Law School Recommendations: How to Receive a Strong Letter

Padya Paramita

Law School Recommendations: How to Receive a Strong Letter

After months of deliberation, you’ve decided to go to law school. As you go through your checklist, you stop to think about the letters of recommendation and wonder exactly which professors to ask. While your law school recommendations aren’t as highly weighted as your GPA, LSAT score, or personal statement, you shouldn’t take the recommendations lightly. Schools use these letters to get a clearer idea regarding your skills, personality, and intellectual capacity, and specific examples highlighting your capabilities could make a difference in convincing admissions officers that you are a strong candidate. Law school recommendations help admissions officers gain an objective outlook on your strengths, academic potential, and what you’re like to have as a student in the classroom. 

Start talking to your recommenders about your plans and choices early. To help you choose the right recommenders who can write letters that positively reflect on your abilities, I have outlined the requirements for letters of recommendation at the top law schools, how to go about choosing your recommenders, the importance of academic references over professional ones, and what you should hope for in the content of your law school recommendations themselves. 

Requirements for Top Law Schools

Each law school has a set of recommendation requirements, as well as criteria for who should write the letter. Since institutions usually prefer academic references, picking an athletic mentor or job supervisor who knows you well isn’t the best strategy when planning your recommenders. The number of law school recommendations required also varies - as shown by the guidelines for each of the top 20 law schools:

