Why You Need To Think About Your References Before You Need Them
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References are the Rodney Dangerfield of your job application process: You find yourself — at the absolute last minute — scrambling to come up with a list of current and former colleagues who will vouch for your work-related qualifications. But the lack of time and thought you’ve devoted to this process belies its importance: Those three people can lock up or sink your job offer. So, even if you aren’t looking for a new job, you should give this final step of your job search the respect it deserves by thinking about your reference list well before you need it. Here’s what you need to know:
WHAT A REFERENCE IS
DO understand what a prospective firm is asking for when requesting your references: The recruiting department wants a straightforward list of people who can vouch for you professionally. Just a list of two or three people who can speak to your specific skills and, ideally, support those with examples from your work together.
DO NOT confuse professional references and personal or character references. If a prospective firm asks for a personal reference, it wants to know about your interpersonal or “soft” skills, not your work achievements. A personal reference can give insight into your personality and vouch for your character but cannot speak first-hand to your work accomplishments. (A coach would be an example of a personal reference.)
HOW REFERENCES SHOULD BE PRESENTED
DO NOT write “References will be provided upon request” at the bottom of your résumé. It is assumed… and including the line makes you look like you are relying on the original DAMN GOOD RÉSUMÉ GUIDE (circa 1983) for advice.
DO list your references on a page separate from your résumé, with your name centered on top. List them in a column, with each reference’s name and title, firm name, address, preferred telephone phone number, and email address. Note how they prefer to be contacted, by phone or by email.
DO indicate in what context you know the reference (e.g., “X firm litigation partner with whom I worked on four MDL matters”), and list them in order of your employment history, most recent first. If you intend the reference to address a specific strength (“can attest to my proficiency with certain document review software”), note that here as well.
DO NOT include more names than necessary. If the recruiting department asks for three, give them three. Four seems like you are overcompensating. Plus, references are the loose cannons of the process; why risk it?
WHOM TO ASK
DO ask someone who really knows you, your work, and will enthusiastically sing your praises. (If you can’t think of anyone you feel comfortable asking, DO start developing that relationship before you need references.)
DO NOT ask a law firm mentor or a big “name” partner unless they can speak first-hand to your work and specifically to your accomplishments. It won’t impress anyone; in fact, faint praise from someone unfamiliar with your work will hurt more than help.
DO ask people with whom you worked previously. For example, as a recent law school grad, you might include a supervisor from a previous, non-legal job who can address skills relevant to the new position or an attorney who supervised your work as a summer associate. You could also use a professor who can speak to your analytical ability and writing skills. For associates, attorneys who supervised your work at your current firm but have since left make excellent references.
DO ask partners and senior associates for whom you have worked at your current firm — but not until you have received a written offer letter, cleared conflicts, and are prepared to accept. The timing is addressed more below.
DO NOT use a supervising partner who you cannot trust to give you a good review or who you suspect will sabotage your attempt to leave. If a prospective firm insists on hearing from this partner (perhaps because you worked for only one), diplomatically explain why this partner may offer a less-than-stellar review — without disparaging the partner. Offer a neutral explanation that will not make you or the partner look bad, i.e., you were the sole associate on a case, and the partner will have a hard time finding another associate to take over. If you must use a reference you expect to respond unprofessionally or give a less-than-stellar review, present that reference last, when all the prospective firm needs is a “rubber stamp” from a supervisor.
HOW YOU SHOULD ASK
DO schedule an appointment with a prospective reference and make the request in person. This is a big deal, so treat it that way. Take the time to discuss the cases you’ve worked on together, why this move would be compatible with your long-term career goals, your strengths, weaknesses, and anything that you would like them to emphasize. Provide details about the job(s) for which you are interviewing and a copy of the job description.
DO get an idea of what references will say about you; if they are only comfortable addressing one aspect of your work performance (for example, if they have seen you run a large document review and can address your management skills, but they don’t know whether you are a good writer), you can note that on your list.
DO find out how they would like to be contacted by your prospective firm. Then follow up with an email that thanks them and includes a copy of your résumé. You may also want to provide a “cheat sheet” that reminds them of your initial conversation.
DO notify them if a job has different focus than others you’ve applied for to help them stay on message. If you’ve told a particular firm that you want to focus on a specific practice, you want your reference to be consistent.
DO tell them when you have presented their name to a firm, so that they know to expect a call.
DO wait until you receive an offer that you plan to accept before asking a partner or senior associate at your current firm. Be prepared that, once you have notified a supervisor that you are considering a move, your relationship and position at the firm will necessarily change. For example, you may not be staffed on a long-term litigation matter.
WHEN TO PROVIDE YOUR REFERENCES TO A PROSPECTIVE FIRM
DO NOT volunteer your references until asked.
DO check the box on a job application that says they may not contact your current employer. Note that you will provide references at the appropriate time.
When asked for your references, DO present a preliminary list of anyone who may be contacted before you accept an offer.
DO present the names of partners and senior associates at your current firm, but make clear to the prospective firm that THEY MAY NOT BE CONTACTED UNTIL after you have received a written offer letter, cleared conflicts, and are prepared to accept. Most firms understand the politics involved and do this final check as a formality.
Last Updated November 22, 2018