Writing letters of recommendation is an important professional service that professors provide for eligible students. I take these letters seriously when asked to write them and I become interested in how well the letter helps a student seeking some type of professional advancement (e.g. an internship, a job, graduate school, or law school). To that end, the letter I write requires a commitment from me to make sure that I’m helping you as best I can.
Before asking me to write a letter of recommendation, I encourage the student to take the following into consideration before sending a request to meet about a letter of recommendation.
- Do I know you? This sounds like an odd question to ask, but it’s important from my perspective. Any letter I write will have to communicate the extent to which I know you and have evaluated your work as it relates to your qualifications for the position you want. Vain as it sounds, prima facie, but you know me. I may have been one of four or five professors you had in a given semester. You may have liked my class and you may take pride in the grade you got for the course. From my perspective, though, you may be one of 70-300 students I had in a given semester for the sum of classes I teach and I could not recall your performance off the top of my head without having to look at my gradebook. I like to think my recollection is great for my best students and that I’ve demonstrated to students my willingness to know who they are on a first name basis. However, my memory fades over time. Basically, don’t bother asking if you were a student in a class that was a large lecture hall. Don’t bother asking if your class was one for which a graduate assistant handled the grades unless you contributed much to in-class discussion or frequently talked to me during office hours about the class. Don’t take it personally, but I just won’t know who you are.
- What grade did you get in my class or classes? If you didn’t get at least an A- in all my classes, I wouldn’t ask if I were you.
- Do you need my letter of recommendation? I like to think I am invested in students I believe have potential, but my reference may not necessarily be the best for you. If, for example, you got an A in two of my classes, but you have three other professors for whom you have worked on research projects, their letters will be much more effective than my letter. They can say more about you. Further, if you got an A- in one of my classes, but got an A in another class with a more senior professor and had more interaction with that professor, that letter will be better than the letter I write. Your references are supposed to be about you and what will be most effective in helping you get something you want. If I can’t help you better than someone else can, don’t ask me. You may have liked me or my class, but someone else could provide a better professional service for you.
If you still believe my reference would be best for you after taking these questions into consideration, contact me via e-mail and ask to arrange a meeting. If you were a student of mine from another institution at which I am no longer affiliated, we can schedule a meeting via Skype or Google+. Importantly, I do want to talk with you about what exactly you want. I don’t feel like an e-mail communication would be sufficient.
Here are some additional points to consider before we meet about a letter of recommendation.
- The more time you give me to write a letter of recommendation, the better. I am very busy. I will not write a letter of recommendation for you if you do not give me four weeks to write one. If you contact me about writing a letter on the fly for an application that has a deadline over the weekend, the answer is no. Always be prepared. True preparation comes from being prepared well ahead of time.
- E-mail me a CV and personal statement so I can keep them on file. If I write a letter for you, I can only speak to my experience with you as your professor. However, if you provide me a CV, I can discuss strengths of your résumé as it relates to your professional aspirations in my letter. This will make your letter appear much stronger.
- I strongly encourage working on your personal statement — a lot. If you are still enrolled in your university, I would talk a lot with the university’s writing center, career center, or pre-law organization, if I were you. Your personal statement is critical to your file. It is your pitch to your law school of choice or your future boss why you are great and why you should be selected. Work on it.
- Where applicable, waive your right to view the letter I write for you. If you do not do this, those reading my letter will have some skepticism about the letter’s authenticity or my sincerity.
On Law School
If you want a letter of recommendation for law school, we will have to have a long talk about what you hope to get from a J.D. I am going to make you read every horrible thing about the current state of law school education before we proceed any further. This will include things like this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this, as well as anything else I can find. If, after reading these, you still want to go the law school route, that’s great. Let’s talk. These days, law school is as much a lottery as it is a career stepping stone. I want to make sure you know well your reasons for wanting a J.D.
If the answer to the above statement was, “yes, I still want to go to law school”, I have reason to believe the student did not seriously consider the question. What follows is a list of warnings from people I know who have juris doctorates and are practicing attorneys themselves in various fields of criminal, corporate, international, and taxation law. They allowed me (and even encouraged me) to (anonymously) relay these warnings to prospective law students.
