What do professors look for in Law School Recommendation Letters
Most Deans of Admissions read each recommendation with three questions
in mind: 1) How well does the writer know the applicant and the
applicant's academic record? 2) What does the writer have to say about
the applicant's abilities and characteristics which are important for
success in law school and the profession? 3) In the final analysis, how
enthusiastic is the writer's support for the candidate's admission to
this particular law school? The answers to these questions are
obviously interrelated but for the purposes of this memorandum it may be
helpful to deal with them individually.
Most letters of recommendation will partially describe how well the
writer knows the applicant. They usually contain brief descriptions of
the size and number of courses in which the writer has worked with the
student. Often absent, however, is a description of the kinds of
formats in which the writer has seen the student perform. For example,
did the student write a short answer examination at the end of the
course or were there a number of papers to complete? Did the writer see
the student respond in class on a regular basis? How much informal
contact was there with the student outside of class? Most readers
generally assume that the larger the class and the larger the
institution, the less familiar a reference will be with the applicant.
This assumption is frequently incorrect but an admissions committee will
not realize it unless that is made clear. Writers will often say,
"Mary's academic record speaks for itself." This, unfortunately, is not
true unless one is familiar with the particular academic program. In
short, all applicants with 3.8 grade point averages are not judged as
being equal. Some students will have taken more challenging courses
than others. Some faculty are more demanding than others. A particular
admissions committee may not be aware of which courses are graduate
level courses or which are part of an honors program. All applicants
are asked to supply academic references with copies of their full
transcript so that those who write may comment, to the extent they can,
on the quality of the overall academic record.
There may be little to distinguish between the abilities and
characteristics which law schools look for in comparison with those
characteristics which other graduate academic programs seek. Legal
education and the legal profession, however, do emphasize some skills
over others and the following comments may help writers who are not
familiar with these distinctions.
Language is the lawyer's working tool and the best law students are
those who have the ability to write and speak with precision, fluency
Not only must the student be able to communicate his or her own
thoughts clearly, but he or she must have the ability to read and listen
carefully with an eye and ear for fine points and subtle distinctions.
Legal education demands well developed analytical skills and the ability
to juggle multiple variables. Legal reasoning at one time or another
involves deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, and reasoning by
analogy. The best students can think independently, have the ability to
cut through to the essentials, and can distinguish the relevant from the
extraneous. Contrary to what many believe about the law, there are few
clear and distinct legal rules. A tolerance for this ambiguity and the
ability to recognize exceptions and qualifications which may modify
general rules are characteristics of successful law students. In short,
a reference should consider whether an applicant is likely to be
stimulated or frustrated by questions where there are no "correct"
The nature of legal education--large classes, competitive pressure, and
substantial amounts of material to be mastered--may make some personality
traits more important in law school than in other academic programs.
Students will often learn as much from their classmates as from the
faculty. Thus, interaction among students is an important feature of
legal education and those who enjoy engaging in discussion in and
outside of class are more likely to flourish in this atmosphere. The
student who is intellectually alive and curious is more likely to
sustain academic progress where there is little reinforcement between
examinations. A student must be diligent and well organized to handle
large quantities of material. A well developed sense of humor and a
mature attitude are particularly helpful in adjusting to the pressures
which many students will experience in law school.
Perhaps the most difficult task in reading a recommendation is
interpreting the significance of such statements as "excellent,"
"outstanding," "highest recommendation," and "recommended without
qualification." Such terms may indicate meaningful distinctions among
applicants supported by the same writer, but a law school may not be
familiar with the way in which a particular reference ranks applicants.
This uncertainty can be compounded where an admissions committee
receives a standard letter which is submitted to a number of different
law schools. Is the degree of support directed to the most selective or
the least selective of the schools to which the applicant has applied?
Occasionally a committee member will know the faculty member writing a
recommendation. In those situations it is generally easier to evaluate
the degree of enthusiasm for a particular applicant. It is far more
often the case, however, that the most significant contact with an
institution will be familiarity with its graduates who have attended the
law school in recent years. Thus, a comparison of an applicant with
other graduates the Committee knows from the same institute may provide
a more accurate assessment of the applicant's potential for success than
the objective factors of the Law School Admission Test score and the
undergraduate grade point average. In weighing the overall assessment
made by a reference it is also helpful to know how confident the writer
is of his or her own judgement about a particular applicant.
As law school admission committees are occasionally reminded by those
who submit recommendations, the task of ultimately selecting the most
promising students for a law school is the school's and not theirs.
Helpful letters, however, can make this task easier.