The decision to give references is sometimes quite complicated.
Firms have requested references before second interviews, including requests to speak to current employers (!) and colleagues. Alternatively some firms ask for references prior to first interview. Others have waited until a solicitor has commenced work and two weeks later asked for a reference.
Two incidents have arisen fairly recently that may be worth bearing in mind.
1. A firm requested a reference from a former employer after first interview, with a view to offering our candidate a post. The candidate explained that she had left her employer under a cloud, with a tribunal case pending. As a result she did not think her former employer would give her a particularly good reference! She gave details of a former senior colleague who had also moved on. This former colleague was with another firm now, and details were passed on. Unfortunately the candidate had not checked what her reference was currently doing, as when the interviewing firm called, they discovered the reference had left a few days earlier!
Tip: Always check the status of your referees before giving their details. Do they have sufficient information about you to write a good recommendation, and are they still in the same place? Confirm mobile numbers and email addresses to ensure contact can be made, and avoid the situation where the firm becomes suspicious.
2. A firm interviewed a solicitor, informed him that they wanted to make an offer and were very keen. However, before doing this, they asked to speak to his references, including his present employer. The candidate refused, understandably, with the old adage of burning bridges springing to mind! The firm could not understand the fuss, despite our advice to make the offer first.
Tip: A reference should only be taken up once an offer has been made. Firstly asking for one before making an offer antagonises candidates who wonder whether they have applied for a qualified lawyer post or a training contract. Secondly anyone on their right mind would automatically refuse to allow their current employer to be contacted if an offer has not been made or accepted yet. It is not going to affect the firm too much to make an offer, have it formally accepted, but subject it to acceptable references. This means that the firm can still back out of the contract at any time with no effect, as the candidate can be asked to leave if the reference turns out to be negative.
A lot of firms these days do not bother with references. They prefer to go on instinct, which can be used during a probationary period to determine whether a solicitor or legal executive is going to be good for the firm. Even when using legal recruitment consultants, this should not change. By using the advice of a reference to decide the fate of an employee you are dependent on the views of a third party, who may be biased towards the candidate through friendship, comradeship, bribery (!) or loyalty, or against the candidate for whatever reason.
Advice to Employees
Our advice to employees in respect of references is to see if you can obtain two in writing from solicitors currently in practice before looking for a new legal job. If you have them available prior to interview your recruitment consultant can pass them onto the firm so they have them in place. This means that you do not then need to wait post-interview or after you start a new position for the firm to confirm that they are satisfactory.
Advice to Employers
We think that references are not the be-all and end-all that firms seem to think they are. In our experience references have not assisted in determining whether a candidate is fit for the post or not. Candidates with glowing references have walked out of positions within a short period of time, or been dismissed by their firms for incompetence before their 3 month probationary periods has ended. Similarly candidates with no reference or one that is not contacted have stayed with firms, received promotion and everyone has lived happily ever after!
We suggest going on instinct. If in doubt about a candidate’s ability to undertake work, why not ask them to run through a case or file with you during second interview? If they are a solicitor, ask them to run through a process on a live file. Most importantly of all – is this candidate someone you could work with on a daily basis?
Author: Jonathan Fagan MIRP MAC Cert RP LLM Solicitor (non-practising) – Managing Director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment (www.ten-percent.co.uk) – save time, skip the legal job boards and register with us! Jonathan Fagan is a specialist legal recruitment consultant, author of the Complete Guide to Writing a Legal CV and the Guide to Interviews for Lawyers. He has recruited for law firms across the UK and overseas in all shapes and sizes. If you have any questions that we have not covered above, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org