What is the difference between a reference and a recommendation?
When you use someone as a reference, you are merely giving their name and contact information (along with some insight as to how they know you) to a prospective employer. The employer may then choose to reach out to the reference by phone or email to ask about you and your qualifications. A recommendation is a letter written on your behalf by a professor, employer or other source who writes to a prospective employer to recommend you for a particular position.
Who should I use as references?
The best reference is someone who knows you well, and thinks you are exceptional. The closer you can get to these two characteristics in your recommender(s), the better. Some employers specify from whom they’d like to see references, but if it’s not specified, you should use some combination of work supervisors and/or professors as references. It is generally not advised to use a family member as a reference, even though he or she may have also been your employer in a prior job.
The employer asked for 3 references. Of these, how many should be professional or from internships, and how many academic?
If you are listing three references, it’s probably a good idea to have both professional and academic recommenders, to afford a good assortment of opinions on you from different perspectives. Employers are likely to prefer references from past employers, since these people can speak to you as an employee, which is going to be the most relevant information to a prospective employer. Other things being equal, therefore, two employer references and one academic is a good goal to aim for. However, if you have fewer employer references and more professors, the reverse ratio is fine too. It matters less exactly who the recommenders are, and more how well they know you and how highly they’ll sing your praises.
Is it okay to use college professors as references?
Yes, but with some caveats. If you are going to use an academic reference, it’s generally preferable to use a law school professor for legal internships and jobs because they should have a better sense of how well you handle the kind of things you may face in your job, like legal analysis. But if you are a 1L, it’s understandable if you don’t yet know any law professors well enough, and therefore in some circumstances it may make sense to use a college professor. In what circumstances does it or doesn’t it make sense to do so? If you’ve been out of college for a long time, and/or if your college professor isn’t someone who knew you all that well to begin with, a college professor may not be the best choice for a recommender. On the other hand, if the professor knows you very well (as, for example, a thesis adviser or mentor, or as someone for whom you worked as a research assistant) and if it hasn’t been many years since you were in college, a college professor can be a good choice as a recommender.
Is it okay to use a clinical professor as a law school reference?
Yes; in fact, clinical professors are often great choices as references. Clinical supervisors often get to know you very well, and also have the benefit of seeing you handle responsibility and take initiative in a work environment. In some ways, a clinical professor/supervisor is the best of both worlds: able to speak to your work-relevant abilities while also able to assess your intellectual abilities and compare you to other HLS students.
Is it okay to use a visiting professor who is no longer at HLS as a law school reference?
Sure! You may want to identify to the employer the context in which your reference got to know you, however.
Is it okay if my references from past positions are no longer with the same organization where we worked together?
Yes, that’s not a problem. You may want to identify to the employer the context in which your reference got to know you, however.
Is it better to have a famous reference even if she doesn’t know me all that well, or an unknown reference who knows me well?
Most of the time, it’s better to have a less famous person who knows you well and can speak in credible detail about how great you are than to have an obvious form letter devoid of specific content from a big name. Of course, if you can combine having a big name and strong substance in one reference, so much the better!
How should I inform my references that they might be contacted?
A gracious email or phone call does the trick. If you’ve been in close contact recently, simply letting them know where you have applied for jobs and asking whether they would be willing to serve as a reference for you if necessary is a good approach. If it has been a while since you’ve been in touch, you may also want to bring them up to date on your life a bit first. Mentors and former professors and employers who think highly of you will likely enjoy hearing about your latest exploits, but be careful not to write them a novel.
Is there anyone I should avoid using as a reference?
If you had a difficult relationship with an employer or professor, or if you feel you did not do a good job in their office or class, you probably should not reach out to them as a reference. (The one exception here might be the rare case of a professor who gave you a poor grade, but who nonetheless appreciates your abilities and will sing your praises in spite of the grade; such a recommender can not only support your application but can also counter the effects of a bad grade on a transcript). Likewise, if you have seen or heard that a particular potential reference tends to write inadequate letters, damn by faint praise, or fail to follow through on their commitment to be available for phone calls or to submit letters of recommendation, steer clear.