Make Your Clerkship Application Shine: Letters of Recommendation

The Ideal Recommender

Letter AThe most desirable recommender is someone who:

  • knows you well on a personal level
  • thinks that you are nice, intelligent, and hard-working
  • can write a convincing letter on your behalf

In a perfect world, this person would also be a rock star professor with amazing connections, but you’ll have to take what you can get!

Who Should I Ask?

Most judges ask for three letters of recommendation and prefer at least two of the three be from law school professors. The final letter could be from a professional reference, or from another professor, perhaps an adjunct.

But I Don’t Know Any of My Professors!

You may be concerned that you don’t have any obvious recommenders. This is a common problem in law school, where relationships between professors and students are often formal and somewhat distant.

If you have worked as a teaching assistant or a research assistant, it is highly likely that the professor you worked for will be willing to write you a letter of recommendation.

If not, and you’re not down to the wire, think back on the classes you’ve liked and done well in. Could you take another class with one of those professors? After two courses, and a few visits to office hours to chat, your professor knows you better than the vast majority of the people she’s going to write recommendations for.

Seriously, I Need Someone ASAP

If you have left matters until the last minute, you have several options:

  • One is to ask professors in classes you did well in, grade-wise, to write you letters of recommendation. The problem with this approach is that they may have nothing to say that’s not already revealed by your transcript, i.e., that you did well on the exam. If you opt for this solution, it’s critical that you have a conversation or two and provide each professor with as much information as possible about you, so they have something to work with.
  • Another option is to approach a professor whose class you enjoyed and participated in regularly, even if your final grade didn’t fully reflect your mastery of the material. This strategy may seem riskier, but can result in a much more interesting letter, assuming the professor thought you made good contributions to the discussion. Most people realize that law school exams, and consequently law school grades, are something of a crapshoot, and few professors will hold an average final grade against a student who was helpful in class and was clearly interested in the material.
  • A final strategy is to consider professors from smaller, less traditional courses, such as clinics, where there was more personal interaction than in a standard law school classroom. These professors are often overlooked, or considered less “prestigious,” but that can mean they’re less in demand as recommenders, and, therefore, more willing to take on the task!
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

Once you’ve decided which professors to approach, you have to psyche yourself up to ask for a letter. This is hard for many people, so don’t feel self-conscious if you’re reluctant.

It’s generally best to ask in person, rather than in an email. If you want to give the potential recommender some advance warning, however, an email to set up an appointment is appropriate. Something as simple as:

I’m considering applying for a federal district court clerkship in Nebraska and I’d like to discuss my plans with you. Are you available during your office hours on Monday?

is sufficient, and probably warranted if your only connection to this particular professor is attending class and doing well on an exam.

You’ll want to have a mental plan for the meeting, which could include giving the professor an overview of your clerkship strategy, asking for their feedback about specific judges or courts to consider, then making your request:

Would you be willing to write a letter of recommendation for me?

Listen carefully to your professor’s response.

  • If the professor immediately and enthusiastically says “Yes,” great!
  • If he or she says “No,” accept the answer with as much grace as you can muster, and leave. There are plenty of other potential recommenders in the world. Some professors make a habit of only writing one recommendation to a particular judge, so you may be too late, through no fault of your own.
  • The more difficult situation is when the answer is not an enthusiastic yes, or a resounding no. If the potential recommender seems equivocal, it’s critical that you try to figure out the root cause of the reluctance.
Be Wary of the Lukewarm Recommender

If the issue is just that the professor doesn’t know you very well, you might be able to overcome this hurdle through further conversations or background materials.

If you sense that the objection is more fundamental, it’s important to give the potential recommender a graceful way out, because you don’t want a lukewarm evaluation! Something along the lines of:

I know we haven’t interacted much outside of class, so if you don’t feel that you know me well enough to write a strong recommendation, I understand.

This gives the potential recommender an opening to say no, without actually saying no.

The Bottom Line

Although it may be demoralizing at the time, you’re ultimately much better off having an enthusiastic recommender on your side, so keep looking!

How to Make Every Part of Your Clerkship Application Shine

Return to Judicial Clerkships 101.

Have LOR questions? Leave them in the comments!

Image by Jaymarr via stock.xchng.


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