Professionalism 101: Obtaining letters of recommendation

Vol. 39 No. 2

By

Mary Dunnewold (mdunnewold@hamline.edu) is a legal writing instructor at Hamline University School of Law.


Chances are, sometime during your law school career, you’ll need letters of recommendation to accompany a job application. When a potential employer requests recommendation letters, don’t be shy about asking professors and current or past employers. Most expect to support students in their job searches by providing them.

But when requesting letters of recommendation, take the opportunity to enhance your reputation for professionalism by following some basic guidelines. This will help ensure that you get quality letters and that your letter writers will be willing to support your job search in the future.

Who to ask
Legal employers will be primarily interested in hearing about your legal analysis, research, and writing skills. So you should first consider asking professors or former legal employers to write recommendation letters for you. During your first and second year of law school, cultivate relationships with professors so they can get to know you, will be in a position to comment specifically on your qualifications for a job, and will be comfortable writing letters for you. If you don’t feel comfortable volunteering in class, find other ways to develop relationships. Ask questions after class, attend office hours, and seek other opportunities to interact with professors. Professors who have taught you in a small seminar class or supervised you in a moot court or journal experience are good prospects.

You don’t have to be an A student to get a good letter of recommendation from a professor. If you have demonstrated that your legal skills are developing appropriately through law school and that you are willing to work hard, professors will be able to write a positive letter addressing these and other specific qualities you have demonstrated in your interactions. On the other hand, don’t depend on your stellar grade in a class to guarantee a strong letter of recommendation. Professors who know nothing about you except that you got an A in their class will not have much helpful information to give to a legal employer.

Former or current legal employers with whom you have a positive relationship are also good letter-writing candidates. If your current employer does not know you are applying for other jobs, it’s okay not to ask for a letter. But be prepared to explain the omission to an interviewer.

Nonlegal employers will be able to speak to your general workplace skills and professionalism. Similarly, undergrad professors know something about your work habits, personal characteristics, and general intellect. They can provide good secondary letters of recommendation, as long as the letters supplement letters from writers who are familiar with your legal skills. But if a potential employer asks for only one or two letters, always choose writers who can address your legal skills. In general, avoid submitting letters from people who can only address your character in general terms, such as your Aunt Ida, who is a lawyer but knows you only as family, or your high school choir director.

Making the request
If it’s the first time you have asked someone to write you a letter of recommendation, the best approach is to make the request in person. This will allow you to discuss the job you are applying for, why you are interested in it, and how your specific qualifications and experience make you a good candidate. Remember that while professors are generally happy to provide recommendation letters, they teach many students and may not remember all the specific details about you that will enable them to write a strong letter. A face-to-face meeting gives you a chance to remind them.

Requesting letters of recommendation via e-mail is permissible, especially if your prospect has recently written other letters for you, knows you well, or is currently working with you. In your e-mail, however, you should offer to meet to discuss the job you’re applying for, if the letter writer would prefer.

It’s also a good idea to provide your letter writers with a résumé and transcript so they can review your experience and comment specifically on your qualifications. Be prepared to send a writing sample as well, in case the recommender wants to review your writing skills. Finally, always provide specific written information about any applicable deadlines and where to send the letter.

Let recommenders know whether they should send their letters directly to your prospective employer or to you to include as part of a complete application package. Your recommenders may prefer to keep their letters confidential. If that’s the case, but you have been asked to submit your application as a complete package, letters should be delivered to you in sealed envelopes with signatures over the seals to ensure confidentiality.

While you may be advised to provide a stamped envelope in which to send the letter, most recommenders will prefer to use their own letterhead envelopes and stationery. So these extra envelopes and stamps often go to waste. If in doubt, ask.

Don’t hesitate to ask for multiple letters—within reason. Once they have drafted a letter of recommendation, most professors and employers will keep that letter on hand and can have multiple copies produced quickly, or can easily tweak the letter to make it specifically appropriate for different types of employers. If you are applying for judicial clerkships, for instance, and require numerous letters, an administrative assistant can usually set up a mail merge to produce the same letter displaying a different address and salutation for different recipients.

If you are asking a professor for a letter, be prepared to sign a FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) waiver form. Under FERPA, professors are not permitted to disclose information about your grades or performance in the educational setting without your permission. So to write a meaningful letter that goes beyond generalities, your professor will need this permission. The FERPA form will also allow you to waive access to the letter, which may make the professor more comfortable writing it.

One final point: Always leave an opening for the person you’re asking to turn down your request. You want letters only from people who can enthusiastically support your application. If, for whatever reason, a person is only lukewarm about writing you a letter, you’re better off asking someone else.

Timing is everything
One of the main mistakes students make when asking for letters of recommendation is procrastinating. A close deadline may mean that a recommender will not have time to give the letter the required attention, or to write it at all. Make your request as far in advance as possible; the sooner, the better. And again, be clear about deadlines. If there is no stated deadline, let the recommender know when you plan to submit your completed application and ask if they can submit the letter at about the same time. This will ensure that all your application materials arrive more or less together.

If an application deadline is close and you’re not sure whether a recommender has submitted a letter, or you’re waiting for a letter to arrive so you can send your entire application packet together, it’s okay to follow up with the writer. Most people will appreciate the reminder and will be happy to send you a confirmation
e-mail when the letter is in the mail.

The last word
Always send a thank-you note expressing your appreciation to your letter writers. While an e-mail is acceptable, many people, especially those who did not grow up with e-mail, really appreciate a handwritten thank you note. It’s appropriate to let them know the status of your job search in the note. If you don’t yet know if you got an interview, or if you got the job, you should follow up later with this information. Your letter writers will appreciate knowing that their efforts helped advance your career.

Finally, if someone spent quite a bit of time preparing recommendation letters for you, for instance, in a lengthy or wide-ranging job search, you may want to send a more substantial thank-you gift. Impersonal items or regional or specialty foods (cheese from Wisconsin, hot sauce from Texas) would be appropriate.

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