Referring Like a Big Dog When You’re Still The Puppy on The Block

These days, it doesn’t pay to take whatever work walks in the door. Jacks of all legal trades find themselves masters of none. Clients need *specialists* (not being used in the ‘not allowed’ designation unless you are certified as a specialist) who know their niches very well. They come to you with a problem that is specific to your practice area. But what happens when their needs exceed the scope of your practice?

One of the things I miss most about being at a Big Law firm is the built-in network of peers. Don’t have any experience with zoning law? No problem – there’s a department that handles land use right down the hall. Does your business litigation client have a tax question? Call someone down from the Corporate Department, stat!

As a solo, there is no reason you can’t build that same advantage for yourself. Instead of the Corporate Department down the hall, look for the corporate lawyer across the street.

You have to build your own network of go-to people to help with those situations. Get to know people whose specialties differ from yours substantially. As a small business lawyer, I specialize in basic business law: entity formation, leases, contracts, asset and stock sales/purchases, and intellectual property. I don’t do much tax work, for example, because the majority of my clients don’t go to a lawyer for tax preparation – they go to their CPA. So I keep a friend with an LLM in tax on speed dial for when a tricky question arises.

Other specialists every lawyer should have close ties to include:

  • a family law attorney;
  • an estate planning and probate attorney;
  • a personal injury attorney;
  • a criminal law attorney
  • a real estate attorney

Why those five? Because you will have clients who need all of those specialists at some point in your career. And if your practice area is particularly nicer (like, say, environmental law) you may need a completely different list. In addition to my tax lawyer friend, for example, I keep a commercial litigator on speed dial.

I strongly recommend that you choose fellow solos and small firms to refer your clients to. First of all, you won’t have to worry about the other firm trying to steal your clients away because they don’t have a huge department just down the hall that practices in your niche. Second, you will be building a cross-referral network that will let you compete with the Big Law firms that do.

What you cannot do is get into a formal “I’ll send you referrals if you send me referrals” arrangement/agreement. While there is a tendency to refer to firms that refer clients to you, you cannot make referrals contingent upon getting other referrals. ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct, Rule 7.2 states, “A lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services,” with only a few exceptions. Referrals made for referrals given is NOT one of them! (Some states still permit fee splitting for lawyer-to-lawyer referrals and you should check on the specific rules for your state.  This would permit/require a formal agreement for each individual case referred.)

What you can do is be conscious of where you refer your clients. Search out well-respected solos and small firm attorneys and take them to lunch. Treat it as a marketing meeting – only you are there to find out what kind of clients the other lawyer is looking for, not to market your services and ask for referrals. Find out if this attorney is the one you would want to be sent to if you asked for a referral. Sending your clients to the best-of-the-best in your community only makes you look that much better to your clients.

Trust that referrals will come when referrals are given, with no tacit agreement required. Send a token gift to say “thank you” for referrals you receive. Take lunch to the lawyers and their staff and see how much they appreciate it. Most importantly, though, treat the clients that are referred to you by other lawyers with kid gloves because they are gold to your practice. They WILL tell the referring attorney how you treated them, good or bad. Make yourself stand out (in a good way) from the other lawyers that they may send clients to, and pretty soon you’ll be at the top of their referral list.

You might also enjoy: Always Pay Your Referral Fees.  Always.

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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2 comments on “Referring Like a Big Dog When You’re Still The Puppy on The Block

  • Being a part of any group like this is a huge boost to the bottom line. Word of mouth is so important. When one person tells another person about a company that is more effective than 10 radio advertisements. Great information.

  • Hi Suzanne

    I find your blogs really useful! I worked for Australia’s largest commercial law firm a while ago and can relate to your comments.


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