Reference Work

Originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of the ABA Journal.

Harmless Error - A Truly Minority View on the Law

Reference Work


Law schools require applicants to submit multiple letters of reference in support of their applications. While this would seem to be an excellent method for screening candidates, a problem arises from the fact that many letters of recommendation come across as completely bogus.

After years of study, linguists have finally determined the reason: they are completely bogus. Why? Because law school applicants make two common mistakes in choosing references.

The first blunder is opting for letters from “big names”—politicians, judges and lawyers—rather than people who actually know the applicant. Admissions committees are flooded with less-than-sincere letters from muckety-mucks, like this one sent on behalf of fake applicant Daryl Langdon by a prominent U.S. Senator:

Dear Admissions Committee:

It is my great pleasure to recommend Dernyl Plankton for admission to your law school. I feel I am well-qualified to comment on Durgle’s qualifications because, although I’ve never actually met the young man, a generous contributor to my campaign who is a friend of Darnell’s family showed me his college yearbook picture.

From my intimate acquaintance with this grainy black and white photograph, I can state confidently that Dino possesses all of the qualities necessary to do well in law school, including two more or less normally-placed eyes, relatively few acne scars and a sizable forehead, suggesting the presence of a decent-sized brain. Please admit Daphne to your law school, so my campaign contributor will quit harassing me.

Bernard Schlepclot (signature by machine)
U.S. Senator

A second common error is submitting letters of recommendation from people whose most recent contacts with the applicant date back to the Pleistocene era. Perhaps some applicants meet only one reputable human being in their lives willing to say something nice about them in writing.

I don’t know if that’s what happened in Daryl’s case, but … well, just look at this letter:

Dear Admissions Committee:

Lil’ Daryl asked me to write a letter for him and I am happy to do so. I was Daryl’s teacher at the Tots on Cots Daycare Center and know him well.

Daryl has many fine qualities. He’s as cute as a bug, especially when he remembers to wipe his nose, which has a tendency to drip. He is also one of the best little best nap-takers I’ve ever seen. That boy can sleep 8 hours a day if you let him, and sometimes we did.

Daryl shows natural leadership ability, especially among smaller toddlers whom he can easily shove to the ground. He is also a very tidy young man. He always puts his toys away when he’s finished pounding other children over the head with them.

The only qualities that might hinder Daryl in law school are that he whines when he doesn’t get his cartoons and wets his pants frequently.

I have every confidence Daryl will make a very fine lawyer.

Yours very truly,
Mrs. Doris Lichenstock

The good news is that Daryl got into law school despite the questionable reference letters. The bad news is he still wets his pants, especially when called on in Property.

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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