Most law schools require applicants to submit letters of recommendation to gain a different perspective on the applicant’s academic strength and personal qualities.  Admissions officers find most helpful specific examples of applicants’ motivation and intellectual curiosity, an assessment of communication skills, and a comparison with peers. Below are 10 guidelines to follow when asked to write a letter of recommendation for a law school candidate.

  1. If you feel that you cannot write a good, informative letter for the applicant, you should not do so. It is better to say no; you will save yourself the time to write the letter and save the law school the time to read it. You will also save the student potentially negative conclusions drawn by the admissions committee when they read an overly general or lukewarm letter.
  2. Ask the student to provide you with a resume and copies of old work (exams, papers, projects) and his/her grades for your courses. Use these to provide details for the letter.
  3. The letter should focus on the student’s academic abilities, particularly his/her analytical ability and writing ability. The law school wants to know if your student has the intellectual capacity and skills to be successful in law school. Some things you might consider discussing include:

    • Writing ability
    • Research ability
    • Ability to work independently
    • Ability to undertake and successfully complete a major project
    • Analytical ability (especially to form and defend opinions)
    • Insight/ability to pose pertinent questions
    • Reflection/balance in forming opinions
    • Expository skills/ability to persuade others
    • Leadership (in the classroom, or on projects)
    • Attention to detail

  4. Provide evidence and detail to support your claims about the student: "He’s a skilled writer, as demonstrated in his 15-page research paper on abolishing the Electoral College. In that essay, he persuasively argued against abolishment, making excellent use of secondary source materials. His approach to the topic was balanced and thoughtful; he persuasively argued both sides of the issue before concluding that the Electoral College should be abolished.”
  5. If possible, compare the student to others you have had. (among the best I’ve taught; top 15% of all my students in my twenty-year career, etc.).
  6. You can describe the student’s personality, but do not spend a lot of time on it. The law schools really want to know whether your student can succeed academically; personality issues are less important to them. They are worth mentioning, but briefly.
  7. A letter of 1-2 pages is ideal. A letter of 1-2 sentences is not, even if that letter says, “She is the best applicant you will see this year.”  Believe it or not, some law schools are suspicious of such direct short claims, thinking of them as a signal that something else is going on.
  8. If there is a grid, and if you can fill it out, do so. Law schools find grids helpful in comparing applicants. Of course, if you think that the grid will hurt the student, you may choose not to complete it; it’s your option.
  9. Your student should waive his/her right to see your letter.  Non-confidential letters are basically discredited by law schools, and you may request that the student sign a waiver form. 
  10. You should not judge your students on the basis of things such as race, ethnicity, gender, creed, sexual orientation, marital status, or disability. If you want to say that your student will add diversity to the class, that’s fine, but bear in mind that different schools have different definitions of diversity.   For example, Asian-American students do not add racial diversity to a California law school like they would to a southern one.  

The student’s application and personal statement give ample space to discuss the student’s unique contributions to the entering class. Stay focused on his/her demonstrated skills and intellectual potential, as these are the most useful and persuasive letters.  You should, of course, feel free to personalize your letters, particularly for students you know well. You can tell stories of triumph and tragedy, but avoid stereotypes and excessive discussion of personal traits.