Let me, like any lawyer, add a few disclaimers. First of all, my observations are based on the majority of my experiences with LL.M. applications to non-Indian law schools. There have been some notable exceptions where the words below would not be applicable.
Second, I do understand the role that recommendation letters play in the admission process. After all, any graduate admissions office would like a third-party perspective on prospective applicants; some much needed assistance in the evaluation process. There is only so much that can be said through a personal statement or an essay.
Third, I am well aware that recommendation letters have always been an important part of the admissions process and that education, much like the legal profession, relies heavily on traditional practices.
Yet, I also believe that it is high time that we start questioning the utility of recommendation letters. Or at least initiate an honest conversation about them. And I say this for multiple reasons.
For one, I think they are often taken far too lightly. You have recommenders who would much rather leave the “recommending” part out of this process; the applicant is the one who drafts, the recommender merely signs.
In all fairness, I can understand the reasons behind this.
Writing these letters can be a laborious and often thankless task. Very often, recommenders are given with barely enough time to think, reflect and draft the letter. And law school faculty, at least in India, are often so overburdened with administrative and non-academic work that they have little time or inclination to pen those thousand odd words that may (or may not) play a role in an applicant’s future.
The easy way out is to merely append one’s signature. After all, this will keep everyone happy, correct?
Two, I also think that the very purpose of recommendations is misunderstood. For example, applicants, especially those in their final year of study, often seek recommendations on the basis of short (4-6 week) internships where there is little, if any, opportunity to assess the applicant.
Such recommendations are sought out purely for “letterhead value” such as those from senior academics, judges, and practitioners who may not, and often do not, have the faintest idea about the applicant’s capabilities. I personally think this is a terrible idea, unless of course the internship was an exceptional experience with personal mentoring.
Of course, what I think is irrelevant; what is relevant is how these letters are perceived by the graduate admissions team.
I suspect that foreign law schools are well aware of these practices, and have their own in-built mechanisms to review and filter the recommendations. Some, like King’s College London, have done away with this requirement completely. And I would not be surprised if others follow suit. After all reviewing recommendations must be quite an intensive use of human resources. Resources which may be better utilised elsewhere.
Having said that, I don’t think doing away with these letters is the ideal solution. Like I stated in the disclaimer section of this piece, recommendation letters can hold immense value in the assessment process.
But, for that to happen the letters, and the process behind them, must be far more honest.
So, perhaps one way to achieve this would be to assist the applicant and the recommender in understanding the purpose and content of these letters. Some universities, in fact, do have guides for recommenders but these are exceptions.
Instead, institutional connections may be more effective, whereby graduate admissions students are able to directly reach out to prospective applicants as well as prospective recommenders. This could, and should, potentially lead to collaborations of all sorts, be it faculty exchange or joint research.
A third way could be to have dedicated resources on higher education outside the country, even if this would result in competition to the Indian law school’s own post-graduate offerings.
To sum things up, as the Indian Law Graduate’s (ILG’s) ambitions turn global, and as more and more ILGs opt for a master’s abroad, there needs to be a more vigorous examination of the application process. And whatever the findings of this examination may be, they have to be addressed with some degree of honesty.
Or so I hope.