At some point in almost every young lawyer’s career, he or she will be faced with a situation that involves the referral of a case. You may be hoping to receive referrals from other attorneys, or you may need to refer a case to a colleague. For those less experienced with referrals, the following insights on how to navigate both sides of the process may be helpful.
On one side of the referral relationship is the attorney who receives the referral from a colleague. For young lawyers who are expected to generate business for their firms and practice in areas such as personal injury, family law or commercial litigation, direct referrals are an important source of cases and clients. However, finding attorneys who have cases to refer and actually getting them to refer those cases to you can be foreign territory. The following are a few tips for building your referral network:
• Network. Many young lawyers know a lot about networking to find their first job or next job, especially in this economy. But networking is just as important when trying to create relationships with referring attorneys. When talking with other attorneys at various events, be specific about your practice and the successes you have had. If you haven’t handled many cases independently, talk about a case you worked on and your team’s success. It never hurts to let a potential referrer know that there are multiple talented attorneys in your firm who provide excellent representation. Finally, if you have a niche within a broader practice area, be sure to let the potential referrer know. For example, a potential referrer may do medical malpractice work but may refer a head trauma case to you if you have handled several of those cases successfully.
• Don’t forget about your friends from law school. Talking to your friends about sending business your way can feel awkward. However, taking some time to explain the details of your practice and the successes that you have had will make your friends think of your name first when they encounter a case within your practice area that they need to refer out. Moreover, be sure to explain how referral fees work if such fees would be paid — your friends may not be aware of these arrangements if they have never referred a case out before. You can also offer to serve as local counsel; assisting your friends and other referrers with the local court’s rules or other unique aspects of practice in your jurisdiction is a great way to develop not only business but expertise as well.
• Take credit where credit is due. Although you may not be first chair at trials or handling files completely independently at this point in your career, make sure you take credit for the work you do on cases. This is important even within your firm or office. When partners know about your successes and contributions to cases, they will bring up those points when introducing you to other attorneys at events.
• Raise your profile. Giving CLE lectures on topics within your practice area is a great way to be seen as an expert in your field and generate referrals. But don’t forget that community organizations and small businesses are always looking for speakers — being willing to give talks to small groups of nonlawyers can get your name out to attorney board members or in-house counsel. Publishing articles on current issues in your practice area and serving on the board of directors of nonprofit organizations are other tried and true methods of raising your profile in the legal community.
• Don’t just talk business. As you start building relationships with referring attorneys, try to connect with them on a personal level and figure out what interests they have. Talking about a sport you both love, movies or your families allows a referring attorney to get to know you. There are a lot of successful law firms out there, but a referring attorney may refer a case to you if he or she likes you and anticipates a pleasant working relationship in addition to knowing that you are a great lawyer.
• Stick your neck out. Sometimes you have to take on a case from a referring lawyer that might be difficult to win or doesn’t have huge economic potential or value. This may require advocating for the case to the partners in your own law firm. It will also require working as hard on that case as you would a multimillion-dollar file. When a referring attorney believes that his or her client was well served and that the client is happy with your representation, you will get more referrals from that attorney.
On the other side of the referral relationship is the attorney who needs to refer a case to another attorney. During your career, a current client, family member or friend will come to you with a legal question or issue that you just are not equipped to handle for any number of reasons. You will need to find an attorney who can provide excellent representation, and you will need to protect your own interests as well. Points to consider when referring a case out:
• Get your referral arrangement in writing. Be sure that there is documentation that you are the referring attorney in the file of the attorney who will be handling the case. This can be accomplished with a confirmatory letter. In addition, be sure that the fee arrangement you have is in writing as well. Although there are fee arrangements that are typical (for example, one-third of one-third), in Pennsylvania, referral arrangements can be negotiated and can vary by contract. However, some areas of law prohibit referral fees, and you should be aware of whether such fees are permitted when referring a case out.
• Work out how expenses will be handled. If you have started working up a case before you refer it out, document the costs you have accrued up to that point and come to an agreement as to how and when you will be reimbursed for those costs. In addition, you will want to know whether the attorney fees will be off the gross settlement or award or the net. This will affect how big your fee will be.
• Know whether you have a right to withdraw. If the attorney who will be handling the case plans to have the client sign his or her fee agreement, be sure to review a sample copy beforehand. Many times, the agreement will give the attorney the right to withdraw in the event that he or she believes the case does not have merit. Make sure that you have the same right — otherwise, you may be stuck trying the case when the client comes back to you after trial counsel has withdrawn.
• Work out what level of involvement you will have. The level of involvement that you have in the case once it is referred out may vary based on your personal style, the type or size of the case or your comfort level with the other attorney. Keep in mind though that no one enjoys having to copy the referring attorney on every letter or document or give frequent updates on the case. However, you may want to consider going to the initial meeting between the client and the attorney who will be handling the case, as well as requesting that you be involved in major events or decisions such as deposition preparation or settlement discussions.
• Watch out for joint liability laws that pertain to legal malpractice. If you have a client in another jurisdiction with a legal issue that you need to refer to an attorney in that jurisdiction, be aware of any applicable joint liability laws. In some jurisdictions, the referring lawyer is held jointly liable by statute for any legal malpractice on the part of the attorney handling the case. This is an issue that you, and your law firm, need to consider when referring a case out.
Referrals from other attorneys can be a great source of business for a variety of practice areas. On the flip side, referring cases to excellent attorneys who have a track record of success can be an additional source of income. Hopefully, the tips above can start you on the right track for getting and giving referrals. •
Peter C. Buckley, chairman
Leigh Ann Buziak
Kristine L. Calalang
Robert W. