Reference Check: Know the “Who, What, When, Where, and How” to Maximize the Value of References in Your Job Search

When you are embarking on the next move in your career, there are a lot of things to organize and prepare.  Beyond keeping an eye on the open positions in your field, you need to dust off and update the resume; make sure you have law school transcripts on hand; find and pare down writing samples so they are eloquent, error-free, and effective; have letters of recommendation and previous evaluations available just in case; and be ready to draft customized cover letters that speak to the particular positions you seek.  Working with a legal recruiter can assist you with those tasks, but there is another key group of people on your job-search team who you also need to contact — your references.

Far too often we underestimate the importance of references in the job search process.  Make no mistake, your references are vital in your job search and can sometimes make or break your chances of getting the position you want.  Of course there are situations where employers do not check references, but you must always assume that an employer will check.  In fact, if you have an effective strategy with regard to assembling a stellar set of references, you will want your potential employer to check so you can maximize your value in the market.  With that in mind, here are five things to remember when putting together your list of references — what I like to call the “Who, What, When, Where, and How” of gathering references.

  1. Who Should Be A Reference? Colleagues Who Know Your Work.  When giving thought to who should comprise your list of three (or more) references, you should choose people with whom you have worked and who can comment intelligently on your work product.  That would mean former supervisors, colleagues, co-workers, professors, and judges for whom you clerked.  No doubt there is that urge to have a close personal friend serve as a reference who will guarantee to sing your praises.  But you should not use personal friends or family.  Employers want to know about how you work and will likely seek specifics.  Only people who have worked with you can truthfully give examples of your success in the workplace.
  1. What Should References Focus On? Help Your References Help You.  When you connect with your references, you should always provide them with your updated resume.  In addition, do not be afraid to let your references know about some recent career milestones and remind them of those work successes you achieved during the time you worked with them.  That way, those persuasive talking points will be fresh in their minds.
  1. When Should You Gather Your References? Early In Your Search.  Because employers often do not ask for references until you are deep into the interviewing process, we sometimes forget to get our references together until the last minute.  Resist that temptation.  Instead, take the time as you begin your search to reconnect with your references, catch them up on what is going on in your career, and let them know that you are starting to look.  You never know, a reference may even have a tip on positions that have recently opened up.
  1. Where Should You List References? On A Separate List, NOT On Your Resume.  I would strongly recommend putting your references on a separate “References” document that you can provide to employers upon request, rather than in the body of your resume.  There are several reasons for this.  You want your resume to focus on you, rather than who may be your references.  Avoid cluttering your resume with information that does not specifically relate to your career experience.  It will be easier to update the information on your references if it is on a separate sheet.  Employers typically do not reach out to references until they have narrowed down to finalists, so it is more efficient to have that References document handy if you get to that point in the process.  Finally, having references on your resume often invites too many unsolicited calls to your references.  So, it is better to keep them separate.
  1. How Do You Effectively Work With Your References? Don’t Forget To Ask Them.  Professionalism and courtesy, as with everything else, are the touchstones when working with references.  Do not assume that your old references will be ok with a surprise call from a potential employer.  Rather, be sure to reach out to references, let them know you are looking for a new position, and ask them if they would be willing to serve as a reference.  Also, remember to thank your references after your search is concluded – particularly if your new employer did do a reference check.

Keeping the lines of communication open with your former colleagues provides enormous personal and professional benefits, particularly when it comes time to gather references.  Now, when you begin to get those references, just remember “Who, What, When, Where, and How” and let your references give you that extra edge in making your next career move.

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