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Monday, December 28, 2015

Letters of Recommendation

I know . . . again?  While this has been the subject of much discussion already on PrawfsBlawg (and elsewhere), I would like to add the perspective of someone who is both a producer and consumer of letters of recommendation.  It is almost a cliche that a letter should illustrate the candidate's accomplishments in detail.  However, I still see letters written as if we're still in the 19th century, and all you need is a general endorsement from Abraham Lincoln and the job is yours.  Ok, maybe Abraham Lincoln is the exception, but you get my point.

The best letters are like a good brief. I am the advocate and attempting to persuade the decision maker to adopt my position, i.e. hire this person or accept them into your academic program. Essential is first providing a three dimensional view of that person.  What are they like to work with or to teach.  The notable accomplishments should be backed up with concrete examples and descriptions like we use case citations to support a point.  

One point that may be new is the liberal use of adjectives.  I think after reading the letter, you should walk away with the feeling that you want to meet this individual.  Finally, length matters. The more you write, the better.  It says something that you took the time to write a lengthy discussion of why this person should be selected.  This also means writing on behalf of people you really believe in.  

Posted by Scott Maravilla on December 28, 2015 at 07:26 PM | Permalink


I second Paul on "Dear Committee Members." Laugh out loud funny.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Dec 30, 2015 3:49:59 PM

I have not. Could you please post a link.

Posted by: Scott Maravilla | Dec 29, 2015 7:05:08 PM

On the lighter side, has everyone read Julie Schumacher's "Dear Committee Members?" You simply must. It's a riot.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Dec 29, 2015 5:12:06 PM

FWIW: I never ask for a copy of a student's CV. I only want my letter to cover the things I know about the student first-hand from my own interactions with her (grades in my class, performance as RA, etc.).

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Dec 29, 2015 12:31:26 AM

Thank you for the clarifying question. I don't suggest rehashing the candidate's resume, but using the letter to flesh it out in greater detail. For example, I once discussed a former intern's contribution to a decision. I gave a brief overview of the legal issue, how she analyzed it, and noted that her approach was ultimately adopted for that case. For length, I try not to hold back, and provide additional examples. In another instance, to give an idea of a candidate's character, I mentioned that she remained past her for school credit time in the internship to assist me with a hearing (I have no law clerks). Another point I forgot to mention, I try to put them in perspective amongst other interns or summer associates I've worked with if they are outstanding. I'd like the reader to have a sense of the individual.

Posted by: Scott Maravilla | Dec 28, 2015 9:36:33 PM

In response to Orin, I sometimes cover items on a candidate's CV to highlight qualities that I think are key but that a quick perusal of the CV might not put together or that I think need further explication to appreciate their significance. Maybe the reader of the recommendation letter already picked up and understood these things on his or her own, but maybe not. Obviously, this strategy to writing recommendation letters should be used in measured doses and not taken to extremes.

Posted by: Kristin Hickman | Dec 28, 2015 8:37:35 PM

Can you say more about why longer is better? The long recommendation letters I have seen usually fill up space rehashing the candidate's CV. In such circumstances, do you really think longer is better, as length is taken as a signal of time and therefore interest? Or is longer better only if the added length is actually a substantive explanation not available elsewhere?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Dec 28, 2015 8:19:34 PM

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