the letters of recommendation. Candidates can monitor the status of their letters of recommendation in the Account Status area of their LSAC online account.
Checking up on the submission of the letters of recommendation. About one week after the deadline given to the recommenders has expired, determine which of the letters of recommendation have not been received. Give a gentle reminder to the recommender by either e-mail, phone, or memo. Note that the recommender saying that the letter is in the mail is no guarantee that the letter is in the mail.
You are responsible for having the correct number of letters of recommendation being written and received on time.
PREPARING THE RECOMMENDERS
The following list, inspired by Boston College, the University of California at Berkeley Career Center, University of Chicago Pre-Law Guide, and Lowell House Pre-Law Advising, indicates some items that should be given to your recommenders at your meeting with them:
WRITING LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION FOR APPLICANTS TO LAW SCHOOL should be helpful to a faculty member writing a law school letter of recommendation. You may want to give a copy of this to each faculty member who will be writing a law school letter of recommendation for you. The first paragraph of this fact sheet must be modified unless you are attending or have attended the University of Virginia.
An unofficial transcript (with the courses you took with the recommender indicated).
A copy of your LSAT score.
A copy of your best work (term papers, essays, tests, etc.) in the course or courses that you took with the possible recommender (make sure to photocopy the copy with the instructor's comments, if any. If the possible recommender is a faculty member who currently has you in class or who knows you very well, bringing this best work may not be necessary.
A personal RESUME (curriculum vitae) including a clear statement of why you want to go to law school.
A draft of your law school personal statement; if the possible recommender has comments about it, so much the better.
Other information that may be useful to the possible recommender.
For each preprinted letter of recommendation form, fill out the information that is required of the applicant (including waiver of your right of access to see the letters of recommendation) and, to ease the recommender's burden, fill out the recommender's name, title, and contact information (telephone, fax, address, etc.). Despite the preprinted form, most recommenders write a letter on letterhead stationary and put ''See Attached Letter'' on the form.
As a courtesy to the recommender, provide a stamped envelope addressed appropriately; you may want to indicate to the recommender that it would be best if this recommendation were sent on the recommender's letterhead stationary. If there is a preprinted letter of recommendation form, fold this form and put it into the appropriate envelope.
Also include a cover note that includes:
Information on how to get in touch with you (e-mail address or phone number).
A list of schools to which you are applying and the due date for these letters of recommendation.
Make the due date the same for all the letters.
The request that they begin the letter of recommendation with ''Dear Law School Admissions Committee.''
If relevant, delicately suggest that the letter be tailored to law schools.
If recommenders ask what to cover in the letter, tell them to focus on your writing ability, your analytical skills, your performance in their course, your personal qualities, etc..
Other information that is relevant.
Open and close your note with thanks and the acknowledgement that the letter of recommendation is important to your professional future.
Some addition advice and comments are:
If you are prepared when you see your recommender, a return trip should not be necessary.
Thank the recommender after you find out that all his/her letters of recommendation have been received.
You may want to notify the recommenders to which law schools you were accepted.
Remember that the recommender has taken valuable time to write this letter for you and that the letter might have a direct bearing on your admittance to law school. Also, you may need that person to write another letter of recommendation in the future.
Using advice from Oberlin College Pre-Law Guide, we could say: Even as a freshman, start to think about whom you may want to ask for letters of recommendation. Try to become acquainted with at least one (but hopefully more) faculty member each year ... . Establish a relationship with these individuals by going to their office hours, asking them about their research interests, participating in their classes, and letting them know your goals and aspirations., Consider taking more than one course from these faculty member if your schedule allows and the course seems relevant. Taking a second course will allow the faculty member to get to know your work even better and see how you progress. Begin to compile a portfolio (your best papers, projects in a file) that can be shown to individuals that you ask to write letters of recommendation to remind them of who you are and what you can do.
The University of California at Berkeley Career Center answers the question, "How can I go about getting good letters of recommendation?" by answering that, "Since your best letters will come from those who know you well, make an effort to get to know your professors and/or supervisors. A few ways you can do this are to speak up in class, select courses with small class sizes, take more than one class from a professor, do research for a professor, take on optional projects (e.g., write an honor thesis or start an outreach program at work), and regularly attend office hours."