Law School US News Ranking Requirements for Law School Recommendations
Yale University 1 Yale Law School requires at least two letters of recommendation and strongly prefers letters from professors who know your academic performance and have had a chance to personally evaluate significant aspects of your academic work. Professors who have worked with you on an individual basis—such as a senior thesis advisor—are usually the best sources. Letters of recommendation from college deans, chaplains, coaches, summer employers, and professional colleagues may be helpful, although Yale strongly prefer letters from at least two faculty members under whom you have studied. Applicants who have been out of school for some time and are unable to obtain academic letters of recommendation may substitute letters from employers or others who know them well. These letters should address the personal qualities that academic letters of recommendation typically address: the applicant's ability to write and think critically, as well as their overall suitability for the study and practice of law. You may submit additional letters; many applicants choose to submit three recommendations. Your file will be deemed complete when two letters have arrived through the LSAC Letter of Recommendation Service.
Stanford University 2 Stanford requires that at least two and no more than four letters of recommendation be sent directly through the LSAC Letter of Recommendation Service. Please be aware of the high value Stanford places on school-specific letters of recommendation. If you choose to provide a targeted letter, be sure to assign the appropriate targeted letter to Stanford Law School. Recommenders should be instructors who have personal knowledge of your academic work, preferably those who have known you in a seminar, small class, tutorial program or the like. If you have been out of school for a significant period you may substitute one letter from an employer or business associate. Some applicants find it difficult to obtain even one academic recommendation; in that case, you may submit two nonacademic letters. Advise recommenders that should you choose to apply for a joint degree and/or other programs at Stanford University, the letters of recommendation may be forwarded to that program for review.
Harvard University 3 Two letters of recommendation are required for application to the J.D. Program. Provide the LSAC Recommendation form to faculty members or employers who have had an opportunity to evaluate you carefully and individually over a sufficient period of time to make a reasonable evaluation. Recommendations should come from those who have had an opportunity to evaluate you carefully and individually over a sufficient period of time. Harvard strongly recommends that at least one letter of recommendation come from an academic source. However, letters from employers or others who have worked closely with you can be very helpful, particularly if you have been out of school for many years. Your application will be treated as complete with two letters of recommendation.
Columbia University 4 Columbia requires two original letters of recommendation from your professors, employers, supervisors, or other persons qualified to appraise your academic potential for graduate legal studies. One letter should come from a professor and one letter should come from a work supervisor. Letters from family, friends, and prominent persons who have not taught you or supervised your work are not helpful. Do not submit more than two letters. Part of compiling a strong application for admission is determining which two recommenders are best able to evaluate your ability to pursue and succeed in graduate legal studies. In very rare circumstances, applicants may feel they have a compelling reason to submit an additional letter of recommendation.
University of Chicago 4 Two letters of recommendation are required, but UChicago will accept up to four. You must submit your letters of recommendation through the LSAC’s CAS Letter of Recommendation Service. Your application will be considered complete once two letters of recommendation are received, unless you ask the Admissions Office to wait for any additional letters. In reviewing letters of recommendation, the Admissions Committee looks for insight into a candidate's academic promise, as well as personal qualities such as intellectual curiosity, enthusiasm, and commitment. UChicago strongly recommends that you submit at least one academic letter (e.g., from a professor, teacher's assistant, advisor) who can offer an informed assessment of your academic ability.
New York University 6 Two letters of recommendation are required to complete your application. Candidates applying for the Root-Tilden-Kern Scholarship must submit at least one additional recommendation that addresses the candidate's commitment to public service and those applying to the Furman Public Policy Scholarship must submit a letter of recommendation that speaks to the candidate's interest in public policy.
University of Pennsylvania 7 The University of Pennsylvania believes that letters of recommendation from individuals who can comment on your intellectual capacity and analytical and written communication skills are extremely useful in a rigorous selection process. They require two letters of recommendation from individuals who have served as recent academic instructors or advisors. However, if you have been out of school for several years and obtaining academic references will present a hardship, letters from employers or others who have worked closely with you are sufficient. Note that the University of Pennsylvania will accept up to four letters of recommendation; however, your application is deemed complete with two letters of recommendation.
University of Virginia 8 Applicants must provide two letters of recommendation, but may provide no more than four such letters. Recommenders should evaluate your potential as a law student, so letters from members of your college or graduate school faculty who can discuss your academic performance are particularly helpful. If you have been out of school for several years and have difficulty securing an academic reference, you may substitute letters from employers or others who have worked closely with you. In any event, letters should address the skills necessary for rigorous, advanced academic work: the ability to read complex textual material closely, to analyze it carefully, and to present reasoned conclusions in writing and orally; maturity; self-discipline; commitment; and professionalism.
Northwestern University (Pritzker) 9 You must submit at least one letter of recommendation or evaluation.
University of California - Berkeley 9 You may submit up to 4 recommendations letters. Most applicants submit 2-3. They should be from academic sources who know you and your classroom work well. Ideally, each letter will provide comparative comments that distinguish you from your peers. Examples of academic sources include professors, teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, and thesis advisers. Letters from work supervisors or colleagues are acceptable if you have been out of school for some time. Letters from family friends, famous people, or relatives are not helpful.
University of Michigan - Ann Arbor 9 Although Michigan requires only one letter of recommendation, applicants are encouraged to submit three. For most applicants, the most helpful recommendations are from undergraduate or graduate faculty. Applicants with significant work experience may also wish to submit letters from employers.
Duke University 12 You must submit two required recommendation letters through LSAC. Unless you have been out of school for some time, at least one letter should come from an academic instructor who has personal knowledge of your performance and potential. A second letter should come from someone who can address your interpersonal skills, leadership, and involvement, such as a supervisor or advisor from a job, internship, or student organization. Additional letters from either source may also be submitted. If you have been out of school for long enough that an academic reference is not available, you may submit an additional employment letter in its place. References from friends, family friends, and relatives are discouraged.
Cornell University 13 Two letters of recommendation are required. Applicants may submit more, but often additional letters of recommendation are repetitious and add little value to an applicant’s file. You should ask faculty members who can provide detailed comments about your academic abilities compared with those of other students who are applying to law schools. If you are currently an undergraduate or if you have graduated but have only been out of school for two years or less, Cornell prefers that the letters be from faculty members who have taught you. If you have graduated and been out of school for more than two years, you may ask an employer or other individual who knows your academic abilities to submit the letters.
Georgetown University 14 Georgetown Law requires only one letter of recommendation, but additional letters or evaluations are welcome. If at all possible, the letter of recommendation should come from a professor who is able to speak to your academic work.
University of California - Los Angeles 15 UCLA School of Law requires that applicants submit two letters of recommendation. At least one letter should be from someone familiar with the applicant's academic work, if at all possible.
University of Texas - Austin 16 Two (2) letters of recommendation (LORs) are required. These letters should be submitted directly to LSAC using their Letters of Recommendation Service.
Washington University in St. Louis 17 WashU in St. Louis encourages you to select recommenders who can speak to the strengths and qualities you will bring to the law school classroom and community. Academic recommendations may be from your undergraduate or graduate school, from a professor, instructor, or teaching assistant. Individuals who have supervised your work may also provide useful letters of recommendation.
University of Southern California - Gould 18 USC Gould requires two letters of recommendation and will accept a maximum of three. The most influential recommendations focus on your academic potential and are written by people who know you well and can evaluate your academic performance. Although recommendations not pertaining to academic abilities can be helpful, academic recommendations carry the most weight with the admissions committee. If you have been out of college for a number of years, a letter from an employer would be appropriate. USC Gould encourages employers to discuss your written and oral communication skills, leadership abilities, and potential for the study of law.
Vanderbilt University 18 You must submit at least two letters of recommendation. Letters should be from members of the faculty of your undergraduate or graduate school, preferably faculty members who served as your advisers on research projects or who taught you in more than one course. If you have been recently employed full-time or serving in the military, you may submit letters from the persons best able to comment on your performance. If you have been out of school for several years, you may submit letters from employers if academic recommendations are not available.
Boston University 20 You must submit at least two letters of recommendation through the LSAC Letter of Recommendation Service. BU Law accepts up to four letters of recommendation sent through the LSAC Letter of Recommendation Service that is part of the CAS registration. Ideally, each letter should come from someone who has taught you in a substantive college or postgraduate course. Given that two-thirds of the incoming class takes time between their undergraduate career and law school, the Admissions Committee acknowledges that it may be difficult to request a letter from an undergraduate professor as years past. In these instances, it is acceptable to submit letters from employers.

