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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Perfect Letter of Recommendation

I often find myself staying in the office late and coming in on weekends to finish writing recommendation letters for students. Writing these is often one of my favorite parts of my job, especially when I am writing for a student whom I know well and in whose future I really believe. Often, my letters will be long - 3-4 pages is normal for me - and filled with details. The more I can tell the reader about a student, the better. I try to make each recommendation into a story about a person's life, hopes, and dreams. Though we only see a snapshot of a person in a letter of recommendation, that snapshot is all about convincing the reader of a life's trajectory. I really enjoy writing such letters.

I'm less knowledgeable, however, about what the market for letters of recommendation looks like. I have no idea what kind of letters my colleagues write - how long they make them, how many details they include, how they begin, or how they end. I have no idea if they agree to write a letter for everyone who asks, or if they turn down some requests. And I have no idea if they focus only a student's performance in class, on attributes of the student about which they learn outside of class, or on a combination of both. Obviously, different norms and standards apply for different purposes. And different kinds of letters are appropriate for different students. All of that is given. 

Still, what does the market for a strong letter of recommendation look like? What should the letter's length be? Should the law professor writing it include information about him- or herself too, and if so, what kind of information is most pertinent? And at what point should a letter go beyond academics to focus on the applicant's other attributes? The Internet, of course, is awash with recommendation advice. Here is some advice that I am cribbing from a website about writing the perfect letter of recommendation: 

1. Explain how you know the applicant. 

2. State your own qualifications. Why should the reader be interested in your recommendation? 

3. List the applicant's exceptional qualities and skills.

4. Emphasize key points that you want the reader to note on the resume or application. 

5. Give your value judgment of the applicant and his/her qualifications and potential. 

6. Give specific examples to back up what you have said in the recommendation letter.

7. Don't be too brief. One or two short paragraphs are death. But be succinct. Make every word count. 

8. Make the ending strong without overdoing it. Undue praise can be viewed as biased or insincere.

9. List your contact information if you are willing to receive follow-up correspondence.

10. Proofread! The letter of recommendation represents both you and the applicant.

Whenever I read such advice online, it seems too general to me - and much too obvious. And it doesn't provide any sort of comparative perspective. The Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard provides more specific recommendation advice here (it is geared toward TAs and fellows). The Atlantic ran a story a year or so ago about the art of writing the college recommendation letter here. Other advice abounds all over the Internet.

However, I'm curious to hear what law professors think: Is there something unique about the letters that legal scholars write? Is there something unique about letters written for those seeking legal employment (as opposed to other kinds of employment)? What is your recommendation-writing process like? And what, if you have an opinion on the matter, makes for the perfect letter of recommendation? 

Posted by Eugene Mazo on October 20, 2015 at 09:44 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


I write a letter for any student that asks. Even my D students need jobs. Granted, there is often less that I can usefully write about a D student.

In any case, to help write the best possible letter, I ask the student about the qualities/traits that they think are important for the job to which they are applying. Then we brainstorm together to come up with examples from our interactions that I can reference in my letter when I make claims about the student's capabilities in the areas they want to highlight.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Oct 20, 2015 4:07:04 PM

Seems like a good time to bring up that awesome John Nash rec letter that Princeton released a little while back.

Posted by: No breh | Oct 20, 2015 5:04:12 PM

I hope to see what other people do. If I have anything positive to say about a student I will write a letter. Obviously I have better things to say about students with whom I have had more/more positive/more quality interactions. I however do NOT do 3+ page letters. I am primarily asked to write clerkship recommendation letters and when I was a clerk, my judge did not appreciate overly-long letters. Typically a 1-2 page (single spaced) but well-written and specific letter was the type to get her attention. I would love to know what the norm is. I hope I was not prejudicing my former students' chances because I have kept the letters short in the past?!

Posted by: anon | Oct 20, 2015 10:33:25 PM

From the clerkship perspective, 1-2 pages is sufficient. The clerks who have to read them are really just looking for a sense that the letter writer really does view the applicant positively. Having to read 3-4 pages becomes tiresome, especially when the multiple pages don't really add anything. My own sense is that the process of acquiring the letter serves as the real filter - if you can't find someone to write a positive letter, that keeps you from applying.

Along those lines, in the (rare) cases where I don't have positive things to say about students who ask me to write a letter, I suggest that they find someone else to write one. Usually I frame it as encouraging them to find someone that knows them better.

When I do write letters, however, I do try to include examples as suggested. I try to think of a particularly good interaction from class, or a particular discussion I had with them, or something they contributed. If I can't think of one, I may ask the student if there was one that was particularly memorable to them, and refresh my recollection.

Posted by: anonandoff | Oct 21, 2015 4:52:37 PM

I'm not sure that 1-2 pages is sufficient for a clerkship--at least not for a sought-after CA clerkship. There are lots and lots of qualified people looking for these opportunities, all of whom have roughly similar transcripts (they're great) and similar resumes (one summer in biglaw). What really separates one clerkship applicant from another is a great letter. A detailed letter that describes how the student is smart, helpful, resourceful, and quick to anticipate what a research project needs is the most useful part of an application package.

Posted by: recentformerclerk | Oct 22, 2015 10:17:51 AM


That's interesting, but my experience is different. The most powerful clerkship letter I saw when I was a law clerk was a four-sentence letter by a well-known law professor. The letter said that the applicant was the best student he had ever seen in 20 years of teaching; that he would have been proud to have written the student's seminar paper; and that as a former Supreme Court law clerk, he expected the applicant would be among the best (if not the best) clerks hired for that Term. No need for long stories; just superlatives that were specific and to the point. This was an application for a Supreme Court clerkship, and the applicant became the Justice's first hire.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Oct 25, 2015 1:37:59 AM

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