LL.M. Applications: How (and Where!) to Get Great References

Who should you ask to be a reference? Why are they important?

References are a crucial part of any LL.M. application. While previous studies and work experience play a big role in the overall LL.M. application, references allow schools to form a more complete picture of a prospective student and properly assess the value they will bring to an LL.M. program. That’s why having several good references from the right people is important for any LL.M. application. Here, we are going to lay out what a good reference looks like, who you should select to write your letters of recommendation, and who you should avoid. 

Who should I use as a reference for my LL.M. application?

Schools have varying requirements when it comes to whom they expect to write a letter of recommendation. In general, schools expect two to three references from professors or people working in law who can speak to an applicant’s strengths, though some schools may prefer one over the other.

The College of Europe, for example, requires two references from professors specifically. “Ideally, these should be professors who have supervised the previous master’s thesis the student has already written before coming to the college for their LL.M.,” explains Dr. Sacha Garben, a professor at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium. The application also allows students to submit two optional references, which Garben says may come from “a former boss or someone outside the academic world.”

Some exceptions can be made when it comes to these required references. If one has been practicing in the legal field and out of academia for at least five years, Garben says, one of their compulsory references may be substituted for a reference from a boss. 

“What we’re looking for are people who understand the applicant’s ability to be successful in our programs,” says Joshua M. Alter, Director of Non-JD Programs at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. In addition to recommendations from professors, Alter states, references tend to come from people who are currently practicing law with whom the applicant has previously worked, often people who have completed an LL.M. at a top university themselves.

“Those people can tell us, based on their observations of this person, whether he or she is going to be successful in the program,” Alter says. “Doing that sends a really strong message to our admissions committee.”

Who shouldn’t I use as a reference?

“The biggest ‘no’ is relatives or friends speaking only to [an applicant’s] trustworthiness or their reputation in the community,” claims Alter. Alter notes that, while these people may paint a positive picture of the applicant, they are simply not as helpful to the admissions committee’s academic determinations.

Additionally, the seniority of the referrer is not necessarily important, especially if utilizing that seniority comes at the cost of the personal connection a reference should have.

“A reference from someone who knows a student counts much more than the seniority of a referee with little knowledge about the applicant,” advises Professor Thom Brooks, Dean of Durham Law School at Durham University. Brooks says that it is more important for “students to get references from people who know them, their work and, ideally, have discussed their future plans for postgraduate study.”

Finally, while bosses and others outside academia are often allowed to provide references, an applicant should try to make sure that these people are actually relevant to the legal field.

“References need to still pertain to our program,” reminds Garben. “Ideally, a reference would not come from a boss at a random job that has nothing to do with law. Instead, maybe an applicant has interned or worked at a law firm and someone from that role can testify to their legal skills.”

How can I make sure I get a great reference?

Asking someone to write about an individual’s specific strengths and achievements is an admittedly daunting task. Luckily, there are a few things an applicant can do to ease this process and ensure they receive a quality reference. 

In Alter’s experience, the best reference writing process begins with a well-prepared student. 

“Take a one-page cover letter to your referrer explaining our interest in an LL.M. program and what you are hoping the referrer will be able to write about you, and then add information to show that this is not a form letter and is actually very personal.”

For example, this may include attaching writing samples, highlights from an applicant’s work experience, and stories from the applicant’s interactions with that referrer. Doing this allows both the referrer and the applicant to focus their application and its references, giving a prospective university a clearer idea who the applicant is and what the applicant wishes to achieve.

How important are references in an LL.M. application?

Every school contacted for this piece noted that references play a very important role in the application, with each school noting that reviewing references is a significant part of the holistic application review process. 

“References are there partially to vouch for everything else that appears in the application,” states Garben. “They don’t just add a personal touch. They allow us to really be able to trust everything that is presented on the application.” 

Furthermore, she continues, references allow the university to see elements of a student’s personality and ability that may not be easily discernible from the rest of the application. “A reference gives us additional information about things that are not included in the transcript, such as class participation. That’s something that is not necessarily clear from grades alone.”

Reference writing is a two-way street. Often, professors and those working in the legal field are more than happy to provide references; however, the onus is on the applicant to give them the proper tools and information they need to do so. By both selecting the right referrer and easing the reference writing process, one increases their chances of having a knock-out letter of recommendation — something any law school would be happy to receive. 

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