LL.M. admission committees want to know who you are as an applicant. Your test scores, marks in your earlier degrees, and other objective criteria are not enough. The committees usually cannot meet LL.M. applicants, so they need another way to get to know you. 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. Admission committees rely heavily on these letters.
Who should write your recommendation letters? Why?
The best recommendation letters are written by people (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 enough knowledge about you, and confidence in you, to be able to inform the LL.M. admission committee, with relative specificity, that you will likely succeed in the LL.M. program. The best letters will be able to state that you will do very well in the LL.M. program, and after you graduate.
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. They can easily attest to your professional and academic merits.
Is there such a thing as a “bad” recommendation letter?
Be careful about who you ask to write a recommendation
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”.
Be smart! You may have many choices about who to ask to write your recommendation letters. Do not be too hasty.
Ideally, you will choose persons with whom you have a good relationship, perhaps a previous or current employer, or a professor. It is probably easy to develop a relationship with an employer—your boss—because you work with that person. That
person would have an opportunity to observe your skills and your performance, and to get to know you as a person as well. Presuming that you performed well, that employer/boss would likely be a good candidate to be a referee, as you would have a well-established relationship with that person, and that person thinks highly of you and your work.
What if my referee does not speak or write English?
If your referee does not speak or write in English, they can write their letter in their language of choice. You or another person can translate the letter into English. You should submit the original letter and the English translation to the schools as part of your LL.M. application. Indicate in your LL.M. application the identity of the person who translated the letter.
What should a good recommendation letter contain?
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).
There are many topics that are suitable for a referee to include in a recommendation letter. These topics include, for example, the referee’s comments on:
1. The student’s intellectual capacity, motivation, character, habits, work ethic, reliability, knowledge, expertise, and adaptability.
2. The student’s ability to perform academically, to analyze problems and conduct research, and to succeed in an intense year-long law study program.
3. The student’s maturity and judgment, temperament, ability to work independently, ability to get along well with others, flexibility and creativity, and leadership ability.
4. The student’s English language writing and speaking skills.
5. 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.
6. How an LL.M. degree from the U.S. might contribute to the applicant’s ongoing work, professional development, or career goals.
7. 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.
8. An honest assessment of the candidate, reinforced by specific examples rather than vague generalities.
9. Quality comments are important, perhaps more than the quantity of the comments. A recommendation letter need not be long.
10. Any other positive qualities about the student, the student’s background, the student’s abilities, and the student’s potential.
11. Any specific topics the U.S. law school might request comment about.
That student was admitted to that Ivy League law school!
Chapter 11 of LL.M. Roadmap contains a detailed discussion of LL.M. Recommendation Letters.