Past performance often is the best indicator of how a candidate will perform in the future. Therefore, most prospective employers take reference checking seriously, and so should the candidate. If you plan ahead, choose your best reference sources, prepare them properly, and follow-up appropriately, you can maximize your chances of receiving those all-important stellar references.
The first step is to ask yourself, for each of your past employment situations, who would be in the best position to accurately evaluate your performance. In most cases, that would be a supervising attorney, practice group leader, or another partner. You might also want to include major clients, co-counsel or opposing counsel, or even judges before whom you have appeared on numerous occasions. The important factor is to choose references who have seen your work, rather than those who can provide primarily personal references. If you have done significant pro bono or bar association work, you might also want to include a reference from those activities, as well. While it is more important to choose references who can best speak to your abilities, if you have the opportunity to include someone with name recognition, that can add weight to the reference itself.
You want to be able to provide prospective employers with a list of three to five of your best reference sources. Make sure that you have their names, titles, and firm names absolutely correct. Confirm that you have their current contact information, including direct dial phone numbers and private e-mail addresses, if possible. If you provide incorrect information, it might make the validity of that reference suspect.
If you are presently unemployed, or if your current employer knows you are looking for a new position (i.e., you are part of a lay off or your present position has a completion date, such as with a clerkship), then you can offer your list of references relatively early in the interviewing process. If, however, your job search is confidential, you can offer a list of references omitting those from your current employer. The first list could include past employers, senior attorneys who are no longer with your firm, judges before whom you have appeared, or co-counsel, if you trust them to keep your confidence. References from your current employer should be provided only when the prospective employer makes an offer of employment contingent upon that reference, and you have decided to accept that offer once the final reference check is completed. In that case, you give notice of your job search, pending offer, and desire to accept that offer, to your current employer, and ask them to provide you with a reference.
Once you have compiled your list of references, you must prepare them. Contact each person on your list to inform him or her of your job search and to obtain his or her agreement to serve as your reference. Let them know what type of position you are seeking, giving them the names of specific prospective employers who may be calling, if your search has reached that stage. Go over with them the substance of the jobs you are seeking and your qualifications and accomplishments that relate to your fit for those jobs. Provide them with your updated resume so that they have all the relevant facts at their fingertips. Make sure that their understanding of your starting and ending dates agree with those on your resume. Review the circumstances of your leaving your current and any past employment, especially with their firm, and listen carefully to what they might say in a reference check from a prospective employer. Ask them not to discuss compensation with a prospective employer and, especially, not to guess. Thank them for agreeing to serve as your reference and ask them to keep you informed of any such inquiries they may receive. Keep them apprised of the progress of your search and when they may expect to get calls. And thank them again once you have accepted your new position.
When preparing your prospective references, ask them about their availability. Once a prospective employer decides to check references, they usually want to get hold of the people on your list right away. Offers are delayed if a reference cannot be reached. Even worse, the failure of a reference to return the prospective employer's phone call right away can be construed as a less than enthusiastic endorsement, when it really only means that the message was not received. If a reference source travels often or plans to be out of town when a reference check might be made, ask permission to use a cell phone number, e-mail, or alternative method of contact, or inform the prospective employer that a particular reference may be unreachable and provide another.
Reference checking employers often attempt to contact people not on your list. They have been known to call up contacts they have on their own at places of candidates' previous employment, and to ask those references on your list to provide the names of others they might contact. If you believe that someone on your list, or someone the prospective employer might contact through his or her own research, may provide a less than positive reference, you need to try to handle the situation ahead of time. Mend fences and thank the prospective reference for the learning experience you had while in their employ. Talk about the career progress you have made since then, and why you think you would be a good fit for the job you now are seeking. Review the information you would go over with any prospective reference, as outlined above, and ask for a good reference. If you want to find out what any given reference will say about you, there are many professional reference-checking companies a candidate can find on the Internet. For a fee, they will call all of your references and provide you with a report. If you think that a situation is irreparable, tell your prospective employer that, except for Mr./Ms. X, I have always hit it off with my bosses and co-workers. Give a brief and neutral account of the difficulty, and mention your career growth since then.
To avoid possible legal exposure for libel or slander, many employers give minimal information about former employees. A reference source that refuses to discuss you will not do you any good. Try to reassure them that, in California, as in most states, those giving references are covered by a qualified privilege. In other words, they are protected in giving any job-related information as long as it is not in bad faith or knowingly false.
Although reference checking comes at the end of your job search process, you need to start thinking about it at the outset, in order to maximize your chances of success.