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Checking references

Checking references

By Thomas Hobbs


References are the employer’s last chance to identify any red flags that would prevent an offer. Reference checks ordinarily form an essential part of the hiring process. As a recruiter dealing exclusively with lawyers, I am often speaking to partners, senior associates, barristers, general counsel and others whom I’ve been advised to contact as referees. Here are some of my observations on what is quite an important topic. Purpose An employer understandably wants to have as much confidence as possible that they are hiring the right person. A properly taken reference assists in confirming or disproving an applicant’s claims of skill set and ability to perform at the appropriate level in the role for which they have applied. It also gives an employer, or recruiter who may be tasked with taking the reference, the opportunity to discuss the quality of work produced by an applicant as well as an applicant’s attitude and initiative, strengths/areas for development, organisational skills and ability to work in a team – just to take some examples. Reference checking generally serves as a final step before hiring and so is the employer’s last chance to identify any red flags that would prevent an offer being made. Timing In my experience employers will be hesitant in taking references, or using a recruiter to take them, without the high probability of an offer being made subsequent to favourable references (usually two are taken). So, in most situations, references would come after a second (or third) and final interview. For senior lawyers including partners and general counsel the interview process may be far more extensive. Employers are typically hesitant because they are busy people (like all of us) and don’t appreciate wasting the time of usually senior practitioners. Further, the most suitable referee might still be at the firm/company of the applicant, making it difficult for all if an applicant doesn’t secure the role. Form Reference checks are usually made over the phone and they can vary in length depending on factors including the number and focus of questions, the style of HR or the recruiter and, perhaps most notably, the style of the referee. Etiquette and choice This is often more problematic than many lawyers realise. Usually two referees are required and ideally both will have supervised or can at least attest to the quality and general scope of the work produced by an applicant. A referee will generally speak positively, although this isn’t always so and a badly chosen referee can be disastrous. A common example in private practice might be for an associate to choose a senior associate who has recently left and perhaps a barrister (if relevant). A partner may seem an ideal choice though a) the trust from that partner may be broken making it extremely difficult for the lawyer to continue in the role if they are unsuccessful (not always the case of course), and b) the partner may react in a negative way overemphasising weaknesses and providing a tainted reference. Referees should always be contacted in advance and be given some information about the role. If asked to be a referee, make yourself available and be candid. Questions to be asked Employers have an interest in satisfying two major considerations – that any new hire has the technical skills (or at the very least, capacity to gain technical skills) and also the ability to fit into the culture of the organisation. As such, references will naturally be geared towards these two considerations. Lawyers should have an idea of the types of questions likely to be asked. The stakes are high with references. Done properly, they give an employer an added level of assurance and confidence that a lawyer is right for them. Transparency through the reference process is vital and that extends to recruiters asked to take references. As a final tip, always thank your referee and keep them updated, whether you receive and accept an offer or not. Thomas Hobbs is a former lawyer and now consultant with Burgess Paluch Legal Recruitment. He is 2017 vice-president of LIV Young Lawyers. Snapshot: Usually two referees are required. A badly chosen referee can be disastrous. Referees should always be contacted in advance and given information about the role. Also thanked afterwards.

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