Students frequently ask me to be a job reference or write a recommendation letter for them.
Often, I’m at a complete loss for words.
I teach classes with large enrollments. If the student never stopped by my office or otherwise got to know me, I can’t say much more than the following:
“John got a B+ on the exam, arrived on time, made eye contact, and answered questions in class from time to time.”
Here is the problem: Nobody is looking to hire a new colleague who merely “meets expectations” or is otherwise unremarkable.
Ideally, I’d tell the employer that the student walks on water. She has a nuanced understanding of the material that most other students lack. Her genuine passion for the law makes her an excellent candidate for a position as a summer intern or judicial clerk.
Please understand: The most successful applicants are recommended by professors who know them well, can discuss their strengths, and can offer a clear, informed narrative about why the student will excel as an attorney.
You need to help your professor develop this positive, informed narrative for you. There are several ways to do it:
1. Take the time to meet with the professor outside of class.
Professors hold regular office hours.
Go to them.
If you have a conflict, you can always make an appointment to meet outside of office hours.
2. Ask intelligent, nuanced questions about the class material.
Professors enjoy talking—particularly about what they teach. So the class material makes for a great point of discussion.
Limit yourself to substantive questions that convey your depth of understanding and interest in the material.
For example, you can ask about a weakness in a court opinion or a theory that wasn’t raised in the class discussion.
You can chat about discrepancies between two cases or doctrines that you astutely spotted.
You can call your professor’s attention to a court opinion or law review article that you came across that sheds light on a subject you studied in class. If you’ll do this, please read the opinion or article in full and come prepared to chat about it. Please don’t simply email an opinion or article to a professor and ask for comment. If you want to come across as intelligent and prepared, you need to do your homework.
There is a danger to overdoing office hours. Don’t show up to every one of them or otherwise repeatedly pester your busy professor with emails.
Quality is better than quantity.
That leads me to the next point.
3. Don’t waste your time or your professor’s time.
Avoid showing up just to say that you showed up.
Nothing is more transparent than a student who drops in to regurgitate the lecture or asks questions that have already been answered in class.
I get numerous questions from students every year that are answered in the syllabus or in the video tutorials that I circulate to the class.
What materials can I bring to the exam? Answered in the syllabus.
What’s the absence policy? Answered in the syllabus.
How do I go about outlining your class? Answered in the video I put together on outlining.
Yes, it’s easier to directly ask these questions to your professor instead of doing your homework.
But these questions convey a certain lack of professionalism and preparedness. This is not the impression you want to give to a professor whose reference you will need to get a job.
4. Offer to help your professor with her research.
Several years ago, a student stopped by my office, told me about his interest in constitutional law, and asked if there is anything he can do to help with my research in his spare time.
After he proved himself with two minor research assignments, I ended up hiring him as my permanent research assistant.
I wrote him a stellar letter of recommendation and made phone calls to judges on his behalf, which secured him a prestigious judicial clerkship upon graduation.
I know what you’re thinking: I don’t have time for this.
I’m not suggesting that you neglect your course work for volunteer legal research. Especially in the first semester of your 1L year, you’ll have your plate completely full.
But if you find a few hours in your schedule over winter break or at the beginning of your Spring semester, why not approach one of your professors to see if you can help?
If you don’t take the initiative, someone else will.
As a research assistant, you are giving the professor an invaluable opportunity to closely supervise your research and writing, and get to know you as a person.
If you perform well as an RA, many professors will go to bat for you. For example, I regularly ask my RAs to give me a list of their dream employers. I then pick up the phone and call the employers to sing their praises. Without fail, every one of my RAs has gotten an offer from an employer on their short list.
So, take the time to get to know your professor. Ask nuanced, intelligent questions that make you stand out from the crowd. This is one of the best investments you can make for your future legal career.