I don’t think it’s too sweeping a generalisation to say that academics find writing references either a joyful or miserable task with few in-between.  As the pupillage gateway closes next week it won’t be long before emails asking for references start pouring in.  Before you submit your application however, I’d ask that you take a moment to read this relatively short post on the bit of your application that probably receives the least attention, your choice of referees.

(My general advice on selecting chambers and completing the form remains the same and can be found here)

I don’t like surprises

Most would find a surprise birthday party at their favourite restaurant with their favourite friends to be a nice surprise.  More would be delighted with a surprise all-expenses paid First Class 5* trip to Mauritius.  Being a surprise referee however, is not a nice surprise.  Ever.  I hope nobody reading this would consider putting a referee down without asking them.  This includes current or former tutors.  You run the risk of your ‘referee’ writing back to the person asking for the reference in the following terms: ‘I wasn’t asked by the candidate if I would agree to being their referee and I decline to provide a reference’.

A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

Having read the paragraph above and thought ‘I’d never do that’, I’m afraid a few of you might recognise this email

Dear Tutor,

I need a reference tomorrow by 4pm.  I’m so sorry to ask at short notice but it’s for my dream course/chambers/scholarship/job and I will cry/protest outside your office if you say no.  It shouldn’t take you too long.

Once in a while I might accept that a student has only just found out about something with a short deadline and needs a reference in a hurry. Make it a habit and you might find that the answer is no.

Can you say nice things about me?  Go on, I know you want to.

Sure, but I can’t lie.  I was once asked for a reference by a student who routinely did little or no prep for class, contributed virtually nothing once there and when they did say something it was in relation to a point they had read on a page number they couldn’t recall.

As this was a reference for a top end commercial set, said student impressed upon me how important it was that the reference convey their work ethic, level of intelligence and attention to detail.  (Having only been born yesterday, I found his summary of what would look impressive in a reference to be really helpful).  I looked at him and asked on what basis he thought I could possibly say what in my experience appeared to be demonstrably false.  “People say nice things about me in references all the time”.  Well, not this time.  Aside from a tutor’s professional integrity, students ought to remember that chambers won’t take a referee seriously next time if they clearly write every reference in glowing terms regardless of the true position.

Well, this is all very amusing and you are clearly not a fan of writing references so what should I be thinking about when it comes referees

  1. Identify potential referees that consider you to be able.  You want them to smile as they write a reference for you because they know it will materially assist your application.  If you can’t think of anyone who fits into this category, ask yourself why and whether you are likely to persuade a pupillage committee on paper and/or in interview if you can’t persuade a tutor over a period of time.
  2. Approach your potential referee in good time and ask if they are happy to write you a reference.
  3. Ask your referee for their honest opinion of your strengths and weaknesses.  It will give you some idea as to what they are likely to put in a reference.  Some might even be willing to show you a rough outline of what they’d write.  Tell your referees which chambers you are applying to and ask whether they think you have a realistic shot of making the shortlist.  Again, it gives you some idea as to how they perceive you and how hard they will ‘sell’ you in a reference.
  4. Referees won’t lie or bend the truth.  If you haven’t turned up or contributed in class, don’t expect much more than a reference that confirms you were registered on your course.
  5. If this is the second or subsequent year of asking someone to be your referee, send them an updated CV, gateway application form and list of chambers that you are applying to when you check that they are still willing to be your referee.

A good reference can tip the balance between a 1st round interview and a rejection, between a pupillage offer and rejection.  It won’t get you a pupillage, you have to do the hard work, but don’t underestimate its value.  Make sure you get the best references you can.

Good luck as always.