Volume 12, no. 2
So What’s a Lawyer to Do?
By Daniel J. Siegel
In most jurisdictions, you can pay a fee or and give a gift to referral lawyers, but not to nonlawyers. On the other hand, proper business etiquette literally demands that you acknowledge the loyalty of clients and friends—without violating the rules of ethics. So, what’s a lawyer to do?
Let’s answer the easy half of the question first—gifts to lawyers. In theory, the sky is the limit, but since most of us can’t afford the sky, here is another suggestion. Whenever possible, I believe in giving personal gifts, but I realize it’s hard to figure out what’s a good gift for someone you may not know very well. I’ve found that food and drink are generally safe bets—everyone enjoys a good meal. Thus, for lawyers with whom I’ve developed, shall we say, a close bond, I acknowledge them with a gift certificate to a top restaurant or a bottle of fine wine. They enjoy the culinary experience while recalling the gift-giver—me—with fondness. Of course, these treats are in addition to the thank-you notes and phone calls they receive every time they send a new client my way, and the checks that arrive when cases are over.
But what about nonlawyers?
More vexing is the issue of whether—and what—to give as a gift to clients and other nonlawyers in exchange for a referral. Cash, referral fees, and virtually every other form of gift are verboten in most jurisdictions. In Pennsylvania, for example, $10 or $20 gift certificates are considered violations of the rule prohibiting giving something “of value” to nonlawyers.
What do I do? First, when a nonlawyer asks about referral fees, I explain the rule. But I don’t ignore the individual. Instead, I am profusely grateful in other ways—which may not be “of value,” but are nonetheless “valued.” I always send personal, hand-written thank-you notes for everyreferral, even those that don’t pan out. I also send birthday and holiday cards and, whenever possible, write notes on the cards so the recipients understand that Isent the card and it wasn’t simply a project for my kids. And finally, each December I contribute to various charities, informing my clients and referral sources that the donations are made to honor their loyalty and friendship. I choose three or four charities—usually one health-related, one environmental, and one somewhat political (like “Save the Whales”), but not too political.
In the end, though, I’ve discovered that most referral sources—regardless of whether or not they graduated law school—still appreciate that I thank them promptly, always take their calls, and treat them with the respect and kindness they deserve.
So, what’s a lawyer to do? Always say “thank you.”