Some LL.M. programs receive many hundreds of LL.M. applications of very highly qualified students from around the world. Recommendation letters, written by credible and knowledgeable referees, play a large role in admission committee decisions.
So, you are cautioned to take great care in soliciting recommendation letters that will help you convince LL.M. admission committees to admit you.
You may be an excellent applicant, with excellent academic credentials, broad practical legal experience, superb English language skills, numerous other professional and personal accomplishments, and a dynamic personality. However, unless your referees can address those and similar qualities in your recommendation letters, you may lose out on a spot in the LL.M. program you choose.
Here are 7 things to remember about LL.M. recommendation letters:
1. Remember why LL.M. admissions committees want recommendation letters.
LL.M. admission committees want to get to know you, the applicant, as a person. Your test scores, marks / grades, and degrees provide substantial objective information. But, that does not paint a full picture of you. You will likely not have a chance for a personal interview. Your personal statements are helpful, but they are written by you.
Thus LL.M. programs typically require you to submit at least 2 recommendation letters written by “referees”. These letters help cement an image for the school about who you are. They help the admission committees learn as much about you as possible, from people who know you, your accomplishments, and your potential.
2. Do not pick the "wrong" referees to write your letters.
The best recommendation letters come from referees who personally know you, and who are familiar with your intellectual abilities, your work and other accomplishments, and your actual personality.
Your referees should have confidence in you. They should be able to inform the LL.M. admission committee, with relative specificity, that you will likely succeed in the LL.M. program.
Good recommendation letters can be written by current or former professors, employers, work colleagues, or even clients. All of these people should be in good positions to know you and your work well. People in these categories would have been exposed
3. Avoid “bad” recommendation letters.
Do not get reference letters from people who do not know you or your work well.
Law faculty deans, judges, prominent lawyers, legislators or other public figures are great people to write letters only if they have sufficient personal knowledge of you and your work or accomplishments, and personal knowledge of characteristics that would make you an excellent LL.M. candidate. Letters from these people will not help much if they do not speak with specificity and with personal knowledge.
Choose referees based on what they personally know about your merits. Do not choose referees based solely on their professional or societal “status”.
4. Do not worry if your referee does not speak or write English.
Your referee can write their letter in their language of choice. You or another person can translate the letter into English. Be sure to submit the original letter and the English translation with your LL.M. application. Indicate the identity of the person who translated the letter.
5. Help your referee get it right!
Your professors, employers, advisors or others whom you ask to serve as referees may be very happy to do so. But remember that writing recommendations is not an easy task, and takes time and energy. Referees are busy with other aspects of their daily jobs. Furthermore, since you may seek letters years after you left school or your former job, and the referees may have had many other students or employees, your referee will likely not remember all the important points about you and your background that should be included in the letters.
Remind your referee of good points to include in your letters!
You might supply your referee with your current resume / CV, and outline in paragraph or bullet point reminders of the classes you took with them, the subject matter of any paper or project you worked on, information about any notable accomplishments during your academic or work career, and other information that might jog the referee’s memory.
Good referees want you to remind them of as many important points as possible to help them make your letters as strong, positive and persuasive as possible. This does not mean that you should write the letters for them. But, you should provide them with sufficient information for them to write solid letters.
Point number 6 below identifies information that good recommendation letters might contain. This is the sort of information you should make sure your referees have at their fingertips.
6. Good recommendation letters contain certain information.
Each recommendation letter should contain the name of the referee, the referee’s job title or description, and a short statement about how the referee knows the application / student and in what capacity (as the student’s professor, advisor, work supervisor, colleague).
Many topics would be suitable for a referee to include in a recommendation letter.
These topics include, for example, the referee’s comments on:
a. The student’s intellectual capacity, motivation, character, habits, work ethic, reliability, knowledge, expertise, and adaptability.
b. The student’s ability to perform academically, to analyze problems and conduct research, and to succeed in an intense year-long law study program.
c. The student’s maturity and judgment, temperament, ability to work independently, ability to get along well with others, flexibility and creativity, and leadership ability.
d. The student’s English language writing and speaking skills.
e. The student’s accomplishments (including awards, extra-curricular activities), whether the student’s current goals are reasonable, and the student’s past contributions, for example, to school, family, society.
f. How an LL.M. degree from the U.S. might contribute to the applicant’s ongoing work, professional development, or career goals.
g. How the student might contribute to the U.S. law school or its LL.M. program, for example, by bringing intellectual diversity or expertise in an esoteric field.
h. An honest assessment of the candidate, reinforced by specific examples rather than vague generalities.
i. Quality comments are important, perhaps more than the quantity of the comments. A recommendation letter need not be long.
j. Any other positive qualities about the student, the student’s background, the student’s abilities, and the student’s potential.
k. Any specific topics the U.S. law school might request comment about.
7. Check the LL.M. Roadmap book for more information about recommendation letters.
a. Chapter 11 of LL.M. Roadmap contains a detailed discussion of LL.M. Recommendation Letters.
b. Chapter 11 of LL.M. Roadmap also contains a sample LL.M. application Recommendation Letter. It is based on a letter written on behalf of an LL.M. applicant for an Ivy League law school. That student was admitted to that Ivy League law school!