Ann Israel is the legal profession's Dear Abby. A New York legal recruiter since 1979, Ann is a past president of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants. Advice for the Lawlorn is updated every Tuesday.
Q:I am currently interviewing, and a prospective employer has asked for references. However, I have only worked for one firm, and I do not want it to find out I am looking. How should I address this issue with the prospective employer?
Dear Future: You are not alone! This is what happens to just about everyone when they are about to make their first job change. But not to worry -- every problem has a solution.
Are you working with a recruiter? If so, the recruiter should explain to the prospective employer that you will be more than happy to give references as soon as an offer has been extended, accepted and you have given notice. That is normal procedure and how 99.9 percent of the law firms operate.
If you are not working with a recruiter then you are going to have to speak with someone at the firm yourself to relay this message. If it is a firm with a recruiting coordinator or manager, he or she would be the best person to call. Surely s/he will be sympathetic to your situation and the need to keep your job search confidential.
I have come across one or two firms over the years that claim they can't extend an offer until they check references. Of course, this is utter nonsense, and I would question why you would want to work at a firm that insists on such an unreasonable request. However, there are always alternatives to references from your current employer.
Were there any professors at your law school with whom you had a close and positive relationship? They certainly can provide a positive reference for you. If by any chance you spent your 2L summer at a different law firm, you certainly can find some references from that firm. Perhaps you have confided in an associate or two at your current firm -- I suppose you could provide those names for references as well.
Again, I would not be thrilled with any prospective employer who is insisting on references prior to extending an offer. You don't want to put yourself in a position of letting your current employer know that you have been interviewing and then this potential employer decides not to hire you after all.
By the way, I wouldn't give out references unless you are positive you are going to accept the offer. Again, there is no reason to announce to your current firm that you are on a job search unless you plan on giving notice at the same time.
President, Ann Israel & Associates