What do Professors Look for in Law School Recommendation Letters

Most Deans of Admissions read each recommendation with three questions in mind:

Q1. How well does the writer know the applicant and the applicant's academic record?
Q2. What does the writer have to say about the applicant's abilities and characteristics which are important for success in law school?
Q3. 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 purpose of 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 and economy. 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" answers.

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.