Law School Letters of Recommendation: 4 Key Questions Answered

    Law School Admissions

    Law School letters of recommendation advice from PowerScore admissions experts!Recently, US News and World Report contacted PowerScore with questions about the law school admissions process, and specifically about letters of recommendation. Since their final magazine article didn’t use the entirety of our answers, we thought we’d post them here for you to use!

    Below are the four main questions we were asked, with each question followed by two separate responses. The first reply is from Dave Killoran, PowerScore’s CEO and co-author of the forthcoming PowerScore Law School Admissions Bible, and the second is from Tony Bates, PowerScore Law School Admissions Consultant.

    Here are the four questions and corresponding answers:

    1. What distinguishes a great recommendation letter from a merely good letter?

    Dave Killoran: PowerScore’s CEO, and an LSAT and law school admissions expert with over 20 years' experience. He is also the author of the forthcoming PowerScore Law School Admissions Bible.

    Details. Good letters of recommendation only give you a general impression of the person applying whereas great letters show deep knowledge of the applicant, and include stories and anecdotes that indicate that the writer truly knows the person well. When I review a letter of recommendation, you’d think that a phrase such as “the applicant is an excellent student” would be compelling. 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.

    Tony Bates: PowerScore’s Head Law School Admissions Consultant. A graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, he first practiced as an attorney in a large New York firm before then spending the next five years as the Assistant Director of Admissions at three top law schools: the University of Michigan, New York University, and the University of Washington.

    A great recommendation letter for law schools will come from a person who really knows the applicant well in an academic or professional context, and who can speak to the applicant's strengths within a broader context. It's always nice to see, for example, when a professor can say "Jane is among the top 1% of all students I have ever taught."


    2. How can applicants identify a recommender who will write them an exceptional letter? Are there things they can do to maximize their chances of getting an exemplary recommendation?

    Dave Killoran:

    The most important quality in a potential recommender is how well he or she knows you. If someone is going to write with authority and detail on you as a potential student, then that person must know you as well as possible. That means your relationship has to have a personal component as well as an academic or professional one. Are you considering a professor as a possible recommender? Then hopefully you’ve gotten to know her outside of class. Maybe that was through office hours, or maybe through a casual lunch or departmental meeting.

    To maximize your opportunities you first have to extend yourself socially and put yourself out there. You need to invite that professor to lunch or ask to meet your boss after work for a drink. In other words, you have to be in a position to cultivate a personal relationship with potential recommenders. The second thing you can do is give your recommender a written overview of what a good recommendation will look like (lots of details!) as well as a recap of some of your achievements and any work you have done with or for that person.

    Tony Bates:

    A good letter needs to come from someone who can comment substantively on the quality of your work in an academic or professional context. I think the first step here is to do exemplary work (this is the part that gets skipped over by applicants looking for a simple answer), then ask the person who directly supervised the applicant to write the letter. Note that the quality of the letter has to do with how closely the writer supervised the applicant's work—it's always better to get a letter from a middle manager who directly supervised an applicant than from the CEO of the company who doesn't know the applicant well at all.


    3. Are there recommendation letters that you have encountered over the course of your career that stick with you? What made them special?

    Dave Killoran:

    Admissions committees see thousands of letters of recommendation every year, so finding a way to distinguish yours in a positive way from countless others is critical. Let me relay some that come to mind as standouts, both good and bad. The best ones are generally the most personal, and one that comes immediately to mind was from a US ambassador to a European country writing a recommendation for his personal aide. He recounted multiple instances where the applicant had saved him from both simple gaffes and potentially embarrassing international incidents! 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.

    And the bad? Every year I see a few letters that would qualify as entries in an "autograph book." These are letters from high-ranking politicians, business leaders, lawyers, or academics that are chosen for their name recognition value, but clearly demonstrate in their letter that they don't know the applicant well at all. One included the phrase, “While I’ve never met the applicant, I know his parents well, and on that basis I am sure he is a fine young man.” Fortunately we stopped the applicant from having that letter sent out, but had it gone to a law school, it would have meant certain and instant application death! Sadly these bad examples are far more common than the truly exceptional letter I’ve described above, but that means applicants who can identify and secure great recommendations have a great opportunity to stand out from the crowd.

     Tony Bates:

    Here are two statements that have stuck with me, one academic and one professional:

    In the academic letter, a professor wrote about how the student took four classes with her over the course of the student's undergraduate career. 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. 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.

    In the professional letter, I received one from a middle manager of an engineering firm who wrote about the applicant's work on a big complicated project that involved multiple teams at the firm. The manager wrote in some detail about the applicant's role on his specific team, showing he took ownership of his work and showing the leadership skills he used to gain results from teammates. The manager also wrote about how the applicant was able to work collaboratively across teams at the firm, and highlighted specific instances where the applicant's personal characteristics allowed them to forge connections in the field.

    In both instances, the key traits of the letters are relevance and specificity. Law schools are looking for specific evidence that the applicant will succeed in school, in practice, or both. The better a recommender knows an applicant, the more likely it is they'll be able to provide that crucial anecdote that clearly demonstrates the applicant's suitability for law school.

    4. As a general rule, are there certain types of stories (such as comeback stories) or details (such as a detail that illustrates character or the capacity to innovate) that tend to produce strong recommendation letters? Do strong recommendation letters tend to have any trait in common?

    Dave Killoran:

     Strong letters tend to be very personal, very detailed, and very complimentary. If presented correctly, any type of story can meet those criteria, and thus it’s not so much about the content but the manner of execution. These letters speak to the character of the applicant and the applicant’s ability to succeed in law school and the legal profession. So, stories of overcoming adversity offer a natural platform to talk about traits that are positive from an admissions perspective. Specific discussions of large projects and papers can also be helpful, but an excellent recommender could write about the applicant walking dogs or cleaning up an empty lot and make a compelling case.

     Tony Bates:

    In the law school admissions context, evidence of the quality of the applicant's work is what an admissions officer is looking for in the letter of recommendation. So it's helpful, for example, if a professor can comment on a specific paper or project that the student excelled at. Perhaps there was a time when the student visited during office hours to discuss a difficult topic and came away with a greater understanding. If the letter is coming from a work supervisor, it's helpful to hear about any specific tasks or projects the applicant worked on that demonstrate the applicant's writing or analytic capabilities, or their ability to work well with others.


    After the four main questions had been asked, Dave added one last point:

    Dave Killoran:

    I know this isn’t on your list, but one aspect of recommendations that can be extremely useful is that they can be used to address negatives in an application in a way that eliminates that negative. For example, if an applicant has had a spell of academic trouble, one of the best ways to remove any questions about those low grades is to have a professor talk about the reasons why they occurred. That reassures the admissions committee and at the same time helps the applicant avoid apologizing for poor performance (which isn’t a mental association you want to create). I once read a letter where the professor stated that, “He would never tell you this, but the reason his grades dropped sophomore year was due to his mother’s extended illness. She lived eight hours from campus and he spent every weekend by her side for the whole year.” That explanation not only erased concerns over the student’s performance, it created a compelling picture of an applicant capable of balancing commitments in the face of adversity, and doing so bravely. Thus, whenever we work with applicants who have negatives in their application, this is one approach we consider because it can be incredibly powerful and persuasive.

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