Law School - Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are required for almost every law school application and are a very important part of the application process. Usually grades and LSAT scores factor in most heavily; however, your letters of recommendation could be the deciding factor in the admission process. Strong letters of recommendation can strengthen your application and if there are deficiencies in your application, they can help to outweigh them.
Each institution will let you know how many letters it requires-usually two to three. If you have more letters than required, you can consider submitting an extra one if it is strong and provides new information about you not mentioned in other letters. On the other hand, you may want to save the letter in case you are wait listed. The additional letter could lend further support to your candidacy.
Note that most schools prefer comments about academic potential, so letters from faculty members are highly valued. The best letter writers are those who know you well and can provide an evaluation of your ability to perform and succeed at law school. Therefore, it is beneficial for you to establish meaningful relationships with your professors and GSIs. Take every opportunity to get to know and talk with your professors: go to office hours, ask questions in class, seek advice about your career, do independent research or study with a professor whose recommendation you may want.
Law school admissions officials tell us the following make the best letter writers:
- Someone who knows you well
- Someone with the title of "Professor"
- Someone who is a professor at the school granting your baccalaureate degree
- Someone with an advanced degree who has supervised you in a meaningful job or internship
- Someone who has academically evaluated you in an upper-division class
- Note: letters from family friends, political figures, judges, and the like usually are discouraged and may, in fact, be detrimental.
First, make a list of professors and/or supervisors who will be your best advocates. Then, set up an appointment to discuss your request in person. Do not make the request via email. Be prepared to articulate your interest and reasons for attending graduate school. Letters of recommendation are written strictly on a voluntary basis; a faculty member or employer may decline to write them. The best approach is to ask potential letter writers if they are willing to write you a strong letter. If you sense reluctance or the answer is no, ask someone else.
When should I approach letter writers? What if I plan to take some time off before I go to law school?
Professors and supervisors want to help you and are pleased to write on your behalf; however, they are usually involved in many activities. Faculty are especially busy during the months of November and December. Be considerate and courteous of your letter writers' time and workload, and approach them at least two months in advance of your request. A good time to approach letter writers is early fall of your senior year if you plan to attend law school immediately following graduation. If you ask for letters before this time, ask during the school year; sometimes professors are hard to find in summer.
If you plan to take some time off before going to law school, don't wait until you want to apply to law school to ask for letters. Your professors could be on sabbatical, or you may not be fresh in their minds anymore. So, ask professors for a "general" letter of recommendation before you leave Cal and place their letters in a safe place, like the Career Center's Letter Service. When you are ready to apply to law school, contact professors again, and ask them to update your letters.
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 best strategy you can use to get a good letter of recommendation, particularly if a professor does not have a long acquaintance with you, is to provide your letter writer with ample information about you. This way, you will get a letter that includes concrete details about you, instead of a letter that contains only your grade or class rank, which is of limited value.
You can help your letter writers write enlightening letters by giving each of them a portfolio that includes:
- A cover note that includes:
- Information on how to get in touch with you in case they need to reach you
- What you would like emphasized in each letter (see Guidelines for Letter Writers)
- A list of schools to which you are applying, and due dates, with the earliest due date at the top
- Any other information that is relevant
- Open and close your note with thanks and acknowledgement that the letter writer's time is valuable and that this letter is important to your professional future.
- Recommendation forms - make it easy for letter writers to complete forms in a timely manner. Complete the following:
- Your unofficial transcript (note courses you took with them); On CalCentral this is known as your "Academic Summary"
- A draft of your personal statement
- A copy of your best work in the course (with instructor comments on it), lab evaluations, projects, publications, etc.
- Your resume
- Stamped and addressed envelopes to send letters and forms directly to the Career Center Letter Service and/or the CAS.
Yes, you can, but as a general rule, it is better to have letters written by professors rather than GSIs. Professors might be in a better position to evaluate the student and to compare the applicant to current and previous classes of students. GSIs often write fine letters and frequently write parts or all of letters which professors sign or co-sign. Having a GSI's letter co-signed by a professor adds to its strength, especially if the professor can add useful comments.
It is better to have a strong letter from a GSI than a letter from a professor that says little or nothing. But, the temptation to feel that since it often is easier to get to know a GSI than a professor, so it is perfectly acceptable to have letters written by a GSI. Keep in mind that some law schools specifically state that they will only accept letters from professors, not lecturers or graduate students. Other admissions officers have told the Career Center that they prefer letters that provide new insight on the applicant, and with this in mind may prefer the more specific letter, even if it's from a GSI.
If you must get a letter from a GSI, strategize with the GSI to have her draft a letter of evaluation, then forward it to the professor, using the pronoun "we" instead of "I." For example, s/he could write, "We saw Mr. Conner struggle before the midterm and we were impressed with his tenacity and capacity to master the material." Then, the letter can be signed by two people on the same line at the bottom of the page. In addition, sometimes GSIs are willing to provide some written insight or notes to the letter writer so that the letter can be written or finished and signed solely by the faculty member. You will need to give your portfolio to both the GSI and the professor and see how they want to do business.
In general, law programs prefer confidential letters. Admissions officials say that it displays more confidence on the part of the applicant if letters are "confidential" (meaning you, the applicant cannot see the letter). You should only request letters of evaluation from individuals you are confident will give insight into you and your abilities and will be an advocate for you.