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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Letters of recommendation

I come from a family that overwhelmingly worked in blue-collar jobs. Growing up, my father was a stagehand and my mother was a homemaker. In addition, very few members of my (large) extended family went to college. Having grown up without a lot of professional mentors myself, I've since worked to seek them out. Now that I'm a law professor, one of my favorite aspects of the job is the opportunity to mentor students. Maybe that's why I consider helping students find jobs to be part of my own job description.

One of my colleagues recently asked me if I would write a letter of recommendation for a student that did above average in two of my classes (i.e. A-, B+) but was in the bottom third of the graduating class. He seemed surprised when I responded that I am willing to write a letter of recommendation for any student. I'm curious to know if I am the outlier. Would you write a letter for the student so-described? Some further thoughts on my own approach after the break.

When a student asks me for a letter of recommendation, I invite them to meet with me to discuss their career goals. I find that these meetings help me get to know the student a bit better and often provides useful color for my letters. It also affords me the opportunity to ask students to name three qualities about themselves that they would like me to comment and to discuss the possible basis for these comments. For example, if they'd like me to comment on how bright they are, perhaps they'll note that they received a very high grade in my course. Or if they want me to comment on their public speaking, they'll remind me that they served as a group spokesperson during some of our in-class exercises. To my mind, this discussion serves multiple purposes. Particularly for my 1Ls, it is a continuation of our work in class, where I constantly seek to teach them to connect facts to law to reach legal conclusions. It also helps me flesh out the substance of my letter. Finally, it helps to set expectations about what I can and cannot say. I do make clear to students that they should consider whether I'm the best person to write a letter for them based on our prior interactions, their performance in my class, and the their other alternatives. But if I'm the best they've got, I work to write them the best letter I feel comfortable with.

My colleague worried that he would debase the value of his other recommendations by writing a letter for any student that asks. As a result, he said that he refuses to write anything other than letter of unqualified praise. By contrast, I think that there are always positive attributes that I can comment on and I believe that even our weakest students deserve my help to get a job. Apparently, I'm more willing to write a broader range of recommendation letters from those providing "the strongest possible recommendation" all the way to encouraging the employer to "consider" the applicant.

What do you think? Am I failing to adequately safeguard my reputation?


Posted by Matthew Bruckner on September 27, 2016 at 02:10 PM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law, Things You Oughta Know if You Teach X | Permalink


When I told my colleague I write letters for all students, my colleague did ask if that were still true for clerkships. In that case, I think that's where there is a clear benefit to the sit down conversation with students. We can talk about where to target applications and where competition would likely be fierce.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 29, 2016 8:53:45 AM

Perhaps the analysis shifts depending upon the intended recipient of your letter. For example, I imagine your colleague's dilution argument could carry weight in the context of a clerkship, where dime-a-dozen recommendations can actually hurt a candidate and chambers may develop institutional memory of a recommender. But for the vast majority of students seeking their first legal employment position (be it firm, public interest, etc.), a recommendation letter can be a barrier to entry. If all professors write only for their best and brightest, then large portions of the student body could be left with few options. Interestingly, the reputational harm concern would itself be diluted if most (or all) professors were willing to broaden their scope of possible recommendees, thereby reducing the number of recommendations each professor would ultimately write and normalizing the idea of varying levels of praise.

Posted by: Zoot | Sep 28, 2016 6:20:18 PM

YIKAM - I always try to remember to encourage students to ask potential recommenders if they are able to write a very strong recommendation letter. Even if they aren't, it opens the door to a conversation about what sort of letter the recommender will write. I hope that eliminates the possibility of sabotage (as in your case) or, more likely, being damned by faint praise.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 28, 2016 8:57:08 AM

I once had a prof agree to write a letter of recommendation and then try to sabotage me. The organization it was to actually contacted me and allowed me to send another letter. I never knew what the prof wrote, but apparently it was so over the top ("incompatible with decorum" was the phrase the person that contacted me used) that the organization felt there was nothing to be gleaned by it.

Needless to say, I remember how much a pain LOR's were so I almost always agree to write letters.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Sep 27, 2016 10:35:47 PM

I do something similar with my students. I ask to meet with them, and ask about why they want me to write their letter, and if there is a particular interaction or memory they have of our time together they find significant. It is always heartwarming and sometimes cautionary to learn that a small interaction that I barely remember (answering a question after class, meeting with a student in office hours, calling on a student in class) is often a turning point for that student in their legal career. I do try to put those details in the letters, as appropriate.

As for the hypothetical given by Matthew, yes, I would absolutely write a letter for a student that did well in my classes but not great in others, and I have done so. I have been sure to qualify in my letter that this person did well in my class, and what I observed and what I think that their performance in my class means. That student probably needs a letter more than the student that does well across the board, and the ability to succeed in my class shows that at least in some cases, they are able to rise to the occasion, and the recipient can determine if their environment is similar enough to my class that the student should be taken on.

All that being said, I do think the exercise of letters of recommendation is less about the content than about the ability of the candidate to acquire them. It deters the candidates that can't find people to write them, rather than really distinguishes among candidates.

Posted by: anonandoff | Sep 27, 2016 5:08:13 PM

Thanks, Steve. Maybe it is more appropriately framed as a question of the lengths one is willing to go to help a student find employment, rather than one's willingness at all.

However, cf. https://twitter.com/HoffProf/status/780754550823260160

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Sep 27, 2016 2:45:18 PM

"Maybe that's why I consider helping students find jobs to be part of my own job description."

Good for you, Matthew. But isn't that part of every professor's job description? Seriously, are there professors who don't believe their job involves helping students find employment?

Posted by: Steve Lubet | Sep 27, 2016 2:36:18 PM

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