Career Audit

Bringing Up The Past

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Bad credit, bankruptcy and child support obligations can plague anyone—but for attorneys seeking jobs, one of these black marks can hurt.

Whether to disclose or hide past problems from prospective employers poses a thorny problem. Even experts disagree about how to handle these situations.

With more than a third of all job applicants lying about their schooling, employment record and licensing, such prospective employers as corporations, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and some law firms are digging into attorney job applicants’ histories with more than simple phone calls to past employers, says Robin Ryan, a career counselor based in Seattle.

On the List

Background checks may in- clude extensive interviews with past employers or reviews of credit reports, court records, bar licensing agency records and law school transcripts. Prospective employers will find your secrets, experts agree.

Even little lies can hurt. “You may have lied about the year you graduated, the law school … or how big the firm was,” Ryan says. “The number of people that lie is ri­dic­ulous, but they get caught. You are sinking your own ship if you are lying.”

Florida’s statewide guardian ad litem office in Talla­has­see does a criminal background check, reviews state bar records, and calls attorney applicants’ past three employers. If driving is required for the job, the agency considers an interviewee’s driving record as well.

For Florida state jobs, all applicants, including lawyers, must complete an application that asks whether the individual has been convicted of or pleaded no contest to any first-degree misdemeanors or felonies.

“If you have a first-degree misdemeanor or felony conviction, or if you have pleaded nolo contendere and if you don’t disclose, that’s not good. That’s pretty much an automatic adios,” says Gary R. Phillips, administrative services director for the Florida agency.

If you disclose this, though, you are not necessarily out of the job pool.

“If you were from my generation at Woodstock and you got busted for drugs and you put it on there, we don’t har­bor any bad will against old hippies,” Phillips says. However, if there is a current pattern of drug abuse, that would disqualify an applicant.

What to Sweat

A conviction for driving under the influence can be a problem. However, if it is old and a candidate can show he or she has a clean record and has made amends such as taking a special class, employers may overlook that conviction.

“If you disclose and you have a rational explanation as long as it is not severe—we can get past that. If you don’t and we find out, it doesn’t bode well,” Phillips says. A bankruptcy often disqualifies anyone seeking a job in the banking industry or as a fiduciary handling money. Bad credit can have the same effect.

“It becomes a red flag for a company,” says Ryan. “It shows they are unable to manage money.”

Fears of embezzlement and susceptibility to bribes are rampant among companies, Ryan says. “The thinking is if you are in financial trouble, you are more susceptible to being bribed,” she adds.

People in this situation might consider a new area of law. “They may end up in practice for themselves,” Ryan says.

Child support is an issue for some companies. “They are looking for deadbeat dads,” Ryan says. If you pay child support, set up a direct deposit and tell your prospective employers you will do that with them if it is available, she says.

A complaint filed with an attorney disciplinary agency, however, may not destroy your chance at a job. “Some­times people become bitter or it didn’t turn out the way they wanted,” Ryan says. That can be forgiven. But issues of integrity, such as having an affair with a client while handling a divorce, can knock out an applicant.

How to Disclose

Ryan cautions against bringing up these blots during an employment interview.

“I would never put anything out there that is really negative. I don’t think it helps you. If it is something that will impact the law firm and you have the offer, then you may do it,” Ryan says.

Phillips says disclosure is essential before a candidate begins work. “It is better to be up front,” he says. “If you withhold that information and they find it out and action is taken against you, that is a problem. If they let you go, you have a problem with references.” A past illness may have caused a job seeker to be out of work. Experts suggest that candidates disclose the illness but few details. Applicants might consider working a contract job full time to show prospective employers that they can work again, says Ryan. Job seekers should also find out how much past employers disclose about them. If they are not providing bad information, Ryan says, the applicant shouldn’t.

“If you are in a gray area, try to cultivate a good reference who can talk about you as an employee,” says Ryan.

The reference can boast about a candidate’s skills and accomplishments, for example: “She is great at negotiating deals. She is one of the smartest people I know when it comes to patent law,” Ryan says. “It might help employers overlook personal issues.” Whatever the black mark, job candidates should know how to put a good spin on the story.

“You’d better have a prepared answer that you can think about when you are not under pressure,” Ryan suggests.

Also, “if you have skeletons in your closet, you should clean them up,” Ryan says.

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