Guidelines for Faculty Writing Law School References

The following guidelines for faculty represent suggestions made at meetings of prelaw advisors and admissions officers. The CWS encourages students to provide a copy of this section to faculty members who are writing letters of reference for them.

Law schools will accept a general letter of reference, which allows faculty recommenders to write one letter per applicant and send it to the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) Credential Assembly Service (CAS). The applicant will provide you with the LSAC form that must accompany your letter. When you send a letter directly to the CAS, it is very helpful to also send a copy to the Center for Work and Service where it will become part of the applicant’s record. In a few instances, you may wish to write a targeted letter of reference addressing the strong fit between an applicant and a particular law school. You may send both your targeted and general letters to the CAS, each accompanied by its own LSAC form provided to you by the applicant.

In 2010, the LSAC launched an online “Evaluator” service, which the law schools may use as a form of reference in addition to the more traditional letter. Law schools using the Evaluator option typically do so alongside the traditional letter of reference. The applicant will tell you what she needs.

References for law school provide assistance to all candidates. They are particularly important when admissions committees have to choose among applicants whose grades and LSAT scores are similar. The schools need to know what in an applicant’s background, classroom work, extracurricular activities, or other experience makes her unique and distinguished from other applicants.

Law schools look for: motivation for law, high intelligence, superior analytical and critical thinking, curiosity, persistence, realism, flexibility, independence, self-discipline, stability, high competitiveness, and integrity. The views below, taken from "Recommendation Letters," written by Richard Badger, Associate Dean for Graduate Programs, University of Chicago Law School, express the sentiments of many admissions committees:

Legal education and the legal profession...emphasize some skills over others and the following comments may help writers who are not familiar with these distinctions:

Language is the lawyer’s working tool and the best law students are those who have the ability to write and speak with precision, fluency and economy. Not only must the student be able to communicate his or her own thoughts clearly, but he or she must have the ability to read and listen carefully with an eye and ear for fine points and subtle distinctions.

Legal education demands well developed analytical skills and the ability to juggle multiple variables. Legal reasoning at one time or another involves deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning and reasoning by analogy. The best students can think independently, have the ability to cut through to the essentials and can distinguish the relevant from the extraneous. Contrary to what many believe about the law, there are few clear and distinct legal rules. A tolerance for this ambiguity and the ability to recognize exceptions and qualifications which may modify general rules are characteristics of successful law students. In short, a reference should consider whether an applicant is likely to be stimulated or frustrated by questions where there are no correct answers.

The nature of legal education-- large classes, competitive pressure, and substantial amounts of material to be mastered-- may make some personality traits more important in law school than in other academic programs. Students will often learn as much from their classmates as from the faculty. Thus, interaction among students is an important feature of legal education and those who enjoy engaging in discussion in and outside of class are more likely to flourish in this atmosphere. The student who is intellectually alive and curious is more likely to sustain academic progress where there is little reinforcement between examinations. A student must be diligent and well organized to handle large quantities of material. A well developed sense of humor and a mature attitude are particularly helpful in adjusting to the pressures which many students will experience in law school.

A strong letter of reference will discuss how long and in what capacity you have known the applicant, her strengths, unusual aspects of her background that might enhance her academic work, and significant extracurricular involvement during her college years. Discuss the applicant’s academic background in greater detail than a listing of courses. If you know that she has taken the most rigorous academic series, or has chosen to complete a very demanding individual project, relay these matters to the admissions committee. Some valid information may come more gracefully from you than from the applicant. The applicant may have gotten a B in a very difficult course in which B was the highest grade given. She may have been the most effective student member of a committee. She may have had a bad semester for valid personal reasons. She may have carried job responsibilities going well beyond what the job title indicates. Such information may be difficult for the applicant to state without sounding immodest or defensive.

Admissions officers really want to know what a person is like. Specific examples are more valuable than generalities.