As you can see, some schools accept up to four recommendations while others are okay with as few as one. Use your best judgment to read the instructions and decide how many are suitable - for example, although UMichigan accepts a minimum of one letter, it “encourages” three. This means that you should submit three, unless you absolutely cannot. To stay on the safe side, you should aim to ask at least three recommenders for letters, and then use them according to the variation in requirements for the schools on your list.  

Some schools also specify the content they are looking for in the law school recommendations. For example, Cornell would like your recommenders to talk in-depth about what makes you a stronger candidate in comparison to others. Virginia on the other hand, wants letters that focus on whether you have the analytical and intellectual abilities needed for the rigorous law school environment, your reading and writing skills, alongside skills desirable in a lawyer, such as maturity and professionalism.

It goes without saying that you must choose your recommenders very carefully.

Choosing Your Recommenders

When picking your recommenders, you might have a lot of questions. You could be confused about who to ask, what you should mention, how long you should give them, and what the letters should contain. We have answers for you below.

Who to Ask

Who writes your law school recommendations depends on the school’s guidelines. Carefully pay attention to the language used by each program. Yale “strongly” (which is equivalent to a requirement in the application world) prefers that you choose a professor, preferably someone who’s worked with you on an individual basis. I know it might seem tempting to ask your job supervisor who can attest to your latest work ethic and skills, but if you fail to follow clearly laid out instructions, you could lose a chance at getting admitted. 

UCLA mentions that “at least” one of your two letters should come from an academic reference, and both if possible. This indicates that both of those letters should come from professors, unless absolutely impossible. Duke’s second letter, however, must come from “someone who can address your interpersonal skills, leadership, and involvement,” and in this case, you may ask your professional supervisor or other mentors who are familiar with your abilities.

Long story short: prioritize academic references over professional ones. If you’ve been out of school for more than two years, you may use a professional reference for a school which doesn’t specify that the letter must be from someone you know in an academic context.

Once you’ve read the instructions for all the schools on your list, take some time to think about which professors know you best. Someone who you’ve worked with consistently - such as a thesis advisor or a research supervisor might immediately come to mind. Consider professors who know you best and can easily specify anecdotes and examples of your academic prowess or interpersonal skills. Ideally, you want to pick someone who knows you very well and won’t have to resort to general statements to praise you. 

Don’t choose a highly prestigious professor who works at your college who doesn’t know you personally just for their name and fame. It’s important that your recommender can endlessly speak to your abilities. And as many law schools point out, they do not appreciate recommendations from family, friends, or family friends. Of course your parents or siblings are going to highly praise you - they love you and want the best for you! Letters should only come from someone who knows primary knows you in an academic or professional context. 

When and How to Ask

Although the law school application submission window (September - February) is a long one, you should aim to apply as soon as possible, ideally by Halloween. With that date in mind, start talking to your recommenders as early as the April or May before you apply, since they might get busy in the fall and not find the time to write a thoughtful letter. 

