Letters of Recommendation

It seems like there are a million things to think about when applying to law school. Personal statements. Essays. Transcripts. Resumes. All those applications. No matter how streamlined the process may have become, I’m continually impressed by just how labor intensive it can be, and letters of recommendation seem to be, year-in, year-out, one of the aspects of applying to law school applicants find most daunting.

Before we move on to the “who” part of the letter of recommendation process, let’s begin with the “how many”: Specifically, how many letters of recommendation should you submit? This is a fairly common question, and to be honest, every year, we see applications with six or seven (or more) letters of recommendation (this is way too many, by the way). We require two letters of recommendation, but we will accept as many as you wish to include with your file. As a cautionary note, however, we encourage all applicants to identify two recommenders who really know them well, and any more than three letters of recommendation often proves too much.

While we appreciate the multiple perspectives additional letters often provide, we only have a limited time to spend with each file, and too many letters can potentially do your application a disservice. Lawyers are decision-makers, and during the application process you may have to make some tough decisions. For example, rather than having six people write recommendations on your behalf, pick the two or three recommenders among this number who can provide the best and most complete picture of you as an applicant and a future law student. Two good letters will say far more than seven average ones, and making this choice now will save you from frustrating and offending your file’s reviewer (always a good thing).

So, now that we’ve discussed how many, let’s talk about the “who”: Who should write your letters of recommendation? Here are a few tips:

The selection of recommenders is entirely up to you. Our only advice is that you identify two people who really know you well and can provide us with a rich and detailed sense of just who you are.

We also recommend at least one of your letters be from a professor or someone who knows your academic abilities well. It is law school after all. When you’re thinking about which instructors to ask, don’t just consider the classes in which you made an A. Think about that seminar you took last year that was really challenging or that upper-level elective that was so hard you had to go to office hours every week. Law school isn’t going to be easy, and we’re always interested in hearing about how you responded to a challenge.

If you’ve been out of school for a while, you may feel that finding a professor to write a recommendation for you may be a challenge or that this person may not be able to speak to just who you are at this particular moment in your life. If this is the case, don’t worry. At the end of the day, it’s more important that your writers know you well than that they know you from the classroom.

We want as broad and complete a feel for you as a person as possible, so hearing from two recommenders who know you from the same context is often not as helpful or informative as the perspectives of two people with whom you’ve interacted in disparate settings can be.

Don’t pick a recommender simply because you believe we will be impressed by her letterhead. Trust us, we’ve seen it all, and no matter how important the title, if the recommender doesn’t really know you, you will have wasted an opportunity to give us further perspective on you as a person. Remember. It’s not about who you know, but rather who you are. We want to get to know you.

Get organized. Give your recommenders plenty of time to write your recommendation. Do not contact them two weeks before the application deadline. They may really like you, but such timing is hardly impressive, and they do have obligations independent of writing your letter of recommendation. When you ask a recommender to write your recommendation, provide her with a copy of your resume. These “little” details can often make a tremendous difference as you put together your application and will ultimately make for a much more compelling file.

At W&L Law, we are looking for people who will be a good “fit” at our school, and this is an assessment that encompasses both the numerical and personal aspects of your application. We want students who will be able to manage the intellectual challenge of attending one of the nation’s great law schools, but we’re also looking for people who will come to campus, get involved and be good citizens. In light of this calculus, every aspect of your application matters, and we will read everything you submit. What do you want your application to say about you? What do you want us to know about you? This is your chance to answer these questions. Make it count.

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