This article is intended to supplement the BCG Attorney Search Article: "Handling References: A Basic Guide".
Many factors come into play before a law firm makes an offer to a lateral candidate. You had enough of the right factors (academic pedigree, relevant experience) to open the door and get an interview with the law firm of your dreams. You even nailed the interview, got a callback, and nailed it again. Congratulations, YOU ARE ALMOST THERE!!! Nearly every firm is going to ask for a list of references (typically 2-3) before it makes an offer or will make the offer contingent upon having good references. Yes, that's right. You can actually get an offer, accept the offer, give notice to your firm, and then lose everything because a reference said something negative about you. Thankfully, you are reading this article, and when asked for a list of references by potential employer, you will be prepared; but I am writing this article because others were not and offers have been lost in the past.
ASK SOMEONE WHO KNOWS YOUR WORK
Most employers ask for 2-3 references, and they must be people who have supervised your work, not peers. For instance, firms like to speak with at least one, if not two, partners, and you can use a senior associate or of counsel as the additional reference. If the employer is seeking to speak with a reference before an offer is made, the employer will want someone who is supervising your work now or has in the past. If you feel comfortable having an employer speak to someone on the inside, please make sure this is someone you can trust, because once word gets out that you are looking for employment, it will spread like wildfire, and you may find yourself out of a job. It is preferable to have a potential employer speak with someone who used to supervise you and is no longer a member of the firm.
ASK SOMEONE YOU TRUST
First things first, you need to ask someone to be your reference before offering his/her name, as this person may be caught off guard or insulted. You should know whom you can and can't trust to give you a good reference. Of course, your reference needs to be someone who knows your work; but if you are deciding between someone who knows your work well but is not trustworthy and someone who is trustworthy that you have less experience working with, then pick the latter. Talk to people who you feel confident will enhance rather than hurt your career. If you have heard stories about certain people giving a bad review just to hurt someone's career, don't use that person as a reference.