Over the last several weeks law students have been busily studying, mooting, and doing applications for summer jobs and internships.
Most of those positions require references. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking to approach a professor for a reference, so I asked some faculty favourites to weigh in on when they won’t give a good reference, and generally what they look for.
Here’s their input:
How do you know if the person you’ve asked to provide a reference will sing your praises, or torpedo your chances of that dream job with a lukewarm endorsement?
This is one of the most sensitive and difficult questions that I remember agonizing over as a student – especially coming out of first year law school. I remember being advised to bluntly ask a potential referee directly whether they will give you a “good reference”. I never had the guts to do that, but when I’ve been asked now as a professor that question, I give as clear an answer as I can. Unless you get an enthusiastic “yes” to your request asking for a reference, it might be best to be cautious. While some referees will say “no” if they know they can’t give a strong reference, many others have trouble being so forthright so it’s best to watch for cues. For example, “I really haven’t had a good chance to observe your work” is thinly coded for “please don’t ask me to be a reference, it probably won’t help your chance, but if you pressure me, I will anyway.” If referees are not needed for a job, don’t worry about asking for them.
At the end of the day, cultivating a great set of referees takes time – don’t forget about your pre-law referees because one of them can still be a good reference for your character and work ethic in your initial hunt for a law job. The best referees are the ones you know value your work and contributions. You’ve gotten to know them, and they’ve gotten to know you. You’ve received frank and open feedback from them, and demonstrated the ability to grow and learn. It can be tough especially in first year, or even early in second year of law school, to find a good law professor referee. Office hours, coming to Faculty talks that interest you, and speaking up in class when you have an insight or question, are really important to get to know your professors. Starting in second year, try to take a seminar or participate in a moot with a professor whose areas of interest match up with yours. Apply for those research assistant jobs that are posted, and ask your favourite profs if they’ll have job openings in the summer or next year. While I post all of my student positions, many others are filled without an open call for proposals. At the end of the day, your professors really do want to get to know you and support you in your work. Once your referee has written one letter for you, remember it is relatively easy for them to update/modify it for other positions – it is not a big imposition to ask for another one for another job/position/program. Just be sure to give lots of lead time, and send a friendly reminder close to the due date. It is also fine to follow-up and make sure the reference letter/call was made.
There’s nothing more rewarding than the letters and phone calls that I’ve made on behalf of students that I’ve seen grow into thoughtful and bright lawyers-to-be as they apply for summer or articling jobs. And, always be sure to thank your referees and keep them posted on when you land that job.
“What clues do professors give students when they are not able to provide a strong reference?”
We have great students at UBC and it’s generally not hard to find good things to say about someone. In the rare situation where there is an issue -let’s say the student chronically falls asleep and snores loudly in my classes -I would be frank with that student about what I can and cannot say. I can’t tell that student that I can speak positively about his/her engagement with the class, for example. I might ask the student whether, in light of our interactions, I was necessarily the best person to write a reference for him/her. This would be a rare situation. The more common challenge is writing a letter for a student I do not know very well. Reference letters are a very important part of an application package. It makes a real difference if I can provide some specific information about a student’s interests, plans, or perspective. It is easier for me to do this for students who participate in class or whom I’ve had a chance to get to know a bit better. The more a student is engaged at the school and in my class, the easier it is to write a reference (though my colleagues will be upset if you tell them Prof. Ford said you should spend more time in their offices!)
I am almost always very happy to write references for my students – in fact, it is one of the more enjoyable parts of the job. Ideally, the student will have already spoken with me about their studies outside of the lecture, but if that isn’t the case then I will try to meet with them before writing the reference to discuss their work and future plans. This usually helps a great deal when it comes to writing the letter, and also gives me an opportunity to talk to the student about their application (and occasionally offer advice about things such as the CV and cover letter). In those rare instances where I don’t feel that I am able to write an entirely positive reference – perhaps because the student didn’t show up for class regularly, or there were problems with their work for me – then I will make it clear that I may not be the best person to ask for a letter, and that they might want to think about approaching another member of faculty. As final point, I should add that just because a student doesn’t always speak up in class or didn’t get the best mark in my subject doesn’t mean that they won’t get a good reference from me. Talent and effort can be demonstrated in all sorts of ways, and I am happy to say that it generally isn’t difficult to find good things to say about our students here at UBC.
…last but not least (and with uncharacteristic brevity)
“I don’t give negative references. If someone who I cannot write a positive reference for asks me, I simply say no!”
I found these submissions enlightening for a few reasons.
- I didn’t fully realize the importance of participating in class for helping a prof get to know you
- I usually feel a bit sheepish asking for busy people to give up their time- but from this feedback it seems like professors are quite open and willing to help their students
- It’s comforting to know that professors will generally say no, or give some clear signal if they are not able to provide an entirely positive reference
I hope everyone finds this helpful- I know I did!
Thanks again to our panel of professors for weighing in on this month’s “Ask a Prof” topic.