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Should firms ask students for reference letters? (Spliced)

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23 minutes ago, katurian said:

wait, which firms are asking for reference letters now? i've only ever heard of clerkships requiring reference letters... 

yes, in academic circles based on my experience this is unheard of. letters are typically sealed and sent directly

Reference letters are optional for many firms but I strongly recommend students exercise that option. I had numerous individuals comment on my letters during the process and had the impression it allowed me to distinguish myself.

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28 minutes ago, katurian said:

wait, which firms are asking for reference letters now? i've only ever heard of clerkships requiring reference letters... 

I can't help but wonder if the poster misunderstood "provide x references" as "provide x reference letters".

I was under the assumption that references work the same way in the legal world as they do in other workplaces: provide a couple of names, along with relationship and contact info, for the recruitment team to follow up with over the phone. Or is that not the way it's done?

Edited by Cheech

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40 minutes ago, Cheech said:

I can't help but wonder if the poster misunderstood "provide x references" as "provide x reference letters".

I was under the assumption that references work the same way in the legal world as they do in other workplaces: provide a couple of names, along with relationship and contact info, for the recruitment team to follow up with over the phone. Or is that not the way it's done?

At the student level, it seems much more common for firms to request reference letters rather than contact information for references. 

For the record, I think it’s stupid for firms to request reference letters, and I’ve never provided them. 

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I provided reference letters for all the firms which had the option and multiple had them highlighted and asked questions about them during OCIs. Honestly, if you have really strong reference letters, I can't imagine why you wouldn't include them. 

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23 minutes ago, WindsorHopeful said:

I provided reference letters for all the firms which had the option and multiple had them highlighted and asked questions about them during OCIs. Honestly, if you have really strong reference letters, I can't imagine why you wouldn't include them. 

For me, it’s the principle.

Asking for reference letters at the student level is rude. You’re asking me to go to my network and ask them to do extra work when the marginal benefit to you is incredibly small (particularly when I get to review the letters before submitting them). It shows a lack of respect for both my time and the time of the people who have to write the references for me. 

I don’t want to work somewhere that shows such a lack of respect, so I don’t submit letters. If they hire me anyways, I figure they were simply providing an option to those who wish to submit letters. If they don’t hire me because of my lack of letters, I assume I wouldn’t have been happy there anyways.

The exception is obviously positions of sufficient rarity and competitiveness that references make sense, or where reference letters are traditionally required. Clerkships, LLMs, etc. 

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Well... I didn't mind reaching out for a reference letter or two. We can't all have grades/experience good enough to speak for themselves. 

But yes, at least one firm specifically asked for a reference letter (can't remember which, but it was a smaller place or a boutique), and a few had them as optional. They never came up during OCIs or interviews for me, but you never know.

Many more firms asked for a list of references, which is obviously easier.

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@BlockedQuebecois I'm really against you on this one. I disagree that a reference is necessarily a small benefit to the employer, even at the student level. Perhaps at the initial interview stage, but when you get down the line and the decision gets murkier, it's incredibly valuable. A proper reference can speak to a candidate's work ethic in ways that an in firm interview and cocktail just can't. Especially and specifically in regards to situational behavior (I.e how is this candidate at thinking on their feet, etc).

I don't think a letter has value beyond asking for references to call if they want a reference though. 

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10 minutes ago, pzabbythesecond said:

@BlockedQuebecois I'm really against you on this one. I disagree that a reference is necessarily a small benefit to the employer, even at the student level. Perhaps at the initial interview stage, but when you get down the line and the decision gets murkier, it's incredibly valuable. A proper reference can speak to a candidate's work ethic in ways that an in firm interview and cocktail just can't. Especially and specifically in regards to situational behavior (I.e how is this candidate at thinking on their feet, etc).

I don't think a letter has value beyond asking for references to call if they want a reference though. 

Who in law school can’t find two people to write them a letter saying they’re a hard worker that thinks well on their feet? Essentially nobody. They presumably already found people to say that a year prior, when they were getting into law school.

The other thing is that reference letters very frequently favour people who come from privileged backgrounds. The rich kid who spent his summer doing an unpaid internship at Innocence Canada is likely going to be able to get a more tailored, well written letter than the kid who spent the summer doing landscaping work to pay tuition.

I’ll never support reference letters at the student level, I think they’re dumb. If an employer can’t figure out who to hire after reading a cover letter, transcript, resume, and conducting literally dozens of interviews with each candidate (during the OCI process), well...

Regardless, firms are free to ask for them. Some students will submit them. I’ll continue not to submit them. Thus far, I’ve always gotten interview offers from firms that say they’re required, and the one I accepted ultimately gave me an offer, so it doesn’t seem to actually matter to them that much. 

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1 hour ago, pzabbythesecond said:

@BlockedQuebecois I'm really against you on this one. I disagree that a reference is necessarily a small benefit to the employer, even at the student level. Perhaps at the initial interview stage, but when you get down the line and the decision gets murkier, it's incredibly valuable. A proper reference can speak to a candidate's work ethic in ways that an in firm interview and cocktail just can't. Especially and specifically in regards to situational behavior (I.e how is this candidate at thinking on their feet, etc).