The Prelaw Guide of the University of Chicago notes that "The most useful letter of recommendation to a law school is one that is thorough and detailed, addresses the candidate's writing abilities, analytical skills, and intellectual development, and is written with law school in mind. You should ask yourself whether your recommender is equipped to address these issues before you approach her or him. It is of no importance that the person you have in mind is ''only'' a teaching assistant or a lecturer (in fact, very prominent professors have penned some of the worst letters I have ever seen), as long as they can prepare letters of reference with an academic focus and informed by their personal knowledge of you.
Harvard University Careers in Law says "Because law faculty respect their university colleagues' evaluations of students, it's best to secure letters from faculty members (this category includes teaching assistants and lecturers) who can write candid, eloquent, and convincing assessments of their students." Also noted is that "Recommendations from faculty members in disciplines far removed from your major are fine [and provides some diversity]."
The UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA PRE-LAW GUIDE warns that "Recommendations from politicians or prestigious law professionals are only beneficial if the writer knows you personally and can speak specifically to your abilities." A stronger warning come from Kansas University Pre-Law Advising which warns that you should "Avoid seeking out a recommender who has a fancy title but who does not know you well and can not speak to your relevant attributes; letters from Congressman, judges, ministers and family members do not carry any weight, and can have a negative impact on the committee."
The UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA PRE-LAW GUIDE says that, "You want strong academic recommendations from professors who have personally graded your written work and had you in a participatory class situation. If you had a poor academic record early on, sometimes an enthusiastic, personal letter with specifics about your recent work and performance in a particular class can make an impression. Academic recommendations are more important than employers, unless your experience has been in a closely related field and the writer can speak specifically to abilities applicable to success in law school."
The UNIVERSITY OF KENTUCKY COLLEGE OF LAW makes the observation: "If the law school requests or requires that the letters come directly from the recommenders, don't worry about having the letters arrive before your application: all schools have procedures in place to hold the letters until your application arrives."
The University of Chicago Prelaw says that "Law schools generally ask for two or three letters of recommendation, although the LSDAS Letter of Recommendation Service stores up to four letters for five years. Assuming that each of your letters of recommendation is strong, to each institution send the maximum number allowed.
SHOULD YOU WAIVE YOUR RIGHT TO ACCESS?
The strong consensus is that you should waive your right of access to see your letters of recommendation. The University of Chicago Pre-Law Guide informs us that "You have the right to see what is written on your behalf. By indicating on the blank form that you do not wish to waive your right of access, you may view the letter at any time. However, the recommender will be aware of this and will write accordingly. By indicating that you waive your right of access, you allow your recommender to be more candid. Invariably, a law school admissions reader will take a letter of recommendation more seriously if you have waived this right." Pre-Law Advising at Lowell House advises that you should "Be sure to waive your rights of access to the recommendation. Readers will assume that a confidential recommendation is frank. Almost no one will place value in a non-confidential letter." Harvard Careers in Law "recommend[s] that you waive your right to see the letter to ensure that there is no doubt in the minds of the admissions committees that the recommender wrote the letter without restraint.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU HAVE BEEN OUT OF SCHOOL FOR SEVERAL YEARS?
If you plan to take some time off before going to law school and if your college has an office that keeps letters of recommendation on file, ask for letters of recommendation before you graduate. That way, when you plan to apply to law school, you can use those letters of recommendation assuming that their expiration date has not passed or you can ask your recommenders to update (or, at least, redate) your letter.
LOWELL HOUSE PRE-LAW ADVISING says that "Unless you have been working for over three years, law schools prefer that you select academic references. You can always send an employer letter as an extra letter."
If you apply to law school after post-college employment, submit at least one, perhaps exactly one, letter of recommendation from your post-college employers.
University of Notre Dame Prelaw states that, "The importance of faculty letters is not so significant for applicants who have been out of school for several years. Letters from employers, co-workers, or others in a position to evaluate your ability or character are appropriate. If you have maintained contact with one or more of your professors, you may of course provide a letter from him or her. If the school requires a faculty letter, you should try to comply even if you have been out of school for some time. You can include letters that amplify your time out of school."