Email your recommenders and set up a time to meet with each of them. Don’t just give them your resumé and ask them to base their letters on where you’ve worked and what you’ve achieved. Law schools will already have your resumé. Law school recommendations should act as an added layer - admissions officers should learn something new about you upon reading the letters. The content should come from their personal experiences with you. Provide your recommenders with a list of courses you’ve taken with them, projects you’ve worked on under their supervision, and concrete details about your time together. These specifics can serve as a reminder and help jog their memories about working with you.

As Halloween approaches, send them gentle reminders or check in with updates on your application around September until they ultimately hit submit!

What the Letter Should Include

Most importantly, each of your letters should include the following: 

  • Superlative praise: “Grace is the best student I have taught this year”
  • Comparative praise: “Compared to other students in my class, Grace went above and beyond her peers”
  • Concrete details: “Grace demonstrated her leadership by organizing a class-wide initiative to…” 

Before meeting with your recommenders, read over the prompts for your schools once more - what do they want to know about you? Most law schools want the takeaway from letters to be based on your academic skills - law school involves endless reading, writing, and analyzing. So your law school recommendations should include details about your analytical skillset. Ideally, your recommenders should mention specific instances where you took on challenging course loads, actively participated in the classroom, took advantage of office hours, and also detail how you compare to other students applying to law schools or former students who have been accepted.

Law school recommendations also need to demonstrate your people skills. Do you have the interpersonal skills one looks for in a future lawyer? Your recommenders should recall any anecdotes that portray you as someone who works with integrity, communicates well with others, stands out as a leader, and stays committed to a project. Has the professor, for example, watched you overcome a challenge or bounce back from a failure with your head held high? Does she believe you are approachable? How do your peers regard you? A strong letter should thus be the accumulation of your academic abilities and your communication skills. 

LSAC Evaluations

A few years ago, LSAC introduced evaluations to complement traditional law school recommendations. These LSAC evaluations, at some schools, can be used in place of a traditional recommendation. Rather than being free-form as a letter of recommendation, an evaluation is mostly a multiple-choice rating form. Each question on an evaluation has the same answer choices:

Below Average (Bottom 50%)

Average (Top 50%)

Good (Top 25%)

Very Good (Top 10%)

Excellent (Top 5%)

Truly Exceptional (Top 1–2%)

There are thirty questions, grouped under the following six categories: intellectual skill, personal qualities, integrity and honesty, communication, task management, and working with others. After each category of questions, there is a “comments” field that allows the evaluator to write additional information up to 750 characters. Then, at the end of the form, evaluators have the opportunity to enter text of up to 3,000 characters. The form also includes questions about the evaluator. Specifically, it asks whether the evaluator is a “Teacher/Instructor, Employer, Coworker, Friend, Family, Other.” It also asks how long an evaluator has known an applicant and when the evaluator last interacted with the applicant.

Admissions officers have stated that evaluations are not as useful at getting in-depth information about an applicant as traditional law school recommendations. Usually, letters expand on an applicant’s skills, characteristics, and special qualities, and if they were glowing letters, painted a picture of a star. Evaluations, when they are submitted, do not usually go into such detail. 

Ultimately, an ideal law school recommendation letter is one which depicts you as an intellectual and dedicated student, who is not afraid to take on challenges. When reading law school recommendations, admissions officers hope to gain a concrete idea of what it’s like to work with you and how you have been an asset in various academic and professional settings. With that in mind, always follow schools’ guidelines and prioritize academic references over professional ones. By capitalizing on the positive impressions you’ve made throughout college, you can choose the right recommenders - ones whose law school recommendations will not only add new information to your profile, but build you up as an absolutely must-have candidate.

General FAQ

Are letters of recommendation required for law school applications?

The vast majority of the top 20 law schools require you to submit at least one letter of recommendation.

Who should write my letters of recommendation?

Who writes your recommendations depends on the school’s guidelines. Most schools prefer that you choose a professor, preferably someone who’s worked with you on an individual basis. Overall, it is recommended that you prioritize academic references over professional ones.

When should I ask my recommendations to write my letters?

Although the law school application submission window is long, you should aim to apply early, ideally by Halloween. With this in mind, aim to ask your recommenders as early as April or May.

What should my letters of recommendation look like?

Your letters should include superlative praise, comparative praise, and concrete details.

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