Lawyers Are Not Cheerleaders

If you want to understand the difference between the psyche of a lawyer and that of an entrepreneur, ask someone for references and tell them that one reference should be a lawyer and the other should be an entrepreneur. Listen carefully to what each reference says. In one instance, you will probably hear a reference that is filled with qualifications and disclaimers. In the other instance, you are likely to hear an unqualified and uniformly favorable report (you can probably guess which one will be the unqualified favorable reference!)

Of course I am stereotyping; but I am always amazed at what most lawyers say when I call them to check someone’s references. Take, for example, a conversation I had this week. While in the end, I got the impression that this partner felt that the individual was an excellent attorney, there was so much qualifying language that I really had to wonder if this partner actually liked this associate. Was he hiding something from me? (In this case I went the extra distance with follow up questions and concluded with a resounding “no”, he was not trying to hide anything; he just didn’t want to be on the record for saying anything he couldn’t completely back up.)

Typically, the attorney/reference starts off by asking “what would you like to know?” Innocuous enough. I generally follow up by asking the reference if the individual did a lot of work for the partner. That’s when the hemming and hawing starts. I’ll ask if the individual did good work and the reference will tell me “Well, he was only a first year associate but he did very good work for a first year associate.”

In contrast, ask an entrepreneur for a reference and it is much more likely to be black and white.

So here is a lesson for the future. If you agree to be someone’s reference some day, make sure you feel comfortable giving an unqualified reference. If you want to help someone, don’t hem and haw. You will only raise unnecessary suspicions. Of course if you do have genuine concerns about an individual, either don’t agree to be their reference or if you are called without getting advanced warning, focus on the positive (unless it is not there.)

Similarly, if you are looking for someone to serve as a reference for you, it is better to choose a cheerleader if you have the choice between a lawyer who you did the most work for and a lawyer who knows how to give a positive reference. Here are some other things to read on the subject (here and here ).

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