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How to Get a Compelling Letter of Recommendation for Law School

Ilana Kowarski, Delece Smith-Barrow

A law school letter of recommendation is only one component of a J.D. application. There are many other factors in the law school admissions process that have nothing to do with recommendation letters, such as academic transcripts, personal statements, resumes and law school entrance exam results.

Recommendation letters are usually less emphasized than LSAT scores and GPAs, according to law school admissions experts. Nevertheless, these experts urge J.D. hopefuls to take steps to ensure that recommendation letters in their application bolster their argument for acceptance.

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Purpose of a Law School Recommendation Letter

"The letter of recommendation is really a piece of supporting evidence to the argument that is the rest of your application," says Jeff Thomas, executive director of admissions programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

Thomas adds that although an excellent recommendation letter is not usually sufficient on its own to get a law school hopeful accepted into his or her dream school, a poor reference letter is a red flag for J.D. admissions officers.

"It is not the piece of the application that is going to make it, but it could potentially break it," he says.

Why the Recommendation Letter Matters

Law school officials say that a reference letter can help to contextualize the rest of a J.D. application.

Elena Langan, dean and professor of law with the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center at Touro College in New York, notes that a recommendation letter can provide insight into characteristics of candidates that they might not be able to express when describing themselves.

For instance, an employer could speak about a J.D. applicant's resilience in the face of adversity in the workplace, and a professor could discuss an applicant's tenacity in a difficult course, Langan says.

What Makes a Great Recommendation Letter

Generally speaking, the most eloquent recommendation letters are written by people who have observed an applicant's work and witnessed the applicant's growth, admissions experts say.

For example, Langan recalls reading an outstanding recommendation letter whose author was the long-time mentor of a student who had spent time in foster care.

[Read: 3 Signs You've Chosen the Wrong Law School Reference.]

"The person who was writing the reference knew that individual's personal history and was able to talk about how, despite not coming from a very stable childhood background, how they were able to excel in a variety of different activities, including sports, which shows a lot of discipline, and had done extremely well in college , also," she says.

The letter showed the applicant's progression as a person and demonstrated the applicant's ability to cope with serious challenges, Langan says.

Comeback Stories

Anna Ivey, founder of the Ivey Consulting admissions advisory company and a former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School, says the most memorable recommendation letters describe an applicant's persistence and grit.

"Some of the best letters I remember from my days as an admissions officer were from professors who were able to talk about the applicant's academic failure and how he or she crawled out of whatever hole had been dug and ultimately ended up excelling," Ivey wrote in an email.

One striking recommendation letter Ivey recalls described an applicant's struggle with calculus and eagerness to learn by attending instructor office hours and revisiting basic math concepts.

"Grad school will throw lots of curveballs, so it's great to see evidence that someone can stick with it, get help, and turn the situation around," Ivey wrote.

Detailed Testimonials

Effective recommendation letters provide descriptive anecdotes about applicants, says Dave Killoran, CEO of PowerScore, a test prep and admissions consulting firm.

"When I review a letter of recommendation, you'd think that a phrase such as 'the applicant is an excellent student' would be compelling," Killoran wrote in an email. "But it really isn't. Why? Because it is so generalized it could apply to hundreds of students. What you want instead is specifics, such as, 'The applicant is one of the finest students I have ever taught in my lengthy career, and would rank among my five best students of all-time.' Both statements tell you the applicant is a great student, but only one of those two has you scrambling to admit that applicant."

Killoran said the best recommendation letter he has ever encountered was written by a U.S. ambassador about his personal aide.

[Read: Why Is It So Hard to Get Into a Top Law School?]

"He recounted multiple instances where the applicant had saved him from both simple gaffes and potentially embarrassing international incidents!" Killoran wrote. "It was clear they had a close working relationship, and he closed the letter with a heartfelt plea for the law school not to accept his aide simply because he didn't want to lose him and had already offered him several promotions to stay."

Ivey notes that most J.D. recommendation letters aren't particularly effective because they are "very generic," so specificity is a crucial component of an excellent recommendation.

