LSAT Kung Fu Blog / How To Get Into Law School: LOR

How To Get Into Law School: LOR

LOTR, not LOR.

Nope. That's LOTR. Totally different.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to continue our look at each piece of the law school application. We’re going to work chronologically—that is, we’ll take each item in the order that you should (in a perfect world, one in which you can maybe go back in time and fix your mistakes) be working on it. I’ve chosen to use a Q+A format, to make you feel like we’re in this together. It will be fun. I promise absolutely do not promise that.

Last week, we looked at how your UGPA figured into your admissions decision. This week, we’re taking a crack at your letters of recommendation (or LOR. Moar acronyms yes!). Again, we’re going with the Q+A structure, because it’s delightful:

Wait. I thought you said you were doing these in the order we should be working on them? I did.

So, wtf, man? Surely this is like, the last thing on my list, pretty much? False! Well, OK; asking for your LOR will be one of the last things you do. But the process of procuring for yourself a truly face-melting letter of recommendation starts almost as soon as you start college.

Explain yourself. K, no prob. The thing is with your letters of recommendation, it’s much, much, much (much-much-much-much) more important that they be awesome than that they come from-

Hold up. Let’s start from the beginning. OK, sure.

What are they? Letters of recommendation.

I KNOW WHAT THEY’RE CALLED. All right, all right. It’s just that that’s also what they, you know, are. They are letters recommending you for admission to law school. They should be written by people who know you well, and who really believe you’ll be a great student in law school.

You keep saying letters, plural. How many do I need? Three. Most schools only require two, but some require three, and virtually all will accept up to three. Give them every reason to think you’re great. Get three letters.

OK. How important are they? Hm. Let’s say, 5% to 100% of the decision.

What? You’re a crazy person. You’re right, but for maybe different reasons than you think. The craziness of the LOR spread is just due to the nature of the process. Schools want the best students they can get. At some places, best may really be defined as “highest LSAT scorers”, but in most places it’s really just your standard definition of the word—they want people who are smart, capable, show leadership, who can handle the rigors of the law school classroom and who will make them proud once they graduate. 

They also want the most diverse student body possible. In every discussion I’ve had with an admission officer, I have come away convinced that s/he actually values having a diverse student body as a real ideal worth working for. But also probably secondary to having the “best” student body, should those ideas ever seem to come into conflict. The way those ideas might seem to conflict is if your applicants with the major traditional signifiers of academic success—UGPA and LSAT scores—weren’t a diverse group.

I feel like you’re wandering, here. Yes, back to LOR. So, if you want a smart, diverse group, but you also have a limited pool of options, you are going to have to make some tough choices. Like, if you’re Dean of Admission at School X (it’s for Xtreme Lawyering!), and you’re a mid-top-tier school (say, number 35-ish), then you are seeing lots and lots of applicants with 3.6 GPAs and 161 LSATs. How do you decide? 

Well, in close cases, you might look to the LOR. It’s certainly plausible that when deciding between two very similar candidates for your last remaining invitation, you make an offer to one and not to another completely on the basis that the first one had superior letters of recommendation. 

On the other hand, the two candidates only got to that stage because they both had good grades and LSAT scores, and they both had well-written Personal Statements. So there’s also a sense in which LOR is only a small part of the application—it probably doesn’t hold much sway until all other factors have been taken into account.

That makes sense. But why are you putting the LOR so early on my timeline? Ah, yes. Back to that. Because the letters of recommendation can be so important, it’s commensurately important for you to game the system.

Wha? Well, I really just mean you should give yourself every advantage. And one way to accrue the advantage of stellar LOR is to START EARLY. Find three professors that you admire. Work extra hard in their courses. Go see them in their office hours. Show them that you care about the material, that you want to succeed, and that you can work hard, both to give professors the quality of work they want, and also to get what you want. 

This process can start in your freshman year; just make sure that you’re keeping up the relationship until you need the letter (I know; it’s mercenary). But your professors are people. Generally, people want to help each other when they can, but they’re much more likely to be helpful to someone they like. So find professors you like, and then make them like you!

Sure, but what if I graduated from college a long time ago? If you graduated more than three years ago, get all your letters from your boss/es (unless, for some reason, you have maintained a relationship with a professor/s who will write a superior letter/s. Then, get your letter/s from her/them instead). 

Most schools want academic letters, not professional ones. But… Admissions committees are also made of smart people who know that someone who graduated a decade ago probably can’t reasonably obtain such letters. Plus, they’ll want to know what you’ve been up to since graduation. Your letters will help tell them that.

Again, it’s much more important what these letters say—smart, hard-working, problem-solver, leader—than from whom they come (never end a sentence with a preposition). In other words, don’t get a letter from the CEO if she doesn’t both know you well and admire you. Much better to have an excellent letter from someone with a less prestigious position who knows your work and will recommend you highly.

Cool, cool. But when do I actually ask for my letters of recommendation? Ask for them 6 weeks from when you need them, if practical. Then do something sneaky—when you ask, say that you need the letter in 4 weeks. Then, when three and a half weeks have passed and you haven’t gotten a letter yet, you simply say, “Hey, I know you’re busy, and I don’t want to bother you, but I’m sure your letter will really help my application…” In this way, you’ve given the letter writer plenty of time to help (even if you have to ask during a traditionally busy period for her/him). And you’ve still left yourself some cushion when s/he inevitably moves slowly on the writing of the letter.

Any tips for how to ask for a letter of recommendation? Yes. Write a note saying something like, “Dear Professor X [YOU SHOULD BE SO LUCKY], I am applying to law school soon, and I wanted to ask if you feel comfortable writing me a superior letter of recommendation.” The superior in there is carrying a lot of freight. You want only excellent letters. You need to give your professors the room to let you know if their letters—for any reason, including those that aren’t your fault at all—will be less than the best, so that you/they can back away gracefully.

Anything else? Yes. Write thank-you notes to your recommenders afterward. It's just the polite thing to do.

Well, Dave Hall, thanks for the good advice about my letters of recommendation. You’ve done it again. That’s so nice of you to say. You know how I do hate to pat my own back.

Questions? Comments? Post them below, or shoot me an email.

Be good to one another, for we need it now more than maybe ever,

d

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