I don't think a letter has value beyond asking for references to call if they want a reference though. 

Like your last sentence implies, you're in support of having references in general, which is fine and normal practice in any hiring process. I've never had a professional job interview that didn't ask for references. Having a pre-written reference letter for a job, on the other hand, is foreign to me.

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1 hour ago, BlockedQuebecois said:

 

The other thing is that reference letters very frequently favour people who come from privileged backgrounds. The rich kid who spent his summer doing an unpaid internship at Innocence Canada is likely going to be able to get a more tailored, well written letter than the kid who spent the summer doing landscaping work to pay tuition.

I definitely disagree with you on this one.

I don't think references letters are better than listing contact information for references. I think either is fine. But I do think asking for references from employers can be really important. I have done hiring (before law) and there is only so much resumes or transcripts and even interviews can tell you.

Reference letters are great for people who worked before law school (especially mature students, or people who took a few years off). Everyone I know who did so did not come from a privileged background. Quite the opposite, actually. Very few law who are underprivileged are K-JD, since people who grew up poor are a lot more reluctant to take on a a huge amount of debt at 21/22 than someone who hasn't had to worry about money like that.

I had friends submit reference letters from jobs like landscaping, working on oil rigs etc. and their interviewers spoke very favourably about the letters. I like to assume that most interviewers are smart enough to know that someone who has spent years doing 40 hours a week of manual labour is less likely to burn out at a law firm than someone who has never had to have a job before. 

Edited by Starling
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22 minutes ago, Starling said:

I had friends submit reference letters from jobs like landscaping, working on oil rigs etc. and their interviewers spoke very favourably about the letters. I like to assume that most interviewers are smart enough to know that someone who has spent years doing 40 hours a week of manual labour is less likely to burn out at a law firm than someone who has never had to have a job before. 

See, I've heard this from so many people, and yet I've never personally found it to be true. Even with that kind of experience on my resume, I had a really hard time getting interviews, and even when I did, I rarely had an interviewer ask me extensively about what I learned from my 4 years working 60 hours a week doing manual labour, nor about my time as a bartender. All this despite the fact I think the experience was a lot more valuable than even my time working at a legal clinic. 

The reality I've found, on a personal level, is that if you can find a way to signal to a firm that you'll be able to fit in, that's what's going to count. The person who has that office job or that "fancy" internship signals that in black and white with their resume, and even more extensively their reference letters. The people who don't are fighting an uphill battle.

Edited by whoknows
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9 minutes ago, whoknows said:

See, I've heard this from so many people, and yet I've never personally found it to be true. Even with that kind of experience on my resume, I had a really hard time getting interviews, and even when I did, I rarely had an interviewer ask me extensively about what I learned from my 4 years working 60 hours a week doing manual labour, nor about my time as a bartender. All this despite the fact I think the experience was a lot more valuable than even my time working at a legal clinic. 

The reality I've found, on a personal level, is that if you can find a way to signal to a firm that you'll be able to fit in, that's what's going to count. The person who has that office job or that "fancy" internship signals that in black and white with their resume, and even more extensively their cover letters. The people who don't are fighting an uphill battle.

That's unfortunate - I feel like bartending would honestly give you a lot of applicable skills, as well as interesting stories. Maybe it depends on the firm you interview with - some definitely seem to care a lot more about work experience, while others are a lot more academic. The former firms liked me a lot more than the later ones, haha. 

I do think there's a lot of people who had office jobs prior to law school who weren't privileged, they just switched careers or whatever. 

Edited by Starling
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I was directly asked, by more than one employer, about my service experience at a restaurant over a couple months of a summer. Maybe 6 or 7 years ago. It was the last line on my two page resume that was otherwise entirely legal experience.

It happens :)

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4 minutes ago, Starling said:

That's unfortunate - I feel like bartending would honestly give you a lot of applicable skills, as well as interesting stories. Maybe it depends on the firm you interview with - some definitely seem to care a lot more about work experience, while others are a lot more academic. The former firms liked me a lot more than the later ones, haha. 

Former liked me better too, but I think that's because I was never going to be favoured greatly by the academic ones. 

Anyways, back to reference letters. For student positions, I'm pretty opposed. Mostly because I think they're generally pretty generic, and I think they really do favour people who could afford to take unpaid/underpaid/honorarium positions, and make it harder on those who work manual labour/service jobs. 

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I think the question of whether law firms value blue collar work experience is separate from whether or not a reference letter from a blue collar employer adds the same amount of value as a letter from a white collar employer.

With that said, the argument that a reference letter from an employer in a different field is equally persuasive as a letter from an employer in the field seems rather self defeating. If references from all employers are equally valuable, then no reference letter is valuable, and we shouldn’t have them.

