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Ask the Hiring Attorney: How do I ask for letters of recommendation?


Q: I’m applying to be a member of my state bar. My application requires me to get letters of recommendation for my application from either law school professors or lawyers I’ve actually worked for. But I don’t know how to do that, and I’m pretty nervous about the whole thing. We had really large law school classes, so I never really got to know my professors. And the attorneys I interned with are really busy, so I don’t know if they’ll have time to do it. How do I go about asking for the required letters of recommendation?

A: Asking for—and getting—letters of recommendation is not as hard as you think.

The law professors and practicing attorneys you’re nervous about won’t be surprised by your request. They know jurisdictions can require bar candidates to submit these letters as part of their bar application. They were in your shoes once too—they all applied for bar admissions, and likely they had to collect similar letters from people they didn’t feel they really knew well.

However, for law professors and supervising attorneys, providing letters of recommendation is all part of the job, whether explicitly or implicitly. Law professors and attorneys who supervise law students know those students will—someday—need letters of recommendation, whether for the bar or for employment. They expect to provide them. Indeed, they’re probably already working on letters for some of your classmates!

The first step to asking for and getting these letters is to identify likely signers. There are still ways to get a professor’s recommendation even if you didn’t personally get to know her by becoming, for example, her research or teaching assistant. In which classes did you receive top grades or honors, participate in the most, or write substantial papers? Which of your activities (like journals or moot court) had professor supervision? Think about approaching those professors for letters, since those are the professors most likely to be able to give a personal recommendation—although for the purposes of the bar exam, the recommendation can be a lot less detailed and personal than it would need to be for employment purposes. After all, the bar admission committee isn’t hiring you, they just want to know that you meet their basic standards.

Next, ask for the recommendation! But do so in a way that makes clear what you’re asking for and gives the person a graceful way out if she doesn’t—for any reason—want to provide you with a stellar recommendation. How do you do this?

Don’t catch the person unawares. Send an email letting her know you need a letter of recommendation to submit to the bar, and then asking her to schedule a time when you can talk. Something like, “Hi, this is John Doe from last fall’s Labor Law class. I’m preparing my application for admission to the New Hampshire bar. The application requires me to submit three letters of recommendation. I’m hoping you’ll be willing to provide one, and I’ll email you the information you’ll need. Is there a time next week we can talk more about it and you can let me know whether you’d be available to provide the letter?” If you have a LinkedIn profile, you can include the link to that in your email. Alternatively, if you’re concerned the signer needs more prompting to know who you are, then you can include your photo as part of your email signature or as an attachment to help the prospective recommender remember you.

In the body of your mail, clearly state what the purpose of the recommendation is, who it will be sent to, and the deadline. If you haven’t spoken to the prospective recommender in awhile, then write a quick paragraph or two about what you’ve been doing and have accomplished since you last spoke. You might also include a sentence about your career goals. Attach your current resume and your transcript so they have more information about you. As always, if you don’t hear back within the week, follow up!

When you sit down to discuss the letter, ask if the potential recommender if she has any questions about the information you sent (and you should bring hard copies with you, just in case).

Then—and this is critical—gracefully ask her if she has any hesitation about giving you a strong and positive recommendation. This allows her to raise concerns, if she has any, as well as to back out of the whole thing. Why is this critical? A lukewarm recommendation is nearly as bad as a negative one, even for the bar. You certainly want to avoid anyone who questions your character, work ethic, legal reasoning, or other critical skills the bar admission committee will consider. If she has hesitations, you need to know now. Then you can either address those concerns with her or find another person to provide the letter.

A version of this article was originally published by Bloomberg Finance L.P. Reprinted with permission. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Shauna Bryce Shauna C. Bryce is a graduate of Harvard Law School with 20 years in law and legal careers. As a nationally recognized lawyer career coach, she works one-on-one with executive-level attorneys in Global 100 law firms and multibillion-dollar businesses in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, as well as regularly presents to groups of lawyers, career coaches, law students, and others. Her advice column, Ask the Hiring Attorney®, inspired by what general counsel and partner-level clients said they wish they had known while they were in law school, was originally published by Bloomberg Law. She’s the author of the How to Get a Legal Job® series and Bryce Legal® Career Advice for Lawyers blog.