Selecting Your References

Before you can go about managing your references, you must first identify who might qualify to serve you in this capacity. A good starting point for identifying potential references is to create a master list of likely candidates, to include all the people even remotely under consideration. Law students, new grads and less experienced attorneys will, of course, wind up with fewer names for their lists.

Think expansively, including the following people, at least:

Supervisors. Current and former supervisors comprise the A-list of possible references. Current supervisors will obviously not be included in your list if you are conducting a clandestine job search. Former supervisors are both the most frequently utilized references and the ones most sought after by potential employers. Your most recent former supervisors are preferred. If you rely only on your favorite bosses from many years past, your potential employer will wonder why you had to go so far back to uncover suitable work-related references.

A boss who, for various reasons, would not give you a favorable reference presents a problem. If you were fired or quit your job because of a personality conflict, office politics, or other difficulty, you are unlikely to ask him or her to be a reference. However, you may be compelled to use this supervisor despite the circumstances surrounding your departure. If that becomes necessary, and the former boss agrees to be a reference, you need to talk to him or her and determine in advance what he or she might say or is willing to say to a potential employer. That discussion itself will serve to put your supervisor on notice that you are concerned about what will be said and help to restrain or temper the risk of any negative comments.

It will also put both you and your ex-boss on the same page, both telling consistent stories concerning the circumstances of your departure from that job.

Law professors. Academic references are more appropriate for a law student or recent law graduate than for an experienced attorney. For them, employers generally prefer references who can address the candidate’s work experience and performance.

Professional co-workers. These are not as good as supervisors. However, there may be circumstances in which, for a variety of reasons, when no supervisors are available, such as when conducting a clandestine job search. While avoidance of supervisors as references raises at least a partial red flag, employers will generally accept your colleagues as references if they are able to discuss your professional competence, demeanor, accomplishments, etc., as well as your personal integrity. Other attorneys working at a higher level than you are preferred, followed by co-workers at your same level.

Subordinates. The use of subordinates as references is of increasing interest to prospective employers because they might come forth with insights that an employer cannot get from anyone else. They can be important for jobs that include supervisory responsibilities, for which your new boss wants assurance that you are not a despot or an incompetent supervisor.

Clients. External or internal clients could turn out to be your most supportive and enthusiastic references. No one is better positioned to judge your work product, competence, integrity,
and communication skills than someone whom you represented or advised.

Opposing counsel. If you have earned the respect and regard of your adversaries, they can be terrific references. They provide a perspective on a candidate that an employer cannot get elsewhere.

Adjudicators (judges, administrative law judges, and hearing officers). A strong reference from an impartial adjudicator is a powerful weapon in your job-search arsenal.

Celebrities (VIPs and Politicians). These individuals can be impressive and effective references in certain rare situations. They can also be risky:
•    Such individuals are almost always difficult for employers to contact because of their busy schedules
•    Many celebrity references have, shall we say, inflated egos that can get in the way of their willingness to talk to anyone “beneath” them.
•    Moreover, you might risk coming across as a name-dropper, particularly if your “celebrity” reference is only a casual acquaintance.
•    If such potential references do not have direct, personal knowledge of you, your background, etc., you probably should not use them at all.

Look for “Enthusiasts”

Enthusiasm, as long as it is genuine and not “over the top,” is infectious and usually elicits warm and fuzzy feelings about you, the candidate, from prospective employers who contact your references. If your reference experiences an adrenaline rush when discussing you, it will be difficult for the prospective employer to remain impassive. Enthusiastic references often prompt a positive hiring decision.

The best reference is someone who will act as both your enthusiastic advocate and publicist. Anyone with these capabilities and level of enthusiasm is a big plus. Such an individual should be high on your list. I have occasionally been so impressed with what the very first reference I contacted had to say, and the manner in which s/he said it, that I decided then and there to offer the job to the candidate without checking any additional references.

“Dual-Use” References

Putting together a list of potential references at the beginning of, rather than later in, your job search provides an added bonus: it serves a dual use in that you are simultaneously identifying individuals who could serve as useful job search contacts who might be aware of possible employment opportunities in which you would be interested, and/or who have good contacts of their own to whom you could be referred or introduced.

This networking opportunity is another reason not to limit the number of people on your master reference list. You have every reason to be overinclusive.

Whom to Avoid

Personal acquaintances. That means family and friends. Exceptions are (1) if your personal acquaintance also qualifies as a professional reference, or (2) if personal references are specifically requested by a prospective employer.

Clergy. This means imams, rabbis, cantors, priests, ministers, mullahs, shamans, and other clerics. These are personal, not professional, references. If they are your confessors in any formal or informal context, they may also feel themselves constrained by their private, personal, protected relationship with you. An exception might be if you are seeking a position with a religious organization. Another exception is if the cleric or his or her organization was one of your clients.

Anyone who might give you a poor reference. Although this may seem obvious, I’ve encountered many instances where the reference for an applicant for a job with my company gave less than a ringing endorsement or “damned with faint praise.” Two examples make the case: A reference who paused much too long before answering my question whether a former employer had experienced candidate attendance problems; A reference who said: “____ was such an efficient attorney that it took one-and-a-half paralegals to replace him.”

Anyone who is unaware that s/he is one of your references. Again, it goes without saying that this should be obvious. Unfortunately, it’s not. It is both disrespectful and foolish to list a “cold” reference. You risk getting a surprised, indifferent, or lukewarm reference, if not an outright negative one or an opening comment from the reference to your prospective employer: “I did not know that ___ listed me as a reference.” You also may foreclose future use of someone who, had you just asked, would have been happy to serve as an enthusiastic reference

The “Unselected” Reference

Let’s say your job interview is a smashing success and a job offer is imminent. The interviewer asks for references and says: “I am offering you the position, assuming your references check out, and . . . contingent on being able to speak to your current supervisor. OK?”

What do you do? You want the job but, for whatever reason, you have valid concerns about agreeing to let your potential employer talk to your current boss.

This is not an easy question to answer, particularly if your current employer does not know that you have been looking. You may be quite properly worried that s/he may not give you the ringing endorsement you want, whether for valid reasons or simply to keep you where you are (at which point you may be under a cloud because you tried to leave the organization).

Nine times out of 10, you have no choice but to agree and hope that the conversation between new employer and current boss will go well. However, you need to be prepared in the event you are among the minority for whom the exchange might be toxic. The best alternatives all carry some risk, but probably not as much as agreeing to the communication with your direct-line supervisor.

You might suggest that the interviewer speak to another, senior person in the organization because then there will be less risk of going public with your job search as well as any adverse consequences deriving from indicating an intent to depart; or that the interviewer speak with a former supervisor who is no longer with the organization.

Another possibility is that, as soon as you leave the interview or hang up the phone following a contingent job offer, you tell your boss that s/he is going to receive a phone call from your prospective employer, and attempt to mitigate the situation before it happens. If you decide on this approach, consider requesting that the prospective employer not contact your boss until you have been able to communicate the fact of your job search to your boss so it won’t come from a third party and be as much of a shock. You might then approach your boss and say something like the following:

“Boss, the general counsel of Hermann Amalgamated has talked with me about a wonderful offer to join her company. While you know how much I enjoy my work and relationships here, I think this is too good an opportunity to pass up. Ms. _____ may be contacting you about me. I would very much appreciate it if you would inform her of my positive relationships here and my contributions to Lex & Legis.”

Everyone’s situation is different and has many nuances, and there are different degrees of risk you might be willing to accept. Fortunately, most employers understand the personal ramifications inherent in such requests and don’t push back. Your boss’s personality may be the determining factor here.