All too many legal job candidates deem references one of the last steps in the job-hunting process. A better practice is to think about this component and commence “managing” it at the outset of your campaign. What used to often be a mere formality has become a central element to the process insofar as employers are concerned.
Reference mismanagement is a common occurrence. Inattention to it occurs because job seekers tend to focus most of their attention on other important aspects of the job search—résumés, cover letters, transmittal emails, interviewing, researching employers—rather than on what they view as a mere formality, the final go-through-the-motions exercise before a job offer is made. They see reference checks as the last step in the hiring process—confirmation that the job is theirs and that any employer conversation with the reference is just a rubber stamp, since references only say good and positive things about candidates.
That reasoning is faulty. Bitter experience has taught employers that close scrutiny of references is critically important to any hiring decision. In today’s legal market, job offers are increasingly contingent on references checks. Moreover, in this highly competitive legal job market, sometimes the only competitive advantage of one qualified candidate over another is the quality of the references, their enthusiasm when discussing the candidate, the strength of their endorsement, etc.
Employers today are also aware that applicants may say things on their résumés and in interviews that do not always pass the smell test. Studies show that outright lying on résumés is on the increase. Reference checks, therefore, are one way employers can verify résumé and interview information.
References contribute significantly to the due diligence that employers perform with respect to job candidates. A poor hiring decision can be very expensive. Modern employee due diligence includes contacting schools to verify attendance, degrees, transcripts and academic performance, and professional licensing authorities to corroborate licenses to practice the profession and assertions of good standing.
Early attention to references is even more important if you anticipate reference problems, such as those that occur if you leave a position under adverse circumstances, e.g., getting fired, having resigned under pressure, being laid off for economic reasons, etc. If this is the case, then you may experience some difficulty identifying and enlisting the customary, standard references. Both your reference list, and perhaps even your entire job campaign, may center around placing such an event in its most advantageous perspective. It will like also take a longer time and greater exertion to put together a passable reference list.
Another reference challenge is the “clandestine” nature of many job searches. If you are not in a position to reveal your job search to your current employer, or to individuals outside the workplace whom you would like to use as references but cannot for fear they might let slip that you are seeking new employment, you may also be shut out from using the usual references.
Attention to references is important for both experienced attorneys and law students. Employers are no less concerned about making good hiring decisions with respect to entry-level employees as they are about lateral hires. Often, they are even more concerned about recent grads. A lateral hire at least has a track record. Unless you have served as a summer associate or intern for the employing organization, your lack of an extensive employment history could mean even greater scrutiny of your references.