Casino Royale is my favorite action movie of 2007. The new James Bond is smart, fast, strong, ruthless-and a hacker. He jaw-droppingly pierces the veil that surrounds the pompous and pampered but no less hard-boiled "M," breaks into her penthouse condo, steals her cyber-identity, and uses his ill-gotten gains to catch the bad guys. What a guy!
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. You associates need to read the below to get some perspective. You partners and law firm managers should scan this as well--you need to get a read on what your potential associate hires are facing.
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 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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
When The Storm Arrives, Will You Be Seen With Me?While most layers are not adept hackers, they can, amazing, read, and browse the internet. That means they know how to use "Google." Astonishingly, they even know that lots of attorneys (in some silly fit of willful ignorance) put their weirdest secrets on "Facebook" (by the way, do you think recruiters don't know you do that? get real).
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 time...it 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. Read my lips: it is all about the work.
Once you get inside the firm, of course, it's a whole other game. I'll leave you with my favorite part of the lyrics (snippets of which I presume you figured out have been used above as headers):
If you come inside things will not be the same /
When you return to the night /
And if you think you've won /
You never saw me change /
The game that we all been playing!