Your Law School Letter of Recommendation: Don't Worry About It Too Much (Seriously!)

Why not? A law school letter of recommendation is really the same as any other and for reasons that I mentioned before, on this page on law school requirements, you should not worry about it too much--do the minimum necessary, and then don't think about it.

Now, why do I say not to worry about it too much?

  • A good law school letter of recommendation will not be decisive in helping you get into a law school if your LSAT score and college or undergraduate GPA are not good enough, i.e., at least "ballpark" for the law school you want to go to. In fact I have never seen any one I know get into a law school based on the strength of a letter of recommendation.

  • A bad law school letter of recommendation might well hurt you . . . but no one really knows for sure. To be honest, I have never heard of anyone not getting into a law school that, by LSAT and GPA, that person should have gotten into. In fact, I challenge you to find me a reliable anecdote of someone who should have gotten into a law school but didn't because the letter was so bad. (Now, I have read and heard of anecdotes involving bad recommendation letters for fellowships or other applications, but that is slightly different).

  • A mediocre law school letter of recommendation (something bland, "Bobby is bright and kind, and does not punch other students") probably will do nothing to hurt your chances of getting in anywhere except for Yale Law School--where you might not get in even if you do have a steller LSAT and GPA.

  • But in the end, no one really knows. In fact, I don't think that anyone systematically measures the effect of a good or a bad law school letter of recommendation; there just isn't any data on how these effect admissions. How do you rate such letters, on a 1-10 scale? With gold stars? So what you're left with is purely random, anecdotal evidence--occasional stories from some former or current dean of admissions of some prestigious law school or other.

Now, you still have to submit a passable law school letter of recommendation (and a superlative one for Yale Law School). And if you have a good college GPA, you obviously have some professors who liked you. So, to avoid being the first person I've heard of who did not get into a good law school solely based on a couple of crappy letters, follow these tips:

  • Pick recommenders who know you very well and can say good, specific things about you; this is common sense and applies to almost any rec letter. Pick such recommenders even if they are just teaching assistants or untenured professors. Even full professors, famous who might be important at your school, may have no pull at all with the people reading applications at law schools; and very often, these kinds of people are self-centered, and won't write anything helpful about you.

  • The only exception to this rule is if you worked or studied under a well known law professor or lawyer. For instance, I had a friend who worked for Alan Dershowitz as an undergraduate at Harvard.That recommendation probably did help my friend get into Yale Law School (but he was ballpark anyway in terms of LSAT and GPA).

  • The only exception to this rule is if you worked or studied under a well-known law professor or worked for a famous lawyer and they can actually say something good and specific about you. For instance, I had a friend who, as an undergraduate, worked as a research assistant to The Famous And Important Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. That recommendation probably did help my friend get into Yale Law School--he was ballpark in terms of LSAT and GPA, but others with his great numbers were rejected from Yale the same year.

  • By contrast, years ago, I worked in the office of a famous CEO who blew up his company (I won't say who for the moment) and got a letter of recommendation in his name to get me off the wait list of a top 5 law school I was interested in (OK, fine, this one I'll tell you: it was Harvard). I also know for a fact that it was a fantastic letter because . . . I wrote it. (I don't advise this generally, but this CEO did not like to . . . write.). It did not help me one bit. Not that I'm bitter.

  • Ask your recommenders if they are comfortable writing fully glowing recommendations without reservations. This is kind of a tough thing to ask (given that you might be shy asking for a recommendation letter at all), but you don't want to be torpodoed by a crappy recommendation. If they can't do that, then politely thank them and move on to someone who can.

  • Help your recommenders in anyway they need help; frankly, your recommenders (whoever they are) are overworked and lazy. They don't want to do your recommendations, and will drag their feet. Don't leave them to do any work that you can do yourself. If you need to stamp envelopes and address them, provide numbers to call, etc. do all of it for them. Even offer to write an initial draft law school letter of recommendation so they don't start from scratch; they may decline, but they may not. In short, your recommenders are busy, and the recommendations are the last thing they want to do--so make it easy for them.

  • If you have any input as to what goes in your law school letter of recommendation, make sure it says more about you than that you are "intelligent" and "better than other students, whatever they smell like."

    Law professors, and others on admissions committees, are suckers for "creative thinking," whatever that means in the context of the law (remember, in the context of law school exams, that law professors love the most flashy and "creative" exam). They also don't care for actual lawyers or people who want to get rich becoming actual lawyers. So make sure that your recommenders says that not only are you smart, but that you have interests other than making money (even if, in the end, you don't, actually).

But as I said, in the end, your law school letter of recommendation won't matter very much compared to other admissions requirements. Do what you must do to get a good rec letter and then stop--don't do more work than you have to because "investing" your time in this will not produce a high return in terms of getting you into law schools. So don't obsess about it.

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