Last week, a friend called to ask for some advice (let’s refer to him as… James). After having submitted his application to several large firms in the area, James was being seriously considered by one in particular – a prestigious global litigation firm. He had passed three rounds of interviews, conflicts check had cleared, and he was increasingly excited about the prospect of joining them next month. The hiring partner indicated to James that the firm was very interested in him for the associate position, and he let James know (unofficially) that an offer would be forthcoming.
The next day, the recruiting manager contacted James. She asked for the names of several supervising partners, so that she could check his references. James quickly reached out to a few partners whom he trusts. He let them know he was planning to leave the firm, and asked each one for permission to use them as reference. All of it went swimmingly: James provided the new firm with the references, they firm called out to the partners, and all three came back with glowing recommendations. James was thrilled. Assuming he was in the home stretch, he started mentally planning out the transition to the new firm.
The next few days passed silently. A week later – still nothing from the new firm. Starting to get nervous, James reached out to the hiring partner to find out what was going on. It turns out that the firm hadn’t checked the transcript James submitted, and now, after a thorough review, they were very concerned about the “C” he got in Evidence… (Yep. The one “C” he got in law school… seven years ago!). The firm asked to schedule a “quick call, to get the complete story,” so they could determine if they were going to move forward.
James was floored. How could they? Were they serious? He had already let the current partners know he was looking to leave. Didn’t the new firm understand what an awkward, and potentially damaging, situation they had created? Now, (now?!?) they were going to go back and do their due diligence, after calling his references? How could that be?
Yes. Unfortunately, this is what some employers do. Either because they don’t really care about the candidates, or they’re simply being reckless. And, because the legal market is so fiercely competitive, candidates often won’t push back. Perhaps they don’t feel they have the same bargaining power, or they mistakenly assume everything will work out, but even the savviest of candidates allow it to happen.
When I asked James why he didn’t insist on the formal offer letter first, he told me he didn’t feel like he was in a position to rock the boat. “The offer wasn’t really solid yet, and I didn’t think they would amend their recruiting process for me. I was really nervous about making waves. They were honestly so nice throughout the whole process – I didn’t want to come off as demanding, so early on.” Unfortunately for James, the firm just couldn’t get over the “C”, and they ended up pulling back. James was left in an awkward limbo - how would he mend the relationship with the partners at his current firm?
What’s the alternative, you ask; what could James have done differently? Well, most employers will get some due diligence out of the way first, then present a conditional offer, complete the rest of the background and conflict checks, and only then ask for references. A reference check (one that requires a candidate to provide the names of supervising partners) should be the absolute final step in the process. It’s a very delicate dance that must be timed properly.
While an offer is, of course, conditional, it should set out very specific parameters (conflicts, background, references, etc.), so candidates know what the goal-posts are, ahead of time. And yes, an offer can certainly be rescinded. But by requiring a formal offer before releasing references, the candidate essentially forces the employer to make sure they have all their other ducks in a row, before potentially jeopardizing the candidate’s current job. It’s clear that the proper protocol was not followed by this particular firm, for whatever reason. However, had James insisted on a formal offer first, it’s likely the firm would have first conducted a thorough review of his materials, and the transcript issue would have come up before James made the disclosure to his current firm. Not ideal of course, but at least James' current position wouldn't be in jeopardy.
Blanket advice usually gets me in trouble. So, with the caveat that some individual circumstances may require a different approach, generally speaking, you shouldn’t (ever ever ever) permit a potential employer to call your references, before they have presented you with a formal (even if conditional) offer letter. I know you might be nervous about pushing back against a potential employer (and I won’t lie, sometimes it might end up costing you the offer); but do you really want to put your career on the line, all for the sake of appearing agreeable to a firm you barely even know? Believe me… you don’t.
Protect your interests, these days you never know what might happen.
Angela Kopolovich is the Managing Director of Alegna International, a boutique attorney recruiting firm. A former practicing litigator with a large global law firm, Angela now specializes in placing attorneys with law firms and corporate legal departments, around the country and abroad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Recruiter_Law.
Image credit: Patrick Hoesly
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