Law School Life/ Tuesday Tip(s): Asking for Recommendations from Professors

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

A short post for a series I like to call "Tuesday Tip(s)." Because I often try to write one tip, and end up with several that were unsolicited (to quote Demi Lovato, "sorry, not sorry.").

Asking for recommendations from professors can be daunting, but not really dangerous (as much as it can seem like it at the time!).

Remember: The worst thing they can say is no (And just so you know, some professors DO say no. I had a professor that I got an A- in her class say no to a recommendation to me, so remember sometimes it doesn't come down to grades. It usually comes down to whether or not they can manage a time commitment, or if they really feel they know you well enough to write a solid recommendation).

Which leads me to some of my tips today:

  • Make sure you actually know your professors: Which means, doing your best so they actually remember you in class. You don't have to be an eager beaver and just pop up asking frantic questions just to appear "intelligent," but consequently slowing down everyone's learning experience in class (trust me: if you don't have that guy in your class, be thankful).

But do follow up with thoughtful questions if you have them during or after class/ on a class break. Maybe get involved in an activity they sponsor. The top thing to do with connections with professors, like any true relationship, is to make it organic. Law professors are highly intelligent people, and can usually catch disingenuous B.S. right away. Don't make yourself just a face in the crowd.

  • When writing your email or approaching a professor in-person, the way you know the choice of recommendation is a proper choice is if it doesn't feel awkward: I shouldn't have to give you a script for approaching a professor, besides obviously encouraging common curtesy. A true connection with a professor shouldn't feel forced or pushed. You should feel comfortable reaching out to their school-provided email, stating what you need the reference/recommendation for, and if they'd feel comfortable providing it for you.

You should also include a projected timeline for your reference (I.E: I'll need it by this deadline for this scholarship/application to an L.L.M./ job interview), and an explanation of what the reference is for and what they are looking for (For example, a reference for a job usually highlights different aspects of one's personality than academia). You want to make sure that all the work is alleviated off of your professor's shoulders in the research of whatever thing you are applying for is, and easily accessible in one place. Don't write the email when you're tired, save it as a draft, even if you think it's solid, and send it after one final check the next day.

  • If you get rejected, don't take it personally: I'm going to be honest, it was probably not the best idea in retrospect to ask the professor I cried in front of for a confidence-inducing recommendation, no matter how much I improved in her class (And yes, that was the reference I asked for for that class I received the A- in).

  • Give them plenty of time: Professors are like anyone. They get busy, they have life. You also have to remember you're probably not the only person asking them for a reference letter (especially if you're in first year and it's not an elective course). If you want a reference letter, particularly a good one, let them know with plenty of time.

  • Set reminders and follow through: Demonstrative of your amazing organizational abilities, and follow up with everyone afterwards. Ask them if you can email them a week before that timeline we mentioned before to give them a reminder. They'll honestly probably appreciate it (as long as you don't send a 'reminder' without checking with them first. No one likes feeling like they're being pestered).

  • Follow-Up with thank you letters: Remember- things don't come for free. Professors probably gave up at least part of their weekend to write you that reference letter. The least you can do is follow up with a thank you card (preferably in person, but with COVID occurring, that's probably not likely- an e-mail will do.).

  • Lastly, keep contact every six months to a year or so with updates at the start of your career: If your teacher/professor really does take a shine to you, keep them updated about where you are in your career. They probably honestly want to know where you might be ending up and in what career. A lot of times, a proper connection with a professor can end up with some sort of friendship (obviously at a professional level); make sure you don't leave that thread hanging, and you might have a life-long connection to a very intelligent person in the law industry.

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