Bill Wilson spent over 20 years in legal departments at corporations large and small, from high tech to brick and mortar, and is writing about various topics while trying to find that next great career opportunity.
Employers are being very careful about who they hire, looking at information sources that are new (social media), some that have dubious relevance (credit reports) and old – references. I don’t think candidates often give sufficient thought to who these people are.
Generally if you are in an active job search as an attorney, you should have those who supervised you, those you have supervised, and those you have represented ready to serve as references. Peers are also important, especially with flatter organizations reducing the opportunity to supervise people. The people you select, probably from among many choices, should share several characteristics. Most importantly, they should know you well and be able to respond to in-depth inquiries about you as a person and your work. Ideally, your reference should be able to cite one or more situations in which you went above and beyond the call of duty, or produced a very favorable outcome in a difficult situation. They should be articulate and persuasive, as they will be doing a sales job, and you are the product. They should have as much stature in their field as possible. Someone who was a SVP/General Manager is going to have a bit more gravitas than the IT help desk manager, even though he may also love your work. But be careful: stature is no substitute for knowledge. Recommendations from people higher up the management ladder who don’t know you well will inevitably sound a bit hollow, and may quite possibly hurt you rather than help.
The references should address what employers want to hear about: Who are you, how do you work as part of a team, what are your strengths and weaknesses, will you deliver in a crunch –these points are just some of the potential areas of inquiry. If you have a blemish on your record, a good reference at that employer might be able to do some good explaining it away. They can explain extenuating circumstances, put it in context, or give some insight into the internal politics of the organization that might have contributed to your less-than-stellar outcome there. Your reference may be able to cure many ills with a phrase such as “I’d hire her again tomorrow, without hesitation.”
I think it’s essential today more than ever for your non-lawyer references to talk about how you helped their business. You could be magna cum law review with a genius IQ, but if you can’t translate that encyclopedic knowledge of the law into actual results for your client’s business, and relate to business people in terms they can understand, it won’t be quite as impressive to a prospective employer. While I think there is an unfortunate trend among corporate employers to look at the legal department the same way they look at manufacturing in terms of contributions to the bottom line, a client that can legitimately point to a situation where you saved the business a lot of money, or dodged a bullet, will be doing you a favor. Although law firms do tend to rely far more on quantitative criteria such as class rank or billing dollars, the new paradigms that are being explored in the firm/client relationship demand a sensitivity to business concerns as well as top-notch lawyering. As a result, these kinds of recommendations may serve you well in either the firm or in-house context.