Writing a standout resume and cover letter is indeed very important when you’re searching for any job, however, there’s another document that also matters in legal industry a lot: your reference list. In some cases, either it’s a Biglaw or a boutique law firm, the decision of who to hire comes down to a candidate’s references, thus managing these references is more critical to your job search than you probably thought.
While it may seem like a simple matter of organizing a list of former colleagues and bosses, a closer look reveals that there is much to consider when managing your professional references in legal industry. Here are five tips on how to select and manage your job references to make sure they sell your abilities and sing your praises:
1. Target your list
Finding the right people to vouch for your work history, expertise and interpersonal skills is an art unto itself. You may have plenty of people ready to sing your praises at a moment’s notice, but you’ll want to narrow down your list to just those who can give your potential employer an idea about the type of legal professional and person you are.
References should be in positions or have abilities that would impress and be most credible to a prospective employer in the legal sector. After all, you want outside validation of your work from someone who relied on your professional contributions in the past. A previous supervisor is generally the best choice, although not necessarily if she doesn’t know all of your accomplishments or you think she may not give a good reference. If the recommender cannot supply relevant and useful information, ask someone else. Hiring partner, supervising attorney or client can be relevant references, too. If you’ve recently graduated a mentor or professor from college could be another possibility.
Make sure your references alive and available. An experienced lawyer submitted his list without contacting everyone, and never learned that one deceased-and-unavailable recommender ended his candidacy.
2. Request permission
Once you’ve created a list of potential references, ask each of them if they would be willing to serve as a reference for you. People who are not as familiar with your work as you think may not feel qualified to provide a solid reference or write a good letter of recommendation, so don’t push. The last thing you want is a reluctant reference.
Phoning a potential reference is the most straightforward approach, but emailing is a good alternative if you don’t want to put the person in an awkward position; an email allows them to politely decline if they don’t feel comfortable giving a reference, or don’t have the time. It’s acceptable to ask for a reference or recommendation on LinkedIn, too. And, as with email, it makes it easier for the potential reference to decline gracefully.
3. Coach your references
If you do make it to the phase of the hiring process when your prospective employer starts checking references, let your job references know they may be contacted. Talk to your references about the law firm representative who may contact them and include any details you know about how or when that contact may happen.
Give a little guidance to your references as to what they may want to emphasize with your prospective employer. You can help prepare them by letting them know the specific law firm and position you’re applying for, the areas of practice the firm specializes in and types of qualities they may be looking for. Discuss the position you’re seeking focusing on what makes you a good fit for it. Provide your references with a copy of your updated resume and a detailed description of the law firm and the position you’re pursuing.
Also, point out anything else you think they could say to your potential employer that would boost your credibility and your chances of landing the legal job of your dreams.
Finally, be sure to follow up and thank anyone who agreed to provide a reference, regardless of whether you get the job. They’ll be curious about whether you landed — and accepted — the position, and they’ll be more willing to serve as your references in the future if they know you appreciate their help.
4. Customize for each job
Just as you might alter your resume and cover letter based on the position you’re seeking, it’s smart to customize your reference list, too. Pick people who can speak knowledgably and persuasively about your skills and attributes that are most relevant to each legal industry job you pursue.
Focusing on the specific tasks you would perform or the areas of practice of the law firm for which you’re applying may inspire you to switch things up accordingly. For example, certain colleagues and bosses from your past may know your legal writing style, while others see you as an expert in contract negotiations or client relations. Consider having a few different reference lists.
5. Make it easy for the reference checker
When asked, present your list of job references to your potential employer with detailed contact information. Be sure to include each job reference’s full name, title, phone number, email address and best time to be reached. You also might provide a brief explanation of how you know each person, why you included him or her on your reference list.
Remember that people change jobs and move frequently, and it’s important to keep track. Including incorrect contact information on your list of job references not only looks lazy but also gives your potential employer one less opportunity to know how great you could be as an employee. It’s unlikely the busy hiring partner will go through the effort of finding the correct contact information if you didn’t do that in the first place.
You should always have several job references in mind each time you apply for a job. Figure out who those references are now and alert them accordingly. Just remember, don’t hand them out until asked.
Reference checkers and legal recruiters expect stellar reports and they are sensitive to less-than-enthusiastic comments so make sure you are ready to furnish top-notch contacts when the hiring partner as your potential new boss asks for your references. It could make all the difference.
For help with any question Legal Job Interview may pose stay tuned for The Law Firm Interview — a series exploring all aspects of the legal job interview process: