Writing letters of recommendation is either a joy or a chore. If you lay the right groundwork, recommending you can be a pleasure. Follow the Best Tips for finding recommenders to make this process work for both of you.
Do not do this:
Q: “Hi, Professor Smith, you called on me once in Torts two years ago. Will you be a recommender for me?”
A: “Who are you?” (Silently:”Where have you been for the past two years? What could I possibly write that could be helpful to you? Why in the world are you asking me? Did someone who knows you turn you down?”)
When you approach a faculty member for a reference, you will get the best results if you have made a connection beyond speaking eloquently in class or getting a good grade.
The best letter of recommendation speak to intellect, work ethic, personality, and why you are particularly well-suited for a job. It also gives an employer a sense of who you are, and what it might be like to work with you. Speaking up in class last year (or five years ago) with no further contact makes it impossible for anyone to write an effective letter on your behalf.
You can’t begin too soon to get to know the people on your faculty whose work intrigues you and whose minds challenge you.
How do I get to know a professor?
As a student:
- Knock on the door and introduce yourself. Let Professor X know why you are interested in her scholarship. It is not enough to say “I am interested securities regulations.” You must explain why you have this interest. Be prepared to tell your story.
- Bring a resume to this first casual meeting so that Professor X can put your name, your face, and your story together. Faculty stand in front of dozens or hundreds of students every day, and even with seating charts with photos, they can’t always remember everyone. Be helpful.
- Say “hello” when you see Professor X in the hall. Make eye contact. Say your name if you have the slightest inkling that the Professor might have forgotten it.
- If you are really interested in Professor X’s scholarship, make sure that you read her recently-published work. When you have formulated some intelligent questions, drop by during open hours or ask for a meeting to discuss it. Bring coffee.
- Once you have established some common ground and made yourself known, you might ask for a research assistant position or for a research project opportunity. You have a chance to develop your writing skills, get serious about a topic that interests you, and contribute to potentially important scholarship. Collateral benefit: your professor can speak directly about work that you have done for her. Gratitude is a great motivator.
- Asking for the recommendation. If you have established common ground and a good connection, and (better yet) taken a class and performed well, ask for a recommendation. Even if you didn’t earn a top grade, the professor may be able to write a helpful and positive letter based on your common connection and your astute class comments.
As a graduate
Even if you have had no law school contact with a professor, you can still make an appropriate connection that might (repeat: might) turn into a recommendation.
Begin this way: If you have a professional issue that falls within the Professor’s scholarship, introduce yourself, offer to buy her a cup of coffee or lunch, and ask your question. If the answer is short, lunch is enough to begin this relationship. Unless you are doing pro bono work, if the answer requires research, make sure that you have a budget for outside research. To keep up the connection, offer to guest-lecture for her class. Former students often collaborate with their professors on papers, projects, and litigation.
Do not hesitate to contact your professors who have changed employers. Their relationships to students from their old schools can last forever.
Best tips for recruiting recommenders: asking for what you want.
- The Job. Tell your proposed recommender about the job for which you are applying. Describe it fully and explain how you believe that your experience could be relevant. If the recommender agrees, ask about the format that he or she prefers for the contacts. Whether it is electronic (email or spreadsheet) or a typed list, it is your responsibility to make sure that all of the names and addresses are correct. If your Professor’s secretary will create the letters, be sure to thank him or her.
- The Letter. Be prepared for your recommender to ask you to draft the letter. Think carefully about what meant most to you about the work that you did for your recommender, and put it into a context that will be helpful to your prospective employer. This is not easy. Check with career services professionals for guidance and review.
- Future Requests. Should you have additional requests, check with your recommender to be sure that she is still available to help you. Update your situation. Provide the contacts in her required format. Mumbling a name and address on the phone will not get your letters written on time.
Letters of recommendation for federal judicial clerkships.
Some schools have systems for managing the judicial clerkship application process which has faculty recommendations as a key element. Follow instructions to the letter. Do not miss deadlines and expect them to be altered for you. Be kind to the staff who may be wrangling thousands of letters and applications.