5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Letters of Recommendation for Clerkship Applications (and Beyond!)

5 Tips for Getting the Most Out of Your Letters of Recommendation for Clerkship Applications (and Beyond!)Please welcome guest writer Kelsey Russell, a recent clerk for the Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York, to discuss how to get letters of recommendations, an important aspects of clerkships applications.

If you are considering a judicial clerkship, you are likely well aware that your letters of recommendation are an essential component of your application.

As someone who decided to apply for a clerkship pretty late in the game, getting quality recommendations felt like a tall order. Many of my classmates had already taken advantage of opportunities such as research assistant positions, which led to relationships with professors who, in turn, could write personalized recommendations. By the fall of 3L year, no single professor stood out in my mind as a natural recommender. So I started brainstorming: Should I start with the professor who gave me my highest grade? Or the professor who ran my pro bono project? What about employers prior to law school? Given that I was trying to compile my materials in relatively short order, I was also working against the clock.

Happily, I ended up with three letters that I am confident made my application stand out in the pile (details below). And while the process is certainly not one-size-fits-all, here are my biggest takeaways:

1. Put Yourself in the Judge’s Shoes

Remember that you are applying to a judge who, on top of a full docket, likely has a sizable stack of applications on her desk. She could not possibly interview every applicant and must make initial screening decisions on the paper applications.

Your letters of recommendation carry particular weight because, unlike many other aspects of your application, they do not come from you (compare a business’s website with its Yelp reviews). So, maximize this screener interview — focus on letters that supplement the other parts of your application, rather than simply restate them.

2. Seek Balance

While you should be sure to check the individual guidelines of each judge to whom you apply, three letters is the overwhelming norm. It is important to think about how yours work together. Again, the idea is to maximize the limited space you have to convince the judge you should get to the next stage. Already have two professors in mind? Consider asking the attorney who coached your mock trial team. If you were a judicial intern, it is definitely worth considering asking your former judge (pro tip: ask for letters before leaving a position, when your hard work and fabulous personality are still fresh in the writer’s mind).

3. Don’t be Afraid to Reconnect

The one letter that I was sure I wanted from the start turned out to be the one that I was most nervous to ask for. I had established a great working relationship with my supervisor during my 1L summer internship and knew his perspective would add major value to my application. But, by the time I was applying for clerkships, we hadn’t spoken in months. I did not relish the notion of contacting him out of the blue to ask for a favor. It felt impolite. But let me be super clear on this point: this is normal. You can trust in the fact that the person you are contacting understands the process you are going through; they likely went through it themselves, or witnessed classmates go through it during law school.

4. Help Your Recommenders Help You

I wrote my first letter of recommendation recently, and the experience confirmed the wisdom of tip #4 once and for all. It is in no way pushy or wrong to attach your resume or to type out your elevator pitch. Even if you have a close relationship with your recommender, remember that professors and employers have new classes of students and interns every year. Jogging their memory is never a bad idea.

5. Talk to Your Friends

While this is the last tip on the list, don’t be fooled — this is crucial. There are some things you just cannot learn other than through word-of-mouth. For example, the professor you are considering asking may be a notoriously bad recommender. This is certainly information you need, but is not publicly available or even openly discussed. Cast a wide net with these conversations, but be strategic, too. Aim to connect with people who are also applying to clerkships, who have had the same professors as you, or who have recently graduated — especially if they ended up clerking!

With this list in mind, I’ll explain the three wonderful recommenders who graciously agreed to write on my behalf.

First was the professor with whom I had taken my two favorite law school classes. While it was important to me that I had done well in both courses, it was equally important that I was passionate about the topics — a passion that I had conveyed over the course of many office hours. I knew this professor would be able to speak to my participation during panels and outside lectures on subjects related to our coursework, which communicated something about me that was not on my resume a la tip #1.

Second was the professor who supervised the writing and publication of my student comment. Because a clerkship is both research and writing intensive, I was eager to include the perspective of the person who had worked with me during the most research and writing intensive experience of my law school career. However, I also knew this professor was facing an extremely busy semester. Thus, tip #4 — this was the recommender to whom I provided the most support. He was very happy to write on my behalf, but I think even happier to receive copies of my resume, cover letter, and a paragraph describing how I became interested in my student comment topic.

Finally, I contacted my supervisor from my 1L summer internship. As I described in tip #3 above, I felt uncomfortable reaching out for a recommendation because we had not been in touch for several months — in fact, I ended up sending a lengthy email that “buried” the request among casual checking-in conversation. Smooth, I know. It turned out there was truly no need for my attempted stealth. I received a reply within hours that indicated not only a willingness to draft a letter on my behalf, but sincere happiness at the prospect.

While these tips are tailored to judicial clerkships, they are generally applicable to any position that requires recommendations. Regardless of the context, keep in mind that letters of recommendation can really only do one of two things — nothing or something. It is exceedingly rare for a recommender to say something negative about the applicant (though not unheard of, see tip #5). Use this list to ensure that your letters don’t just check the box, but give you an edge!


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About Kelsey Russell

For the 2017-18 term, Kelsey Russell served as a judicial clerk for the Chief Judge of the Southern District of New York. This year, she will begin work as an associate at a large law firm in New York. Kelsey graduated from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2017, where she was an Executive Editor for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. She had the honor of being published in the 165th volume of the Law Review for her student comment, Cruel and Unusual Construction: The Eighth Amendment as a Limit on Building Prisons on Toxic Waste Sites. Kelsey earned her undergraduate degree from the College of the Holy Cross, where she studied English and Women’s and Gender Studies.

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