How to Get the Best Recommendation Letters for Law School

Although they are rarely decisive, recommendations letters are a meaningful factor in law school admissions.

Most other law school application materials, such as personal and diversity statements, present your case in your own voice. Recommendation letters are one of the few ways for admissions officers to hear others’ impressions of you.

While your transcript and test scores may say a lot about your academic skills, they don’t communicate what kind of person you are, or how you think or relate to other people. One student might get straight A’s while acting like a pompous jerk, while another helped others, steadily improved through hard work or had the courage to take on challenging research.

Hearing stories about you from a professor or work supervisor helps law admissions officers build a three-dimensional picture of who you are and how you might contribute to the law school community.

This is why it is important to approach recommendation letters strategically, even though they’re just one part of your application process.

Whom to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

Unless you are an older applicant who has been in the workforce for many years, you should get at least one law school recommendation letter from a professor. Others might come from other professors, mentors or supervisors from an internship, job or activity.

One mistake that applicants make is to request a recommendation letter from someone they think is a big shot — a well-known professor, a high-level executive or a family friend who is a venerable lawyer or local politician.

[READ: 7 Deciding Factors in Law School Admissions]

This is only a good idea if such a person teaches or works with you directly and can speak knowledgeably about your work and your goals. If your relationship is more indirect or distant, it can come across as superficial and uninformative, like a vague book blurb by a celebrity who seems unlikely to have read the book.

Above all, ensure the recommendation letter will be positive! If you detect signs that you have chosen the wrong reference to write a letter, move on to someone who can speak about your strengths more knowledgeably and enthusiastically.

What a Recommendation Letter Should Include

If a recommendation letter is simply a series of compliments strung together, it will sound generic, no matter how effusive or truthful it is. An effective letter should back up its claims with specific details and examples of times when you stood out because of your dedication, helpfulness, initiative or insight.

A recommendation letter does not have to be unwaveringly positive. In fact, a letter that shows how you have grown, overcome adversity, responded constructively to feedback or taken responsibility for yourself can show the kinds of “soft factors” that law school admissions officers seek.

How to Request a Recommendation Letter

Once you have identified a reference who is likely to write you a strong recommendation letter, ask him or her politely. Explain why you are applying to law school, why you think he or she would be a good reference and when you will need the letter.

Be prepared for the recommender to ask for your resume or other materials. For example, a professor might ask to see copies of your papers for the class, or any feedback received.

You might offer to provide more information or details as needed or to discuss the letter in a meeting or phone call. However, do not crowd your initial request with ideas and advice. That could come across as presumptuous.

[Read: 5 Personal Qualities That Law School Applicants Should Have]

If a recommender has a personal connection to a school you are applying to, consider requesting a school-specific letter, in addition to a more general recommendation letter.

Finally, avoid writing a recommendation letter yourself. If a recommender asks you to do so, gently explain why this is a bad idea and instead offer to provide ideas and notes that he or she could incorporate into his or her own letter.

How Many Recommendation Letters to Request

Very few law schools require more than one recommendation letter. Many limit you to two, although some allow up to five.

It is important that all your recommendation letters are strong and substantive, because they may take time away from other aspects of your application. Quality matters more than quantity.

If you are worried that one of your letters is not as strong as the others, don’t submit it. A mediocre letter could very well overshadow better letters read alongside it. Just think about how often you read a mixed review that turns you off of a business, even if the other reviews seem positive.

When to Request a Recommendation Letter

Recommendation letters are submitted and processed through the Credential Assembly Service of the Law School Admission Council. Since they can take a couple of weeks to process, it’s a good idea to get them in before you plan to apply.

Anticipate that your recommender may need at least a few weeks to write the letter, particularly at busy times of the year. That means that you should request recommendation letters more than a month before you plan to apply.

[Read Law School Admissions Process: A Month-By-Month Guide.]

For applicants planning to apply in the fall, it is best to request letters over the summer or early fall. It’s OK to request letters earlier, as well. For example, if you just finished a summer internship where you worked together well with your boss, you might request the letter before leaving, even if you don’t plan to apply anytime soon.

What if Your Recommendation Letter Is Delayed?

While law school admissions are rolling, a week or so of delay will not be of consequence. So, consider waiting until your application is complete before you submit it.

That said, if it is late in the cycle, or if you are aiming to meet an early decision deadline, waiting may not be an option. As long as you have the minimum number of recommendation letters required, your application can be submitted. You can always add further letters to your file later.

Remember that a law school is unlikely to review your application as soon as it is received. So, if a recommendation letter is delayed for a few days, it is unlikely to matter. If the letter is important and it may be delayed for some time, notify the admissions office by phone or email that another recommendation letter is forthcoming and ask if your application could be put on hold until it is received.

Of course, the best way to ensure that a recommendation letter does not hold up your application is to request it several weeks in advance. The law school admissions process is stressful enough without having to wait on other people!

More from U.S. News

9 Law School Application Mistakes to Avoid

5 Quick Tips for Applying to Law School

What to Ask Law School Admissions Officers

How to Get the Best Recommendation Letters for Law School originally appeared on

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