Evidence of Growth

Letters that describe an applicant's personal development can help humanize the applicant, experts say.

Tony Bates, former law school admissions consultant for PowerScore and a former assistant director of admissions for the law schools at New York University, the University of Michigan and the University of Washington, says that the best academic recommendation letter he has seen discussed the applicant's growth as a college student.

"The professor chose to compare two projects that the student worked on, one from the first class (early on in the student's program) and one from the last class (just before graduation) and used them to illustrate the growth of the student over time," Bates wrote in an email.

"She also supplemented her analysis of the student's written work with her thoughts on the student's personal characteristics that would make her a good fit for law school, and did so through the lens of an outside service organization that both she and the student volunteered at."

Asha Rangappa, a former associate dean of admissions and financial aid at Yale Law School who is now a senior lecturer and director of admissions at Yale's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, said that she was impressed by recommendation letters that highlighted an applicant's ability to rebound from criticism and improve academic performance.

"The student might have turned in a paper and maybe they didn't do so well, but they come in and they find out what they could do better and then they really put in the work to get better and to really improve, and they make that effort over time that is reflected in the grade," Rangappa said.

Academic recommendations are an essential component of the law school's admissions process, she said, adding that faculty members review applications and seek students who will be a pleasure to teach.

Traits like intellectual curiosity, writing ability and a history of confronting academic challenges with enthusiasm help applicants stand out to faculty members who are reviewing law school applications, Rangappa explained.

How to Ask For a Recommendation Letter

Admissions experts say prospective law students should take the following steps when requesting law school recommendations.

Make sure the recommendation will be positive. "Have the confidence to ask the professor whether they will give you a good recommendation," says Kim O'Brien, assistant director of admission at Concordia University School of Law in Idaho. O'Brien has seen letters that were less favorable and described a recommender's doubts about a candidate.

"If you're not going to see it, you want to make sure that this person will be supportive," she says.

Reyes Aguilar, associate dean for admission and financial aid at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney School of Law, says an applicant should not only ask for a letter of recommendation, but for an excellent letter of recommendation.

"By putting that qualifier on there, a letter writer knows what the expectations are," he says.

Aguilar suggests applicants meet with the letter writer for 30 minutes before the writing process starts to make sure the writer is aware of a candidate's strong and weak points.

Candidates should be prepared to discuss why they want to go to law school, he says, and how they decided where to apply. They should also bring a resume, transcripts and an outline of their personal statement.

Choose quality over quantity. The norm is to submit two recommendation letters, Ivey says. "Don't submit more unless you have a good reason for it," she adds.

Lynda Cevallos, an attorney and the director of prelaw educational activities with the Council on Legal Education Opportunity -- a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support aspiring lawyers who come from minority and low-income backgrounds -- says three may be acceptable in certain cases. However, Cevallos urges J.D. candidates to make sure that each letter is distinct.

"You might say, 'OK, this professor I've known for two years. This professor can write about how I developed academically in his or her classroom.' There might be another one that talks about what a great speaker the student is," she says. "There might be another one that talks about academically how well this student did when there was a tough class."

Select references who can write about specific qualities. A letter from a congressman or judge may not have much weight if it's evident that the writer doesn't know the applicant well.

"It becomes an empty letter of recommendation," says Cevallos. "It's a missed opportunity for the student."

Ivey says it's important that the person writing the letter be able to speak candidly about the candidate. "What matters is the substance of the letter," she says. "The ones that really made a difference were the ones that were specific and gave examples to support their opinion of the applicant."

Build a relationship with potential references. Prospective students "should always be working to cultivate relationships with professors," says O'Brien, who suggests candidates try to find teachers rather than friends or colleagues who will recommend them.

O'Brien says undergraduate students can go to a professor's office during open hours and participate in classroom discussions. Candidates that have already graduated can update former teachers on their current jobs and course work they've taken since completing their bachelor's degree, she adds.

Get recommendations in early. It can take two weeks for the Law School Admission Council to process a recommendation letter, Ivey notes.

"I would pick the date by which you plan to submit your application," she says, "and go a month before that for your recommendation."

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