By Tatum Wheeler • July 28, 2017•Law School, Pre-Law
Law school applications are just around the corner (some law schools begin accepting applications on September 1!) In order to prepare, you may want to check out The Law School Admission Game: Play Like an Expert, 3rd Ed. by Ann Levine, a law school admissions consultant, founder of Law School Expert, and author of the book. I had the pleasure of interviewing Ann in the past and have read both of her previous books. They provide thorough answers to many law school application questions and include helpful sample essays in an easy-to-read format.
Topics in the book include GPA and LSAT considerations, completing a resume, preparing for interviews, deciding which schools to apply to, filling out applications, navigating waitlists, and the final step of the admissions process, choosing a law school. The book is currently available in an audio version for $9.99, and the paperback version is available for pre-order on Amazon for $13.95.
While the book's official release date is August 1, Ann Levine and her Law School Expert team were kind enough to provide us with an excerpt from the book. In this sneak peek of Chapter Five, Ann offers her advice on securing those ever-important letters of recommendation:
What Is the Purpose of a Letter of Recommendation?
The people writing your letters of recommendation (LORs) are the only people who get to speak in your application other than you. This is the chance for someone to discuss your dedication, seriousness, intellectual curiosity, research and writing skills, communication skills, teamwork, presentation skills, and leadership in a way that you cannot without sounding arrogant. The best LORs are written by someone whom the reader will trust.
When selecting people (at least two, preferably three, and perhaps four for some schools), remember that it’s not who you know, it’s how you know them and what they can say about you that is meaningful to law schools. The best LOR is the (strong) academic letter. A detailed letter from a professor outlining the rigor of the class(es) you took and how you excelled in them, describing your intellectual curiosity, writing and research skills, presentation skills and/or teamwork and problem-solving skills is the best tool for law schools that are trying to ascertain whether you will make it through a rigorous law school curriculum. This is true whether you were a strong student at an elite university or a mediocre student at any school. For example, a strong academic letter can show that you are more than just a strong GPA—that you actually care about what you study, contribute meaningfully, and you are not just doing what’s necessary to earn your A.
Professors can discuss that you went above and beyond the required reading, wrote a truly insightful paper that you later turned into a thesis topic, that you came by office hours to engage in the subject matter, that you worked well with others and listened to their ideas, and that you contributed in a meaningful and appropriate way in class. A professor can also add something to the effect of “Rami compares with students whom I have had who went on to attend Stanford Law and the University of Chicago School of Law,” or “Noam is in the top 5 percent of students whom I have taught over my twenty-plus-year career at three major universities.”
A great academic letter can attest to the fact that you’re a better student than your overall GPA might predict. For example, a professor can highlight that you excel in classes that require the same skills you will need to succeed in law school, particularly in the areas of intellectual curiosity, research, writing, and interpersonal communication. Highlighting areas where you excel can bolster any addendum you may write to explain your poor pre-med grades and show that you are engaged in your studies and that you took school more seriously than law schools might assume from your GPA.
People who attend large public schools often have a hard time getting an academic letter, even if they were good students. But remember, a teaching assistant who led a discussion group, who held office hours that you attended, and who graded your work can absolutely write a meaningful letter on your behalf. However, be sure the person will write you a strong letter. Always ask, “Do you feel you could write a strong letter on my behalf?” This will give professors an escape in the event that the teacher actually doesn’t think you’re as great as you think he or she thinks you are. “Most professors are more observant than you think they are. As such, keep in mind that how you act in class may not go unnoticed. When a professor sees you texting or using your laptop inappropriately, arriving late without a good excuse, or missing class, that behavior may make an unfavorable impression,” says Ronald Den Otter, a prelaw advisor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
The prestige of the professor is not nearly as important as what he or she can say about you that is meaningful. What is meaningful?
- A description of the rigor of the course taken with the professor, including the kind of work that is required (essays, exams, research papers, group projects, etc.).
- How you stood out, contributed to classroom discussion, sought out office hours—examples that show you are a serious student who is engaged in coursework, rather than simply showing up and doing the minimum required to get a certain grade.
- An evaluation of your performance on written assignments.
- A comparison between you and other students the professor has taught you went on to law school (or even a certain level of law school).
- It is not helpful for a professor’s LOR to recount achievements or things that he or she could not have known about you firsthand. Those things can go on your resume, so that the law schools will know about these accomplishments from other parts of your application.
What If I Don’t Have a Professor to Write a Letter?
If you’ve been out of school for a while or you’re a transfer student who hasn’t had the opportunity to get to know professors at your new school or you’ve been on study abroad or simply don’t have a relationship with any of your professors, you have other options.
