Assume that schools prefer academic recommendations unless they specifically request a professional one. An academic recommender is someone who has taught you in a college classroom environment, graded your papers, led your discussion sections, etc.
Law school recommendations are not meant to be character references; they should focus on you as a student. Any thoughts they share about you outside the classroom are just bonuses; they are not required or expected. Recommendations are also not expected to discuss other parts of your application, like your extracurricular activities while in college.
Less is more. Have good reasons for submitting more than the required number of recommendations. In fact, have a good reason for submitting anything as part of your application that isn’t required.
Use LSAC’s Credential Assembly Service to submit your recommendations for your applications.
The longer you’ve been out of school, the less admissions officers expect to see an academic recommendation, and the more appropriate it is to submit a professional one. Keep an eye out for the exceptional schools that do prefer a professional recommendation; they will tell you so in their application instructions.
The recommender’s job title is never more important than the closeness of the academic relationship. The Teaching Assistant might have more meaningful things to say about you as a student than the name-brand professor does. Recommendations from famous people, politicians, or other VIPs are useless; don’t bother. The only VIPs that might be able to help you are ones that have a relationship with the law school at a high level, like a trustee or a really big donor.
Recommendations should be mainly backward-looking, offering an opinion on you as their student (or employee, if a professional recommendation). Recommenders are not expected to predict how you’re going to fare as a law student in particular, or as a future lawyer (unless the recommender also has a law degree), but they are expected to know your past academic work in their class well enough to assess your academic qualities.
Anecdotes and stories make a recommendation memorable and “sticky.” A bunch of adjectives, even superlative ones, do not. If a recommender invites your input or guidance, ask her to give examples that back up her opinions. It also helps if she can put you in the relative context of the other students she has taught.
Never ask to see a draft. If recommenders ask for you input, it’s great to give them input. If they show you a draft, you are absolutely allowed to see it even if you’ve signed the waiver on the application form. But never give recommenders the impression that you expect to see what they have written about you.
It’s always a good idea to prep your recommenders. You can help them understand your motivations for pursuing law school (you want to signal to them that you have thought through this big decision, and that you are not applying to law school just because it’s the path of least resistance). Help them understand in broad strokes how you are positioning yourself in your application.
When requesting recommendations, give your recommenders an “out.” If they express any hesitation, move on and find someone who is enthusiastic about writing you a meaningful letter.
Do not write your own letter, even if a recommender asks you to (“draft it and I’ll sign it”). Admissions officers would not consider that ethical or useful, and even if it were, self-written letters tend not to be very good. (Try writing one sometime. Unless you are a narcissist, it’s hard to say truly stand-out things about yourself. And you can’t read your recommender’s mind or write in his voice in any event.)
Be mindful that you are asking recommenders to spend some of their reputational capital on you. Don’t abuse that courtesy.
The most important thing for you to do is pick the appropriate recommenders and guide them as requested. After that, it’s out of your hands. Give them a deadline to submit their letters — at least six weeks before you want your applications to be complete (four weeks for them to write the letter, two for LSAC to process it). Your LSAC account will show when each letter has been received. Follow up with any tardy recommenders as soon as possible after the deadline you have given them.
After you know where you will be starting law school, follow up with your recommenders and thank them. They are part of your network, and they actually care about your success. Stay in touch.