Survey: Law schools receive negative letters

September 13, 2010
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This post was written by IL reporter Rebecca Berfanger.

A national company that specializes in helping students get into undergraduate and graduate schools reported a majority of law school and medical school admissions offices had received negative recommendation letters. Hearing this, based on my personal experience, it made me wonder: Why would someone ask for a letter if they weren’t sure they would get a positive recommendation? And why would a professor or anyone else take the time and energy to write a negative letter instead of just saying no?

But maybe it does make some sense after all.

According to results of a Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions Survey conducted in July and August and released late last week, 87 percent of the participating 145 law schools reported receiving a negative letter of recommendation. About 15 percent of those surveyed also said a negative letter is the biggest application killer.

The same percentages were reported for medical schools, according to a press release from Kaplan

Dani Weatherford, director of recruitment for Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, said there are maybe one or two negative letters in an application cycle. She said that hasn’t changed over the years, even among the 3,441 applications the school received for the 2010-11 school year, a record.

“A lot of counseling is given to students at law school fairs and forums, and letters of recommendation are always a hot topic. Our advice is always to talk to the person, to outline what you need the letter to say, and to ask if the person is comfortable writing it. If not, then move on to someone else who is,” she said.

She added it’s so rare that it’s “shocking” when she does see a negative letter, and she will usually read it a second or even a third time to make sure she understands what the letter is saying.

But usually, a negative letter won’t explain that the student shouldn’t go to law school because of a criminal background or because she was caught cheating, she said. Instead, a writer might say the student isn’t mature enough to handle law school and/or may need more life experience to be prepared to handle a law school program.

When I first heard about this survey, I had flashbacks of my application process for grad school in late 2003. Either I learned from somewhere or instinctively knew not to ask anyone who might write a letter that would be at all negative and therefore even possibly hurt my chances.

Luckily, there was no second guessing. In addition to the signed and sealed letters I’d send to schools, my supporters had each provided me a copy of the letter he or she had written for my personal records. (I should find out if those are floating around somewhere in my basement to read when I’m having a bad day…)

However, by that time I knew this wasn’t the case for everyone. When a former roommate suspected she received a less than glowing letter for a graduate program, she didn’t have a personal copy so she steamed it open to read it. Although we have since lost touch, I can’t forget the sad look on her face after she told me she read it. I always wondered if she was turned down due to the negative letter, because the school suspected she tampered with the letter, or if she just wasn’t yet ready for grad school.

When I was an adjunct journalism professor last fall, I was reminded of this incident when a few students had asked if I would be a reference for internships or graduate programs.

I asked a few other professors in various fields and at other schools how they handle these requests. The answers varied, but the consensus seemed to be if you like the student, and she gives you ample time and information to write it and you have the time, go for it. If not, politely decline and only give further explanation only if you, the professor, want to.

But with rising numbers of applicants due to the bad economy – two other findings of the survey – I wonder if more people who aren’t a good fit for law school will apply, even if they are unsure of the content and tone of their recommendation letters. I also wonder if the recommenders are maybe doing the applicant a favor with a brutally honest, if negative, letter of recommendation to keep them out of law school.
 

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  • Lawsuits possible?
    Wouldn't it be ironic if there were eventually lawsuits for negative letters much as there has been for negative references in HR, which has led to "name, dates of employment only" type references now.

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  1. CCHP's real accomplishment is the 2015 law signed by Gov Pence that basically outlaws any annexation that is forced where a 65% majority of landowners in the affected area disagree. Regardless of whether HP wins or loses, the citizens of Indiana will not have another fiasco like this. The law Gov Pence signed is a direct result of this malgovernance.

  2. I gave tempparry guardship to a friend of my granddaughter in 2012. I went to prison. I had custody. My daughter went to prison to. We are out. My daughter gave me custody but can get her back. She was not order to give me custody . but now we want granddaughter back from friend. She's 14 now. What rights do we have

  3. This sure is not what most who value good governance consider the Rule of Law to entail: "In a letter dated March 2, which Brizzi forwarded to IBJ, the commission dismissed the grievance “on grounds that there is not reasonable cause to believe that you are guilty of misconduct.”" Yet two month later reasonable cause does exist? (Or is the commission forging ahead, the need for reasonable belief be damned? -- A seeming violation of the Rules of Profession Ethics on the part of the commission) Could the rule of law theory cause one to believe that an explanation is in order? Could it be that Hoosier attorneys live under Imperial Law (which is also a t-word that rhymes with infamy) in which the Platonic guardians can do no wrong and never owe the plebeian class any explanation for their powerful actions. (Might makes it right?) Could this be a case of politics directing the commission, as celebrated IU Mauer Professor (the late) Patrick Baude warned was happening 20 years ago in his controversial (whisteblowing) ethics lecture on a quite similar topic: http://www.repository.law.indiana.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1498&context=ilj

  4. I have a case presently pending cert review before the SCOTUS that reveals just how Indiana regulates the bar. I have been denied licensure for life for holding the wrong views and questioning the grand inquisitors as to their duties as to state and federal constitutional due process. True story: https://www.scribd.com/doc/299040839/2016Petitionforcert-to-SCOTUS Shorter, Amici brief serving to frame issue as misuse of govt licensure: https://www.scribd.com/doc/312841269/Thomas-More-Society-Amicus-Brown-v-Ind-Bd-of-Law-Examiners

  5. Here's an idea...how about we MORE heavily regulate the law schools to reduce the surplus of graduates, driving starting salaries up for those new grads, so that we can all pay our insane amount of student loans off in a reasonable amount of time and then be able to afford to do pro bono & low-fee work? I've got friends in other industries, radiology for example, and their schools accept a very limited number of students so there will never be a glut of new grads and everyone's pay stays high. For example, my radiologist friend's school accepted just six new students per year.

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