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It’s been two grueling days of interviews and power lunches. The Shiny & New law firm has offered the job—subject, of course, to references. And they better be good ones.
But at least the interviews are over, right? Guess again. When approaching a potential source, says Chicago career counselor Sheila Nielsen, “It is almost like you’re going in to interview with the person who’s going to give you the reference.”
Mention key accomplishments, says Nielsen. Even better, provide a written list of the important deals, cases won or weekend hours put in, as a convenience. References are your supporting witnesses. If they won’t help your case, steer clear.
“It doesn’t happen that often, because typically people are close to the mark when they’re giving people references,” says Robert Nourian of Philadelphia-based Coleman Legal recruiting firm. “But every once in a while someone will slip up and not spend enough time considering who the references will be.”
No matter how close you think you are to a potential reference, Nourian recommends that attorneys ask in advance not only for permission to use lawyers’ names but whether they would have any reservations.
“Ask the particular people you’re talking to if they’re comfortable giving a reference. Ask them if they would have any concerns,” Nourian says. Even then, he notes, some lawyers won’t say outright that they are hesitant to recommend you.
But, “If you have any skill in reading somebody’s reaction,” Nourian says, “you’re going to get an idea if they are going to be a wholehearted reference … or maybe not be as a good a reference as you think.”
He also recommends asking, say, three or four people, even if you need only a couple of references. Then, “Focus on the people who you feel are going to give the best references, after you have approached them and talked about it,” Nourian says.
On the other hand, some applicants may fear that a former employer will say too much, especially if the past job experience was unpleasant. And those who have been asked to resign from their jobs may need to take a different approach, says Kathy Morris, director of the ABA Career Resource Center.
Before leaving, they should “seek a letter from someone at the firm who has been impressed with their work and have the letter at hand rather than wait until references are requested,” says Morris.
THE NEW DEAL
Job applicants should also be aware that the climate has changed—ironically, because of the possibility of litigation. “These days, people are careful not to say too much negative, usually, about the person they’re letting go,” Nielsen says. “I think it’s because they’re afraid of lawsuits.”
In fact, it is sometimes difficult even for the most successful to get a reference at all from some employers. An increasing number have adopted a blanket policy of not providing references. Often, only basic facts, such as dates of employment, will be confirmed.
In that situation, it’s sometimes possible to persuade a trusted partner to give an “off the record” reference privately to a prospective employer, Nourian says. Or the partner may be willing to tell the new employer something like, “I can’t give you a reference, but if I was going to give you a reference, it would be great!”
Even when you expect a good reference from a current employer, seek recommendations as well from people outside your workplace, Morris says.
For example, “Lawyers may have a concern about sharing references at their immediate place of employment if their search is confidential,” she says. So they “might want to think broadly about sources of strong references such as opposing counsel, former clients, judges, judges’ clerks—in other words, people who have seen them in action and are impressed with their force.”
Chances are good that the new employer will be just as impressed.