In this blog post, Jimmy (one of our Harvard JDs) answers four frequently asked questions about the process for acquiring your letters of recommendation for a JD application.
I get a lot of questions from students about letters of recommendation for law school. While the LSAT and GPA are clearly the most important components of all law school applications, every piece of material matters, and you should work to make sure each piece is in top shape. Below I’ll answer some of the questions I get asked most often.
1. When should I start thinking about letters of recommendation?
That one is simple – the sooner is the better! Try to begin building relationships with faculty early in college. Take a couple classes with the same professor, try and find a small seminar with them, maybe ask about research or extra-curricular opportunities they might have. The longer and more in-depth relationship you’ve had with someone, the better the letter will be.
2. When should I ask for them?
No matter what, do your best to give each letter writer at least a month’s notice. Two weeks is the absolute minimum, and that should really be for someone who knows you well. If you are still in college but thinking about applying a few years out, I’d suggest asking during your senior year. Tell the professor about your plans, and see if they’d be willing to write it now, and hold on to it until you’re read to submit. I’ve found that most are generally pretty willing (it makes their life easier too – writing a letter when the material is fresh rather than a few years out takes less time). If you are asking a current boss, try to ask at a natural leaving point to avoid any workplace ramifications from letting people know you plan to leave. Are you in an industry where most people leave after two years? Asking after 18 months of employment, then, would be a good time.
3. Who should I be asking?
This is the question I get asked most frequently. My rule of thumb is that you need at least one academic letter – preferably from a full-time faculty member (assistant, associate, or full professors). Law schools are generally extremely academic places, and the want to make sure that your academic credentials are up to snuff. As for the other letter – this can be a second professor (this is the advice I typically give my students), or an extra-curricular leader, coach, boss, or someone else who has seen you work. The further out from college you are, the less important the academic letter is. That said, unless you are more than 10 years out, I suggest doing your absolute best to get one. In terms of the trade-off between a “big name” and “the person who knows you better,” it depends on how big the quality of letter gap will be. If there will be a massive difference in letter quality, go with the TA who really has a sense of you. If the professor knows you pretty well, law schools are nothing if not prestige-oriented. There can be a real benefit to having a big name letter writer. Another option is to ask a TA and a professor together – they may be willing to “co-sign” a letter on your behalf.
4. Should I guide them on content?
Absolutely, yes! Letter writers appreciate guidance. Before asking, make sure to send them a draft of your personal statement and resume. Tell them why you are applying to law school (but that should have been covered in your statement)! Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the thing you want to vary across letters is subject areas, not writing quality. That means each letter will hopefully speak to different strengths. For example, maybe a thesis adviser will focus on your academic potential. A seminar professor can talk about your keen writing ability and strong work ethic. A supervisor can discuss your personal character and leadership capacity. You don’t want the letters to sound repetitive, and giving your writers some guidance on subjects to cover is usually a good strategy for avoiding this repetition!
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