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Law schools say negative letters happen

When it comes to letters of recommendation for law school, applicants shouldn’t always expect a glowing review from an employer or professor.

A recent survey of 145 law schools in the country showed that almost 90 percent have received negative letters of recommendation on behalf of an applicant.

In addition, the Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions Survey revealed that 15 percent of admissions officers said that a damaging letter is the biggest factor in denial of an application.

Administrators at both law schools in Wisconsin said that, while rare, they do receive negative recommendation letters, although they are not make-or-break factors for admittance.

“We’re able to glean a lot of information from all the letters we receive and should someone receive a negative letter we blend those into the narrative of an applicant,” said Michael Hall, Dean of Admissions at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

In the course of reading hundreds of letters, Hall said he may come across one or two every few weeks that could be classified as negative.

The occurrence is similarly uncommon at Marquette Law School, where Assistant Dean for Admissions Sean Reilly said that of the 4,000 recommendation letters the law school receives annually, only a handful contain negative undertones.

Attorneys who have experience crafting letters for law school hopefuls said there is no harm in pointing out an applicant’s weaknesses. But some question why someone would agree to write a letter which contradicts the purpose of the exercise – a successful law school application.

“I think it’s unfair to agree to write a letter of recommendation and then not recommend the person,” said Domnitz & Skemp attorney Ann S. Jacobs.

Applicants are often advised by law school officials to be selective in picking people to submit letters of recommendation.

When attorney Jennifer M. Severino applied to law school, the 2009 Marquette graduate asked for letters of recommendation from attorneys at two firms where she worked as a paralegal.

While she was confident her bosses would support her decision to attend law school, Severino still comically considered the possibility that they might “sabotage” her effort.

“I left on great terms, but I did have a little concern because I was still working when I applied and they didn’t want me to leave,” she said. “They tried to convince me to stay and work for another year.”

If asked to write a letter for someone she doesn’t feel qualified to endorse, Jacobs said she will simply decline and suggest the applicant find a person more in tune with their work habits or personal attributes.

The same is true for Milwaukee attorney Erich Scherr, who tends to only write letters for employees who have directly worked with or for him for at least a summer.

“Someone who has shined around my office or popped in to talk sports, I wouldn’t write a letter for because I probably don’t know them well enough to recommend them,” he said.

Jacobs said those asked for recommendations have an obligation to be honest and upfront with an applicant prior to mailing a letter to a law school.

But there is a difference between a negative letter and one which gives a sincere assessment of a candidate.

In recommending clerks at his firm, Scherr has pointed out areas where applicants need to grow if accepted to law school, such as analytical or problem solving skills.

“In some sense I’m putting my own reputation on the line in recommending someone,” he said. “So I want to be objective if someone hadn’t initially shown a high level of maturity, but improved over time.”

Beyond the academic elements of an application – the LSAT score and GPA – Hall said for better or worse, letters of recommendation can offer insight as to whether the individual has the tools to become an attorney.

But administrators also have to evaluate the contents of a letter to determine whether it is an accurate depiction of the applicant.

Reilly recalled a discussion amongst administrators several years ago about a negative letter the law school received from a professor.

He said debate ensued as to whether the person who wrote the letter simply had an ax to grind with the student, or whether the letter should be taken on good faith that the professor gave an honest assessment of the applicant.

“Rarely is it a situation that is cut and dry,” Reilly said.

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