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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Clerkship Letters of Recommendation

In the coming weeks, I look forward to discussing some of my research, which currently focuses on international investment law and other legal frameworks that govern the conduct of international business.  But for my first post, I thought I'd share some thoughts on a different aspect of our job that I haven't seen much discussion of in the blogosphere: writing letters of recommendation for clerkship applicants.  With the collapse of the hiring plan, students are now applying as early as their post-1L summer.  I imagine many professors have already gotten requests for letters or are starting to now.

I have a relatively informed perspective on the topic because I've continued to help one of the judges I clerked for with screening applications since my clerkship ended.  So at this point I have seen applications over the course of six hiring cycles and have formed some observations on what makes letters useful.  But now that I'm on the other side and facing the task of writing letters myself, I'd also love to get the reactions of others to see if any of my views are idiosyncratic or if I'm missing any opportunities to increase my letters' effectiveness.

As a caveat, I should emphasize that these are my views alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the judges for whom I clerked.

1.  Anecdotes are helpful, but they are rarely a difference maker.  The primary value of anecdotes is to demonstrate that the professor actually knows the applicant and can offer more than vague generalities.  Many letters will recount a particularly impressive exchange the professor had with the student in class or office hours, or discuss a paper or research assignment the student wrote.  Again, such details are helpful -- and perhaps even necessary -- to establish the context and basis for the professor's evaluation, but the reason they are rarely a difference maker is that most competitive applicants can find a couple of professors who will be able to speak to one or more of their shining moments in law school.  For an anecdote to set an applicant apart, it has to involve something truly unusual and memorable.  For example, I have seen on a couple occasions a professor say that a student's paper or in-class comment changed the way the professor taught the issue in future years, or that a research assistant's critical insights altered the direction of the professor's own article.

2.  In my experience, the most useful thing a professor can do is provide some specific comparative assessment of the applicant.  When a professor is willing to say that an applicant was the best student in a class, one of the top five in the professor's career, or something along those lines, then it's clear the professor is really putting his or her credibility on the line for that applicant.  And that conveys more information than simply saying the applicant will make an excellent clerk, which professors might write about all or most of the people they are recommending.  The fact that many professors are recommending multiple candidates probably explains why they are reluctant to make comparative assessments.  Sometimes those assessments can be provided over the phone in a call to or from the judge, but since that option is not always available, professors have to consider whether they would rather add marginal value to all of their students' chances or more strongly boost the chances of one or two.

3.  Since professors can't use superlatives for all their students, that leaves the question of how to approach letters for all the other applicants a professor wants to support.  Here my views are more tentative, but I still think it's best to provide the most concrete, bottom-line assessment possible.  For example, if the professor served as a law clerk, a statement that the applicant would have held her own among the professor's co-clerks could be valuable.  Similarly, professors with substantial practice experience could compare the student favorably to junior attorneys they supervised.  The reason this bottom-line assessment mattered to me is that I could tell, based on a quick skim, whether the applicant warranted a closer look.  I would tend to skip over any detailed anecdotes looking for such an assessment before deciding whether to read the whole letter more carefully.

4.  I should clarify that for applicants who are already in the running based on a stellar resume and transcript, I would always read their letters completely to fill out the picture.  And I generally found that professors' letters served this supplementary purpose well, by speaking to an applicant's writing ability, communication skills, personal qualities, and so on.  The preceding points are focused on how letters could be more effective in helping an applicant stand out because I think that's where many professors would like to do more for at least some of their students but are not certain of the best approach. 

Those are the main observations that I've made as a reader of clerkship letters and that will guide my approach to writing them.  But I'd love to hear about what others have found effective, either as readers on the hiring side or perhaps as recommenders who have heard from judges that a particular letter was helpful.

Posted by Richard Chen on September 4, 2014 at 01:54 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


Helpful post, Richard.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Sep 4, 2014 5:22:25 PM

Thanks, Orin.

As a quick addendum to point 3, I omitted the most obvious way a professor can provide a comparative assessment without using superlatives -- by comparing applicants favorably to past students who have successfully obtained clerkships. The more specific, the better. Some letters will go so far as to compare applicants to past students who have obtained Supreme Court clerkships or clerkships in particular circuits, and I generally presume the writer wouldn't make such statements lightly.

Posted by: Richard Chen | Sep 4, 2014 8:48:57 PM

I'll add one thing that's a little off to the side from my two years of reviewing clerkship applicants: sometimes its best not to write a letter for an applicant. A letter that doesn't make the sorts of seriously positive comparisons suggested in Nos. 2 and 3 may actually hurt the student's chances. Certainly, there were applicants I reviewed who were "damned by faint praise" as it were. I'm sure it's awkward to say no to a non-top student who asks for a letter, but saying yes without being able to honestly write a strong one isn't really doing them any favors.

Posted by: Former Editor | Sep 5, 2014 1:18:26 PM

I always spend some time talking with my students about what they hope to get out of the clerkship experience and how my letter of recommendation might help. For example, are there some themes they are writing about in their cover letter that I can echo in my letter of recommendation?

And to Former Editor's point, I always encourage my students to ask their recommenders if the recommender feels comfortable writing a very strong/glowing letter. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how often they take this advice.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 8, 2014 1:00:41 PM

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