GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2005
When You Don’t Know It All: Client Referrals
As a solo attorney you can’t be all things to all people. You are just one person and only can cover so many areas of law in your practice. What happens when a client comes to you with something outside your area of expertise?
The one thing that you don’t want to do is say, “Sorry, I don’t do that. Good luck in finding someone else.”
You want to keep the client, so you do your best to refer the case to someone else. But how do you find someone who can take care of your client’s needs? And how do you know if that lawyer is any good?
In a big firm, all you have to do is walk down the hall and ask a colleague from your firm. The solo attorney gets to look in the mirror and ask, “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about patent law, would you?”
Reach Out . . . and Find an Attorney
One of the best ways to develop relationships with other attorneys is to do what is often hard for a lot of lawyers: Be sociable whenever you are in a crowd of attorneys. It’s not that most lawyers are anti-social, but I have observed that at CLE classes, for example, they become positively monk-like. Take the bold step of initiating conversations with those sitting next to you. If it is an all-day CLE, suggest eating lunch together. Ask them what kind of practices they have. Take their cards. Follow up with lunch or coffee.
There are lots of other ways of reaching out to other lawyers. There are law school classmates, office suite mates, and activities at your local bar association. The important thing is to initiate conversations with lawyers about their practices and exchange business cards.
Is This the One?
Now that you found them, how do you know if they are any good? You could ask for references. This would be justifiable if they know that you want to refer clients to them.
But I think you will want something more dependent on your own investigation and powers of observation than on how many friends an attorney has among his or her clients. There are certain indicia of quality:
• How do they respond to your questions? Thoughtfully or flippantly? Don’t expect better behavior when they are with clients.
• Do they admit to ignorance or try to cover it up? Develop a question that you know will stump them. Admitting to ignorance is a sign of security.
• What is their general attitude toward clients? Caring? Or do they speak of clients as just being a hindrance? You want an attorney who will really care about your clients’ problems.
• Are they active in their area of expertise? Are they doing challenging work? Better yet, do they see their work as challenging or just boring and routine? Never hire a bored lawyer.
• Do they have any tangible evidence of expertise, such as a teaching position or articles published in their field?
• Check with your state bar association. In many states there is a least some publicly available background information on all lawyers licensed to practice in the particular state. Sometimes this information is even available on the Internet.
They’re Hired—Now What?
Once the lawyer has been hired by your client, you should stay in the loop to some extent. To what extent will depend on how important the matter is. If it is a relatively small matter, like reviewing a lease for an offsite storage facility, then you won’t want to spend too much time checking up on it. However, if it is a “bet-the-farm” piece of litigation, you will want to be very closely involved.
Perhaps there is some work that you can legitimately do on the case, even though it is not in your field of expertise. For example, if you are a business lawyer referring a matter to a litigator, perhaps you can do some of the legal research or do some drafting.
Even if you are not actively participating, you should monitor the matter. Be aware of important dates if it is a litigation, what is at stake, and what are the important issues. Consider asking to be on the distribution list for documents and e-mails. However, this may not always be advisable. Your client will assume that you are reading everything sent your way when you may not have the time, or your client may not expect to be billed for that time.
Keeping Your Client
The greatest danger besides the attorney doing a poor job is the attorney taking your client. Most attorneys are smart enough to know that poaching your client will make this the last referral they’ll ever get from you. However, there are lots of shortsighted people in the world, and some of them just happen to be lawyers.
One thing to do is see if any of your acquaintances know the reputation of the attorney to whom you wish to refer work. You would be surprised how widely known an attorney’s reputation can be, especially a cutthroat reputation, and even in a large city. So take the trouble to make the inquiry.
One way that you can all but ensure that your client will not be taken from you is by referring the matter to an attorney who does only the kind of work that is needed for the referred matter. For instance, if you are a litigator and your client needs an immigration lawyer for one of his or her employees, you can refer the matter to a law firm that practices only immigration law without much concern that the firm will want to start representing your client in its commercial litigation matters.
Which brings us to the question of whether you ever want to refer a client to a large firm. Unfortunately, even if the large firm in question does not have the reputation of poaching clients, a client might decide to move all of its business to the large firm after getting a look at the nice offices and the roster of attorneys in various specialties who can handle any and all legal needs. Then again, after getting one or two large-firm invoices, your client might come running back to you. But still, it is a concern, and you should consider limiting your referrals to solo attorneys or smaller firms that do not practice in your area of law.
You want to keep your clients happy by addressing all of their legal needs in one way or another. Referrals can help you do this. Be sure to have a list of outside attorneys you know and trust who can be there for your clients when needed. And don’t feel bad when you don’t know everything. Many of us have a teenager at home to remind us of this on a daily basis.
David Leffler is a member of the New York City law firm Leffler Marcus & McCaffrey LLC, which represents clients in business matters and litigation. Prior to that he was a solo attorney for more than a dozen years. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.