- Does what you want require a J.D.? If the answer is no, don’t go to law school. Do you think law school might be something that interests you? If so, don’t go to law school. Are you interested in law school because you don’t have anything else to do or don’t think you can do something else? If so, then don’t go to law school. If you absolutely know you want to be a lawyer to the exclusion of all other professional opportunities, then, under those conditions, you should pursue the law school route. Do know you are going to incur a six-figure brick of debt you will be paying back the rest of your life.
- What do you know of law school? How many lawyers do you know personally or are in your family? Is your only exposure to the legal profession and law school from awful shows like Ally McBeal or Boston Legal? If so, do some research. Do a lot of research. Connections are important when making the jump from law school to firm. Most lawyers, and definitely the ones I know, aren’t interested in law students unless they already know them or the law student is willing to work for free. Laws of supply and demand are always in effect. There is presently a glut of J.Ds that do not approximate the negligible demand for new lawyers.
- Do you want a life? Law school might not be for you. How well you do as a 1L will entrench you in a position as a 3L. Movement in your class is difficult as a 2L and 3L. If you’re not top 10% of your class as 1L, you won’t be as a 3L. As a 3L, you’ll be fighting for the scraps of jobs that the 10% don’t accept. There’s an opportunity cost to every law school happy hour or other social event you attend. While you are trying to enjoy your vicenarian years, another student is in the library, doing research, and getting better than you.
- How much do you know about the legal profession? Are you aware that most of your time will be spent huddled over a desk, by yourself? This is true even for high litigation positions like city prosecutors and criminal defense attorneys. I love Perry Mason too, but that is far from an adequate representation of what the legal profession is like. Legal work is boring.
- Again, what do you want to do with your life that you believe requires a J.D.? If you’re a political science graduate and have an interest in politics, it is highly likely you don’t need a J.D. and the six-figure debt that comes in tow. Do you want to work for Housing and Urban Development? Get a Masters in urban planning. Do you want to work for the Department of State? Get a Masters in diplomacy or public policy and pick up a second language. It is also worth noting the Department of State is less interested in familiar languages like Spanish and Italian than it is in “critical languages” like Azerbaijani and Korean. French is ubiquitous and useful but only if you are interested in the politics of a former French colony like those in Sub-Saharan Africa.
I cannot stress this enough: the average law school debt is over $100,000 for a three-year post-graduate education. You can negotiate a repayment plan, but that will be about $450 a month for 20 years. That’s assuming you land a job that pays $50,000, which is about the median salary for a graduating J.D.1 Think carefully if law school is right for you and if you need that level of debt. Post-graduate education is becoming necessary in a lot of respects, but could your needs be best served by graduate school?
If you want a letter of recommendation for graduate school, think what you want from graduate school. Do you want a Ph.D. or just a Masters? Do you want to be an academic or are you just wanting another certificate to help ratchet up your salary a couple thousand dollars? What questions do you have that motivate your belief you want to go the academic route? In the interest of full disclosure, everything I have said to this point about the glut of J.D.s can also be said about the glut of political science Ph.Ds.
When it comes time to actually start sending letters to internship programs or law/graduate school, make sure I have all the materials I need well ahead of time to make sure your letters arrive on time, preferably early. Never do anything like this at the eleventh hour. Be prepared. Don’t rely on me to send a letter on 48 hours notice, because I won’t.
Finally, let me know if my letters ultimately help you in your professional aspirations. It’s an investment of my time to write these letters and I care very much about the students for whom I provide my name as a reference. I like to know when that investment has paid dividends. Please, feel free to keep in touch.
This statement comes with a few qualifications. Namely, the distribution of salaries among new J.Ds is bimodal. Those that are selected into the most prestigious private practice firms typically make $100,000 more than the median, though this trend is plummeting rapidly right now and shows no signs of improvement in the foreseeable future. Think accordingly. ↩