Tips for Getting Great Letters of Recommendation

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I confess, I have a stereotype of pre-law advisors at colleges. This involves an old guy who used to practice law and now teaches a class or two and feels he is doing a good service for students by looking over personal statements. He is well-intentioned but off-base in the advice he gives.

Last night, while speaking to an undergraduate law society, I met a good kind of pre-law advisor. The kind who not only cares, but really knows what he’s talking about and who really wants to go to bat for his students. We had a great talk, especially about letters of recommendation.

Most of his students take 2-4 of his pre-law/political science courses and he is asked to write many, many letters of recommendation for law school. Sometimes it’s a pure pleasure to do so: the student is bright, inquisitive, takes initiative, demonstrates responsibility and maturity, and will almost assuredly succeed in law school and in the legal profession. But, unfortunately, many times the student asking for a letter has done one ¬†or more of the following:

  • Surfs Facebook or texts while in class. Quote from Pre-law advisor: “You’re not as smart as you think you are, and I’m not as dumb as you think I am.”
  • Has excuses for not doing work on one or more¬†occasions. Yes, this includes food poisoning (when you’ve really been out drinking), flat tire (he knows you ride a bike and live on campus), and the vague but ever-present “family emergency” (boyfriend dumped you – it’s all over Facebook).
  • Fails to show up consistently for class – or, even worse – for an internship (especially if arranged through the Department) making the pre-law advisor look foolish for recommending you for the internship in the first place.

Because this is a good pre-law advisor, when you ask him for a letter of recommendation, he will say something along the lines of, “I don’t feel I can write you a strong letter.” If you are a smart law school applicant, you will smile, nod, thank him for his time, and run as quickly as you can from his office. But what most law school applicants do instead is say, “But I really need an academic letter and you’re the only professor I took more than one class with.” He will then say, “Well, you asked me for extensions twice and you missed at least five classes per term, and that kind of behavior doesn’t leave me confident that you’ll succeed in law school. But, if you really have no other options, I will write you a letter.” The smart applicant will recognize that he/she hasn’t been that great of a student and acknowledge that a fresh start would be beneficial with a new professor, a new class, a new school, a new program …. However, since this person isn’t that great a student to begin with, he or she will probably say, “Yes, that would be great. Thanks.” And of course, this is the same person who wants the letter done within two weeks.

Those readers of this blog who are proactive, on top of things, and really great law school applicants will chuckle at this. Those for whom it hits a bit too close to home may feel sheepish, or may be unable to recognize themselves in the scenario. The most important thing in putting together your law school application materials is to candidly assess yourself. The response you get from a professor when asking for a letter of recommendation may be your first chance to zero in on your weaknesses and think about how you can grow, change, and improve in the future.

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