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David Warburton Director, Asia, blogs...

Various incarnations of this question reach our ears on a regular basis, as law firms request certificates or transcripts to prove the academic credentials of candidates we put forward, sometimes even before considering the CV itself. This can seem unreasonable, especially for an accomplished lawyer who may feel their years of experience have lifted them above the ‘graduate’ end of the career ladder where so much emphasis is placed on grades. The feelings behind this question range from curiosity through to offence, as lawyers are taken aback by our request to dust off their University credentials and head over to a scanner.

Some law firms never request transcripts, or only ask for them as an interview process is concluding, but for those that request them up-front, two key reasons are regularly cited. Understanding the firm's rationale can make their request more palatable.

Firstly, firms see academic performance – in addition to career achievements thereafter - as a useful gauge of a lawyer’s calibre and ability to operate in a new firm/country/practice area. In circumstances where supply of candidates outstrips demand, grades can also be used as a tool to refine a pool of applicants.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, is the reason of fraud. More firms are using external agencies to perform enhanced background checks on candidates once offers have been extended, covering not only academics, but criminal history and even credit records. While this can seem extreme, the 2013 case of involving the legal world’s equivalent of the Talented Mr Ripley is worth bringing to mind. A senior lawyer, at the time working for top US firm Paul Hastings, had managed to hold prior positions including Partner at Cadwaleder, Group Counsel at Nomura and General Counsel at Sumitomo Finance, all while his claims to hold degrees from Oxford and Harvard had been unchallenged. These claims turned out to be false, as were his claims re: Bar admission, which no doubt sent his previous employers rushing to ascertain how much of his legal work left them with liability! The embarrassment from a PR standpoint is also obvious. 

Given the negative consequences of hiring a lawyer who either doesn’t transition to the team/workload as well as had been hoped, or indeed had misrepresented their qualifications/background, it seems that such checks will remain a common feature of the recruitment process, and may indeed get more stringent in future.

How do you (or would you) feel if asked to provide academic transcripts early in the hiring process?

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David Warburton

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