A question that sometimes comes up with my attorney candidates is “what is the best way to get great references that will impress prospective law firms, as well as to avoid bad ones that will torpedo you candidacy?” This is understandable, given that many attorneys lack experience in seeking references, much less in actually writing references or serving as a reference themselves. Moreover, merely asking for a reference is awkward in itself. Of course, the candidate does not want to give the person providing the reference the impression that they are trying to “tell them what to say.” For these reasons, candidates are not comfortable with discussing the content of the reference with the person giving the reference, especially the important subjects of what a fantastic lawyer and person the candidate is and all the other glowing things that the candidate wants the person to say in their reference. Consequently, most candidates just leave the content of their references entirely up to the persons giving them. This is a major mistake.
A candidate should attempt to control everything about their candidacy that they possibly can. This does not mean that candidates should go so far as to try to write or dictate their own references. Such an attempt would usually not be taken well by the person providing the reference. Nevertheless, it is both prudent and appropriate for the candidate to provide the person with at least some general guidance about the reference. In fact, persons who are asked to do references often request that the candidate provide them with such general guidance. Regardless of whether such guidance is specifically requested or not, however, the candidate should provide this general guidance in the form of all of the necessary information that will assist the person in acting as a reference. This information includes all the projects the candidate worked on with the person and the specific attributes of the candidate that prospective law firms will want to know about (intelligence, legal skill, work ethic, personality/people skills, quality of work, reliability, ethics, no problems/weaknesses, etc.). Candidates can even provide “samples” of prior written references (which have been fully “sanitized” of course). These can be especially helpful to persons who have never provided references before.
In addition, the candidate should not hesitate to directly ask the person whether or not they are entirely comfortable in saying really great things about the candidate across the board. This is because the candidate needs to learn as soon as possible if the person is merely lukewarm in their opinion of the candidate and/or is otherwise unwilling to provide the candidate with anything less than a full, ringing endorsement on virtually every subject. Thus, if the person openly acknowledges that they are not willing or able (for whatever reason, good or bad) to give a rock solid reference, or if the candidate has other good reasons to suspect that the person is being less than candid about their lack of enthusiasm, then the candidate should politely and professionally inform the person that it would be better for everyone if they do not serve as a reference after all. Then the candidate should immediately look for someone who is more likely to give a total “knockout” reference. Candidates cannot afford to have negative or even just mediocre references in this highly competitive market. For this reason, candidates should learn the strength of their references and maximize their effectiveness before they apply, not after.