If you're planning on submitting law school applications this coming fall, now is a good time to start thinking about your recommendations: Whom are you going to ask? And when?
The first thing to know is that most law schools prefer academic recommendations. By that I mean letters from recommenders who have (1) taught you (2) in a classroom setting (3) in college or grad school and (4) have something meaningful and first-hand to say about your intellectual chops and academic performance in that class.
Have you noticed what's not in that list? Job title. It doesn't matter if that person is a Nobel-prize winning professor or a long-suffering grad student who grades your papers and leads your discussion groups. What matters is that your recommender can speak (positively, one hopes) to your academic performance as a student in his or her class.
Some thoughts on timeline:
1. Is your work with the professor still ongoing?
Ideally, you should wait until the class is done and you have a final grade before you ask for a recommendation. Otherwise you're asking the recommender to offer an opinion on your work when your work is still in progress, and he hasn't even made his final assessment yet (in the form of a final grade).
2. Is your work together already completed?
If your academic work with a potential recommender is already behind you, there's no reason to wait before asking for the recommendation. Even if you're an extra-special student, teachers see lots of students come and go. The more time that passes between your work together and when you ask him to write a letter, the harder it's going to be for him to reconstruct your performance, and the harder it's going to be for him to discuss what it was like to have you as a student with any specificity. The key to a good recommendation is detail. He'll be able to write you a much better letter if he can draw on specific anecdotes and examples that are fresh in his mind rather than talking about you in generalities or abstractions or just a string of adjectives.
It's not a problem if the recommendation is already several months old by the time you apply. In some instances, a recommendation might already be a year or two old, depending on when you took the class. That's fine. The reliability and usefulness of the content matter more than the date stamp.
And finally, keep in mind that your recommenders might want or need some lead time to get the letter done. For example, a professor might be planning on a sabbatical this coming fall, and that means you'd have a hard time tracking him down during that time, or he might decide he's not writing any recommendations at all while he's on sabbatical. Recommenders have their own personal and professional calendars to work around, and waiting until the fall to ask them to write a letter might conflict with whatever else they have going on at that time.
Have more questions about recommendations? Read more tips here.
Former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and a recovering lawyer, Anna Ivey founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process. Read more admissions tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions, recently updated and available as an e-book. Follow Anna on Twitter (@annaivey).