A Little Happier: How Do You Write a Letter of Recommendation for Someone You Can’t Honestly Recommend?

Throughout life, one common challenge is finding the right words to say, and as I often remark, I love finding examples of situations where someone knew exactly what to say or do.

One of my friends from law school provided me with one of my favorite examples, with his elegant and practical solution to a familiar situation.

Many of our fellow law students wanted to “clerk”—they wanted to serve as a clerk to a judge or justice after graduation. The process for applying for these one-year clerkships was long and arduous, and one big problem for the students was that it was hard to get good information about a lot of judges in a reasonable amount of time.

For this reason, our law school kept a binder in its career services office. If you’d graduated and held a clerkship, you were invited to send a letter back to be included in the binder, to give helpful information to the students who might be applying after you.

So my friend (even after all these years, I won’t say his name, because I don’t want to get him into trouble) was asked to send a letter. But he’d had a terrible experience with his position—the judge was an awful boss and a nasty person.

So what should my friend do?

He could send an honest letter, but that would have very serious reputational risks. He could send a letter with false praise, but that would be dishonest. He could send no letter, but that would mean not warning future students.

“So what did you write?” I asked him.

He told me, “I wrote, ‘I encourage anyone considering applying for a clerkship with Judge John Doe to contact me at this number.’”

Brilliant! Short and simple. If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.




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