Putting aside debates about utility, which I think are overstated, it’s just a matter of respect. By asking for a letter, you’re creating work for third parties unnecessarily. In essentially every case, a reference letter is not going to make or break the candidate’s application, nor will it make or break the hiring decision. Employers manage to hire candidates without reference letters all the time, so they’re clearly not necessary.

It’s personal preference, obviously, but I have no desire to work for people who think creating unnecessary and likely useless work for third parties is defensible. I think that’s a signal that the employer likely won’t value my time, and when there are a dozen similar firms I could work at, why would I risk it? 

Edited by BlockedQuebecois

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I don't know about OCI-participating firms, but from a hiring perspective, reference letters are persuasive. It's kind of weird to receive them if not asked for, but we tend to regard them as extra due diligence rather than the applicant not carefully reading the job listing. I think it's a good idea to send them if they are optional.

In my experience applying to law jobs, connections are less about privilege as they are about demonstrated hard work mixed with a bit of luck. I clicked with a number of people in undergrad and past jobs and everyone I've asked has agreed to write me a letter, or at least act as a reference in some way. I don't come from a privileged background.

Edited by Psychometronic
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4 hours ago, pzabbythesecond said:

@BlockedQuebecois I'm really against you on this one. I disagree that a reference is necessarily a small benefit to the employer, even at the student level. Perhaps at the initial interview stage, but when you get down the line and the decision gets murkier, it's incredibly valuable. A proper reference can speak to a candidate's work ethic in ways that an in firm interview and cocktail just can't. Especially and specifically in regards to situational behavior (I.e how is this candidate at thinking on their feet, etc).

I don't think a letter has value beyond asking for references to call if they want a reference though. 

I feel like it has more value if it comes from someone people recognize/know. A handful of the people I interviewed with knew or worked with one of my references (from a paid position), so I felt like they trusted the reference letter more and I was humanized in their eyes, sort of. I think if the reference letter is meaningful it can act as a good icebreaker during the interview process.

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1 minute ago, wtamow said:

I feel like it has more value if it comes from someone people recognize/know. A handful of the people I interviewed with knew or worked with one of my references (from a paid position), so I felt like they trusted the reference letter more and I was humanized in their eyes, sort of. I think if the reference letter is meaningful it can act as a good icebreaker during the interview process.

It ultimately depends on the firm/organization and how they do hiring. Hiring can be done a lot of different ways.

I'm just really objectionable to the idea that asking for reference letter is somehow a bad look on the employer for making the candidate's reference take a bit of time to write out a quick letter. That's just.. I don't know. I really don't agree with it.

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I've been involved in student hiring at my firm for several years, and we find reference letters quite helpful - when they have substance to them. I completely disagree with @BlockedQuebecois on this.

First, we can tell when a letter is generic. If it's just broadly saying a student is a hard worker and think well on their feet - we can see that it's generic and it really won't add any value (though it also likely won't hurt you - it's probably a neutral). But if it's tailored to the student, and includes specific examples of how the student excelled compared to other students, that helps us. If you just don't submit reference letters at all when we've asked for them, that would probably be considered a negative, as you've simply ignored instructions.

Second, the identity of the referee can also be a factor, with respect to references from the legal field. Odds are good that someone in the firm knows the professor or practitioner writing the letter, and knows whether they're generally tough to impress, write letters for students frequently, have high or low standards. If you have a reference letter from someone that we know as a real hard-ass, difficult to work with, high standards, and that person liked you enough to write a positive and specific reference letter - that has real value.

Third, we are aware that references from professors / legal practitioners are different from references from people outside that environment. If someone worked in landscaping or the service industry (to draw on examples from this thread) - we know references are less common for those areas, that a reference letter may be less polished or tailored or "traditional" than what we're used to seeing, and that there's probably no such thing as a "generic" reference letter for them. We read letters through that lens. And we definitely value experience in those non-law fields. When my firm interviewed me, I was asked about my experience in the service industry. Sitting on the other side of the table now, we frequently ask candidates about their non-law experience - I can recall interviews with conversations centred on students who worked as servers, landscapers, car salesmen, call centre employees, retail store managers. It may not be legal experience, but we definitely acknowledge the transferrable skills.

Can't say all firms are like that, just throwing in one perspective.

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@barelylegal to clarify, it’s not that I think reference letters are useless. I think most reference letters are useless, because they tend to be fairly generic. But there’s certainly some utility to them. 

The question is whether the utility outweighs the burden you’re putting on uninvolved third parties. Let’s say, conservatively, that writing a reference letter takes 10 minutes. Two references per candidate. And let’s say you get 100 applicants to a position. You’re asking for 200 people to spend ten minutes drafting letters, totalling 33 hours and twenty minutes of work. Plus however long it takes for you to review each letter (obviously much shorter).

I just don’t think reference letters add sufficient utility to justify burdening those third parties to that extent. I have no doubt that they’re somewhat useful during the hiring process. I just think that, on average, you and every other firm would hire the same-ish cohort if you didn’t accept them as you do now. 

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