- A supervisor: Someone who is senior to you in a professional environment, who has supervised you in tasks related to those that make for a successful law student and/or attorney, is the next best bet besides a professor. This person should address your skills: things like managerial skills, leadership skills, communication skills, business experience, knowledge of processes of an organization, and an ability to work well with others, or an ability to solve problems proactively and responsibly. Examples of these skills are crucial to the letter’s credibility. Of course, asking your supervisor can get sticky if you don’t want your current employer to know you are applying to law school. If you feel comfortable having your supervisor write a letter for you, you should let him or her know that an LOR for law school is a different beast than the often-generic, overly broad professional reference. See a sample, later in this chapter, that you can give your supervisor, and feel free to share the tips in this book.
- An internship supervisor: If and only if you really did something impressive during your internship. If you did a run-of-the-mill errand-running, coffee-grabbing, document-editing, phone-answering grunt-work internship, it’s not likely to yield a very persuasive LOR. If you gave Capitol tours, blech. If you truly helped a constituent solve a significant problem and found the resources he or she needed and advocated the issue to the legislative assistant, who bumped it up to your Congress member, then YES on the LOR. If you were offered paid employment after the end of your internship, that’s great—but it can probably be explained sufficiently on your résumé, especially if your internship was in business or marketing or investment banking and might leave people wondering why you would leave. If you worked in a law firm or legal office, and you stayed beyond summer break and ended up supervising other interns, and so on, then I make an exception to the “no internship letter” rule, especially for people who are struggling to obtain academic letters.
- A military supervisor: Your commanding officers write great LORs because they are detailed, usually in bullet-point format, and very straightforward. I love these letters, and they help make your résumé a little more manageable, as details of your responsibilities and the number of tanks you manned/provisions you ordered can be included in the LOR.
- An alternative professor: Take or audit a college or graduate-level course and get to know the professor, even if you’re not taking it for credit.
- A professional: Someone at a nonprofit organization where you’ve contributed a significant amount of time, if the person can speak to your lengthy dedication, motivation to serve this particular organization, and contributions to the organization.
- A colleague: If you have owned your own business or been a freelancer, consider asking a professional you’ve worked closely with (such as a lawyer or accountant) who can speak to your involvement with sophisticated professional issues.
Who Should I Avoid Asking for an LOR?
I do not want to see LORs from family friends. If you think you’re an exception to this rule, you’re not. Why am I so insistent about this when your parents swear their friends will write you fabulous letters? It goes back to the purpose a letter needs to fulfill to strengthen your application. The writer is the only person who gets to talk in your application other than you. Your letter writer must say things he or she knows about you from personal experience. This is what adds credibility to the things you are saying about yourself in the rest of your application. The content of the letter must be relevant to your law school application; your mom’s tennis partner who happens to be a lawyer, judge, or state senator is not in a position to speak to those qualities.
Even if your parents are pressuring you to ask their well-meaning, successful friends for letters, please say “Thanks, but no thanks.” That nice judge who went to law school with your mom and who allowed you to “shadow” him for two hours cannot speak to your strengths and assure a law school that you have what it takes to succeed. Why not, you ask? After all, you had a really, truly, absolutely remarkable and wonderful twenty-minute conversation about law school and the practice of law wherein you are convinced you knocked his socks off? Okay, let’s imagine what that letter might say:
“As a friend of Shaina’s mother for the past twenty-two years, I have heard stories of her progress. I have heard that she has been deeply involved in her sorority and its philanthropic activities. I recently met her for coffee and perceived her to be sincerely interested in the legal profession. I was not surprised to learn that she did well on the LSAT. I am therefore confident she will make an outstanding law student.”
Blech. But if this person offers to write you a letter, there may be a way to put this connection to good use in another way. If you have time, you could arrange to work part-time for this person or take a volunteer internship. Or, if you are applying to the law school this person attended, perhaps he or she could make a phone call or send an e-mail on your behalf to one of his or her contacts at the school. Or you could say, “Thank you so much, but I already have my requisite number of letters. Could I take you up on this offer if I am wait-listed? And, perhaps, could I spend a week in your courtroom during my summer break? Or could you introduce me to any lawyers who you think would be good mentors for me as I embark on my career?” (As I discuss in The Law School Decision Game, networking is important. Turn this into an opportunity to start building your law career now. Just because you don’t want an LOR from someone doesn’t mean they have nothing to offer you in terms of expertise, advice, and connections.)
-Excerpt of The Law School Admission Game: Play Like an Expert, 3rd Ed. from the beginning of Chapter 5, Choosing Letters of Recommendation