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5 Tips for Writing Lawyerly Letters of Recommendation

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on October 27, 2014 12:22 PM

Prestigious legal jobs, up to and including federal clerkships, require letters of recommendation, that most hagiographic of exercises that's really fairly pointless. Seriously: What is a prospective employer going to learn in a letter of recommendation? (The dark secret is that this is the employee's chance to show off whom he or she knows.)

It's getting to be recommendation season, so if you're going to write a letter of recommendation for young lawyers, law students, or even prospective law students, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Does Your Firm Allow It?

If you work for a firm, your company might have a policy about letters of recommendation -- as in, they aren't allowed so the company can't be on the hook for libel if the person doesn't get the job. There might be some leeway if you're doing this as a personal favor for the prospective employee, but check it out first.

2. Read the Job Description, Then Tailor Your Letter.

Letters of recommendation shouldn't be a bunch of generic statements that refer to information easily found in a resume. Think of it like a cover letter: A job opening will list what the employer wants the applicant to do. As U.S. News has explained, your letter should specifically address all the ways in which the applicant can do those things, based on your experience with the person, with reference to concrete examples.

3. Are You the Right Person?

If you're a fairly hoity-toity person at the firm, then look out: Kids today have been programmed to get a recommendation from the most important person they can, but that's not really the right way to do it. The point of a recommendation letter isn't that you've merely seen the person in the hallway; rather, you need to be familiar with the person's work. If you really don't know the applicant very well -- and especially if you didn't like the quality of the person's work -- politely decline to offer a recommendation.

4. You Can Let the Applicant See It.

In the old days, letters of recommendation were covert affairs, delivered in sealed envelopes, with the recommender's signature written across the seal. The point is that the recommender isn't supposed to let the applicant know what the letter says. But that really doesn't make sense: Shouldn't the applicant know? In any event, it's commonplace for the applicant to receive a copy of the letter to ensure that everything in it is correct before it gets sent.

5. Don't Go Too Long.

If there's no word or page limit, a letter of recommendation should be about a page long, possibly two -- but really, no more than two pages on your official letterhead. You're recommending someone for a position somewhere, not writing a biography. Admissions officers and HR people have to read a lot of these, so keep it short and sweet.

Any more tips to share on writing letters of recommendation? Let us know via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals).

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