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What References Can I Safely Give a New Law Firm Before a Lateral Move?

published May 04, 2015

By Author - LawCrossing

( 438 votes, average: 4 out of 5)

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Summary: A law firm told me today that they plan to extend me an offer. They asked for references and would prefer someone from my current firm. What should I do?

A law firm called me today and told me that they plan to extend me an offer. They asked for references and would prefer someone from my current firm. However, my firm doesn't know I'm looking and I am uncomfortable about giving them a reference from here at this point, but I don't want to say "no" and look like I have something to hide. What do you think?

What references can you safely give a law firm before a lateral move?

First, congratulations on your upcoming offer! Second, trust your gut feeling. Nothing is a "done deal" until you physically receive the offer in the mail, conflicts and background have cleared, and you decided that you want to accept this firm's offer of employment. The last step in this process (which only some firms require) is that you provide a reference from your current firm. They typically want a partner for whom you've worked.

This is a very precarious situation because if your "new" firm calls your present employer too early (before everything else has been sorted), it endangers your current employment and is a cause for dismissal. Offers can fall through for a variety of reasons: there's a conflict, the firm does not get final approval from the firm's central executive committee, or perhaps you are not happy with the offer and decide not to accept it after all. Essentially, it is not safe or recommended to offer a reference from a current employer prior to the offer being set in stone.
What do you tell them? Make sure to assert that you are happy to give a reference from your current firm once you have the offer in hand, conflicts have been cleared, and you are prepared to accept. Until this point, offer them preliminary references that are not presently connected to your current firm. This could be someone that you've worked with at a prior firm or a summer. It could also be someone that worked with you at your present firm but has since departed. Make sure to call the people that you choose so that they are aware to expect the call and have a good idea for what they will say about you. Nobody wants any surprises at this point in the process.
Once everything else has been set (you have the physical offer in hand, conflicts/background have cleared, preliminary references are spoken to, and you accept the offer in writing), then it's time to offer someone at your present firm as a reference as a "rubber stamp." As with your preliminary references, you want to speak with this person first and prepare him/her for the call. Be careful whom you choose. You want someone with authority that knows your work product, but not someone that will be "vengeful" or feel so betrayed that you are leaving that they will want to sabotage you. This is certainly more the exception than the rule, but partners are people too.

It's really fantastic that you are receiving an offer and I truly hope it works out. However, please keep in mind that you have to fight for yourself and be stern when necessary. You are the only one that is going to authentically protect your career and reputation without question.