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They ''Know Your Name''—The Odds Will Betray You! What You Can and Cannot Get Away with in the Interview/Hiring Process and the Dreaded Background Check

published May 21, 2007

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<<Perversely, movies like this give the lie to the notion of cyber-security. It doesn't take a James Bond—or even an MI6 dropout—to ferret out secrets...your secrets. If you think you have craftily hidden something during an interview or hiring process, I'm afraid the odds say you are wrong— dead wrong. The odds will betray you.

Angels Fall from Blinding Heights.

Okay. What you need to understand first and foremost is that you are your own worst enemy. Most fibs about background are unearthed by the culprit.

I once had a candidate who flubbed an otherwise-terrific interview at a fabulous firm because she lied about completing a CLE class, of all things! The firm couldn't have cared one whit whether she went to that darn class, but it did care very much whether everything on her resume was correct—100% correct. How did she get found out? She made a slip of the tongue in the interview. The inconsistency was as plain as day.

This is common—common!—folks. Take it from a professional recruiter who does this for a living. Moreover, your grandma was right; it is easier to tell the truth than to conceal a lie (even if it's only a "fib" or a "slight gloss on the unvarnished truth"). You can never anticipate all the ways in which misinformation can come up. Don't bother. Don't fall off the "blinding heights" of the moral high ground.

No One Else Here Will Save You.

Now it's time to really understand what your employer's background check will, and will not, uncover. In the legal arena (the context of this piece), background checks are actually quite limited. Generally, due diligence (other than review of documents you yourself submit) will only consist of the following:
  • verifying your admission to practice law with the appropriate state bar(s);
  • sending you through a gauntlet of interviews with between three and as many as 12 attorneys in the firm (nice, that!);
  • a heart-to-heart with your recruiter, if you are using one;
  • perhaps a criminal background check (not even standard);
  • a call to one of your references (who must be a lawyer at a law firm, by the way—preferably, and sometimes exclusively, a partner).
Of course, law firms feel pretty safe knowing that (at least if you were admitted in California) you've gone through the fairly rigorous background check that the state bar put you through as you exited law school. But any nasty little secrets beyond that point won't have been caught. Neither will firms have conducted credit checks (which, actually, they really should do).

The bottom line is that the formal process is not terribly daunting, assuming you can handle your own references (which a surprising number of people do not adequately prepare). On the other hand, you can do quite a bit to ensure that the process goes smoothly.

A Spin of the Wheel

The biggest wild card in the entire process is your reference. It is amazing what indiscretions will be allowed to slip into that one phone call between your reference and the hiring firm.

First of all, these folks will not be contacted until after the firm has already, or already nearly, decided to extend an offer. They just don't take the time beforehand.

Sometimes even well-meaning references will inadvertently say negative things, usually in the form of left-handed compliments such as "Johnnie has done really well, considering his rocky start." Priceless. Here is what you must do when selecting and preparing a reference:

1. Call your reference ahead of time to ask if s/he will serve.

Yes, I know this is basic. But people fail to do this all the time. You must first ask the reference if s/he will be so kind as to serve as one.

2. Ask your reference if s/he can give you an "unqualified reference."

I put that little two-word phrase in quotes for a reason: use it and no other. What this does is put the reference on notice that s/he must not say stupid, backward, irrelevant, or in any other way less-than-stellar things about you. Usually a reference, when asked this in a point-blank fashion, will say "yes," even if there is some tiny little part of his or her mind that thinks you have chinks in your armor. There is social pressure to acquiesce to requests.

This will also ferret out the posers. When confronted with such a request, a few references may back out. They won't say, "Darn, I could give you a lukewarm reference, but 'unqualified' is too strong a word." They will say something like, "Well, our policy is that I really can't give out references. Maybe I'll have to get in touch with HR." No thanks. Don't bother. They are telling you that they won't do such a thing. Find someone else. Fast.

3. Don't ask over and over.

Asking once is sufficient. Once you know that your prospective firm is actually going to call a reference (meaning it's actually asked for one—because you should never volunteer references at the outset), leave your reference a friendly message informing him or her that so-and-so from blah-blah law firm will be calling to ask for a reference. "Just a heads-up!" That's plenty. People do not like being asked more than once. (If you have kids, you are smiling right now.) Plus, asking again just gives your reference an opportunity to back out. You don't need that.

If you follow the above advice, your dealings with references will go smoothly, and the process will much less resemble a roulette wheel than it otherwise might.

The Coldest Blood Runs Through Our Veins.

Remember that law firms are businesses first, second, and last. They have procedures for a reason. They don't deviate much. If you as a candidate give them any excuse not to hire you, they won't. There are quite simply too many fish in the sea—even during a strong market (which we now have in California, at least). This means that you must be honest about verifiable facts and you must prepare your references to ensure everyone is "on message."

However, there are things that you do not need to tell your prospective employer—and that you shouldn't. These include various subjective reasons you left your last firm. As far as I am concerned, there is really only one acceptable reason that you left your last firm: the firm or practice, while it initially made perfect sense, later changed and was no longer fulfilling your professional goals.

If you please, read that sentence one more implies a lot. That statement implies you are a sure-footed, right-thinking, rational professional. You have overarching goals, you evaluate options based upon them, and you constantly update your analyses to ensure that you are always on path.

For a few good and solid-sounding reasons, your last firm was no longer on path. If you need to dig around to figure out some great-sounding reasons, call a professional recruiter. He or she can help you dig down to your own true professional goals and figure out what really went wrong.

What you cannot and should not tell your next employer are reasons for leaving that have nothing to do with your professional plan. Moving because your girlfriend got a whim to live somewhere sexier is not a reason. Neither is wanting to be closer to Mommy and Daddy. Neither is wanting a fresh start because you ended up alienating every single lawyer in your past firm. No. A thousand times, no.

You are permitted to mention family-related reasons for moving, as long as they include being near family that is already located where you want to work, but they must be bonuses on top of your professional goals. Your reasons should all be about exploiting new markets in keeping with your desires, not whimsical notions about culture and the like. Let me hasten to add that you don't need to like what I'm telling you; just believe it and act accordingly. I'm right.

You may have gleaned by now that the upshot of all this is that you need to think through your career move before you make it. If you do, you will have a much greater chance of moving successfully through this Machiavellian, profit-driven, hard-ball world. Remember, the legal world "may never fulfill you—it longs to kill you." Don't give it the chance!

If you would like more advice about background checks in the law firm world, contact Pete Smith at 415-568-2201 or surf over to for further information.

See the following articles for more information:


published May 21, 2007

( 15 votes, average: 4 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.