Most law schools require two letters of recommendation. You need to think strategically in choosing the people you ask to write those letters.
If you are applying to law school directly from college, or a few years out, your letters should most likely be from faculty who have taught you in class. If you have graduated from college more than a few years ago and have been working, you may submit a professional letter of recommendation, but submit an academic one as well, if possible.
If you have been active in a particular organization, either on campus or in your community, a letter from someone who can speak to your service, leadership, and commitment would be an excellent supplemental letter to your academic and/or professional letters.
Depending upon your individual situation, you may even benefit from submitting an optional third letter to certain schools. This is most likely to be advantageous in a situation where your first two recommendations aren’t quite adequate to substantiate a story theme or ‘wow’ factor, to highlight your strengths, or (possibly) to mitigate your weaknesses.
Focus on Your ‘What,’ Not Their ‘Who’
The best letters of recommendation – the ones that can make a difference in the admission process – are those that provide detailed examples of the applicant’s writing, critical reasoning, analytical, and research skills – i.e., the skills that are necessary for success in law school.
It is also advantageous for the applicant if the writer can discuss how the applicant contributed to his or her class and show that the applicant was prepared, engaged, and a frequent participator in class discussions. (If the writer is a supervisor or employer instead of a professor, they should discuss how the applicant contributed to the organization or company on a daily basis, or to specific projects.) Admissions committees are looking for students who are going to be engaged in the classroom and in the life of the law school community – not passive observers who merely do their “homework” and show up to class every day.
The person who can write the most effective letter of recommendation is the person who knows the applicant the best. That person may be the TA for a particular class as opposed to the professor. That person may be an office manager or legislative aide as opposed to the senator.
The mistake that applicants often make with letters of recommendation is that they think “who” the writer is makes a difference to the admissions committee. They will ask a judge, a senator, or the chairman of the political science department to write their letter instead of asking the person with whom they worked directly. What matters to the admissions committee is the content of the letter, not who signed it. Again, the more specific and detailed the letter is, the better. Be sure you are asking the “right” person to write your letter.
It is important that applicants be proactive in order to get the best letters of recommendation. They should set up a meeting – in person if possible, otherwise via telephone – with the people they intend to ask for letters of recommendation. Applicants need to ask: Can you write a strong letter of recommendation for me? Do you have time to do it? How can I make it easier for you?
Faculty, in particular, get asked for many letters of recommendation. They are also busy with research and teaching, or they may be on sabbatical. It is important that the applicant also gives these and other writers plenty of lead time to get the letters written and submitted.
The admission process is perhaps most frequently delayed because a letter of recommendation has not been received by the admissions office. The applicant can make it easier for the writer by providing her resume and, perhaps, examples of work that were done for the writer. Making the request via a meeting also gives the applicant an opportunity to discuss his goals, career interests, and the schools to which he or she is planning to apply.
But Be Timely, Too
You want to request your letters of recommendation early enough to guarantee that your application receives timely consideration. However, you also want to make sure that your letters complement the rest of your profile and support your case for admission. That means that you should complete at least a rough draft of your personal statement and any necessary addenda before approaching your recommenders. Your recommenders can draw on those drafts to tailor the content of their letters to your needs, “filling” any “gaps” left by the rest of your file. It is critical for you to take the same holistic view of your application that the admissions committees will.
Save Something for a Rainy Day
Finally, if you are fortunate enough to have more than two people who are able to write strong, detailed letters of recommendation for you, it is often wise to save at least one letter for later. You may get waitlisted at your top choice school. When that school reviews applicants on its waitlist for admission in the late spring or summer, the admissions officers will be looking to see that you updated your file with additional information. An outstanding letter of recommendation, particularly one that provides a different perspective than your original letters, might get you off the waitlist and into your dream school’s next incoming class.