PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR ARTICLING STUDENTS
Welcome to the second instalment of a three-part series on Life After Hirebacks, designed specifically for articling students. If you missed the first one, you can find it here: What To Do If You Weren’t Hired Back. Part 3 can be found here: How to Spend Your Summer, and Starting Your Job Hunt in the Fall.
This post is all about reference letters, and more specifically, what you should do if you are asked to prepare the initial draft of your own reference letter. If you’re thinking “Are you kidding me? I have to write my own f*cking reference letter?”. I’m not kidding. It’s completely possible that you’ll be asked to do this.
Lawyers are busy (you know this), and reference letters take time; a lot of valuable, billable, time. So yeah, drafting might be delegated to you. You can either complain about it, or you can opt for my preferred option, which is to suck it up, buttercup and draft yourself a glowing letter.
There’s No Room for Modesty in Your Reference Letter
Here is the most important piece of advice I received about drafting my own reference letter: Don’t be modest. Don’t lie, but don’t sell yourself short either. Are you fun to work with, OR are you an absolute joy to work with? Are you organized, OR have you been instrumental in keeping the deal team organized? Do you deal well with stress, OR do you excel in high-stress environments?
When a lawyer receives your draft reference letter, they will almost never revise it to be more complementary. You need to be the one to say flattering (and true) things about yourself. If you write yourself a “meh” sounding reference letter, it will remain “meh”, get signed, returned to you, and be utterly useless during your job hunt. Remember that you want potential employers to read your reference letter and think: Who’s this Nelly person? She sounds amazing! We want her to come work for us. We’d better scoop her up before someone else does!
Equally important to note: contrary to the (untrue) stereotype that lawyers are liars, lawyers won’t sign their names to something that’s inaccurate. They won’t hesitate to correct false statements, so be careful. If your work is often littered with typos then don’t say you demonstrate strong attention to detail. If you’re easily overwhelmed and show it, don’t describe yourself as thriving in high-stress environments. You’ll get busted and feel embarrassed.
Explain Why You Weren’t Hired Back
Everyone will be wondering why you weren’t hired back by your firm. It’ll be annoying, but you’ll have to deal with it. You can satisfy their curiosity by addressing this question in the reference letter. Lucky for you, there is currently a big fat global pandemic ravaging the economy and making it difficult for firms to add headcount. That’s your explanation, so lean into it. Plus, an explanation about why you weren’t hired back is more impactful coming from a reference.
If, however, you are the one student out of twenty who wasn’t hired back, don’t worry. That can also be explained in a digestible way. I didn’t have a global pandemic to blame, and my reference letters were still very strong. Take a look at reference letters #2 and #3 below to see what I mean. For you, maybe the answer is that you were interested in a practice group that already had too many junior associates. Maybe that group had to furlough or layoff their associates, so they weren’t in a position to hire back any articling students. Whatever the reason (except incompetence), explain it briefly. I’ll discuss this in more detail in a future blog post about job hunting since you might need to address this in cover letters, in interviews, and while networking.
Sample Reference Letters
I promised I would provide sample reference letters, so here they are! I wrote the first one myself, but the rest were written by the lawyers. The lawyers’ names have been redacted for obvious reasons.
WARNING: Don’t be dumb and copy the language from these letters verbatim. Use them as guides. Use them for structure. Paraphrase parts you really like and that apply to you. Remember that the hiring managers are able to read this blog post just as easily as you, so be smart about how you use this material.
Reference Letter #1: I drafted this one myself, at the request of the lawyer. He modified it slightly, but only to add more details about the files we worked on together. Here is the final version.
Reference Letter #2: This letter and the one that follows (#3) are my two favourites. This one was written by the lawyer himself. He is one of the most gifted writers I know.
Reference Letter #3: This letter is also a chart-topper. The lawyer who wrote this is incredibly articulate. Her letter is shorter than #2 above, but equally powerful.
Reference Letter #4: This last one was a good letter; it just wasn’t as good as the others. I didn’t end up using it in my applications and felt a bit guilty about it. But in the end, I had to do what was best for my overall job applications, which meant excluding this one. Plus, the lawyer would never know, right? Unless, of course, he reads this post…whoops!
Some Other Useful Tips
Be Thoughtful About Who You Ask to Be a Reference
When deciding who to ask for references, be sure to pick people who you know will say nice things about you. If you aren’t positive they’ll do that, don’t ask. A lukewarm reference will not help you. You’re better off without it.
Also, ask people with whom you’ve worked closely, even if that person is an associate and not a partner. It’s better to have a fantastic reference from someone more junior who can actually comment on your work in a meaningful way than to have a weak reference from the chair of the practice group.
Just Because Someone Wrote You a Reference Letter, It Doesn’t Mean You Have to Use It
This brings me to my last tip: if a lawyer happily agreed to write you a reference letter and then gave you something unflattering, or less flattering in comparison to other letters you have (as was the case with my letter #4 above), you don’t have to use it. Be appreciative, and then quietly file it away somewhere – never to be used.
Lastly, I Need Your Help!
I wish I had more examples of reference letters to share with you, but I only have the four that were written for me. If you’ve been through hirebacks and have reference letters that you’re willing to share and that would be helpful to the current wave of articling students, please e-mail them to me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will share them on the blog (redacted, of course).
If you found this post helpful, please share it with a friend!
And as always, I love hearing from you! Please feel free to provide feedback in the comments below or by e-mail. Which tip was your favorite? What do you want more or less of? Other suggestions? Let me know!
‘Til next time, please stay safe and healthy!