Monday, September 11, 2006
Some thoughts on letters of recommendation
Last week, those federal judges who follow the coordinated “hiring plan” were deluged with hundreds of clerkship applications from across the country. The typical application packet would consist of a resume, transcript, writing sample, and, of course, 2 or 3 (sometimes more) letters of recommendation.
As the faculty clerkship advisor here at Iowa, I’ve emphasized to students as early as November of the first year about the importance of lining up good letters of recommendation for clerkships, and now that I’ve served in that position for two hiring cycles, I’ve got some thoughts to share. These are, of course, just my observations, and I’d love to hear what you think.
1. What makes for a good letter of recommendation?
The default seems to be that the student did well in the recommender’s course. If that is all that the recommender can say, however, the letter seems to accomplish very little. After all, the judge can look at the student’s transcript and discern the same information. A letter of recommendation that helps the student is one that goes beyond the grade and tells the reader something more detailed about the student’s analytical skills, work habits, research skills, and personality. Although you are probably better off getting a letter from a well-known tenured professor if all things are equal, a really good, personal letter from a junior professor is almost certainly better than a bland letter from a well-known one.
2. How do you get one of these letters?
In a seminar with 10-12 students, even one that meets only once a week, I tend to get to know the students pretty well; and my seminars are graded based on papers, so I also review their research and writing. In a larger class where the grade is based on an exam, I certainly don’t get to know every student well.
That’s why working as a research assistant for a professor is often a good deal, even if the pay is not. Also, getting to know professors outside of class is a good idea. I don’t mean to suggest visiting profs just for simple chit-chat (some may like that, others not) but to discuss substantive legal matters in the course that the student is taking. Those annoying notes in the casebooks can be a fruitful source of material for such discussions. Think about the questions posed and then go over your analysis with your prof.
3. How do you know if you’re going to get a good letter from a professor?
Some professors share the letters they write with their students; others do not. Either way, I do think that we profs should give the student some idea of the contents of the letter. For example, I do not limit my letter-writing to students who did well in one of my courses. (Not that I quibble with anyone who does.) That being the case, if a student who I didn’t know well asked me to write a letter, I would say that I was willing to, but that I didn't think I would be able to say very much in the letter. That way, the student would be free to judge for himself or herself whether a bland letter would be worth pursuing.
An argument could be made that law profs should act as gatekeepers and write letters only for those students with plausible chances at clerkships. After all, writing a letter for a student who applies to over a hundred letters puts a tremendous burden on the support staff for that professor. This is true even if the student applies via OSCAR, the online system, since the secretary still has to upload individual letters for each judge. Moreover, perhaps some judges would get annoyed at a law school that "allowed" students to apply (and thereby innundate chambers) when those students had pretty much zero chance of getting hired.
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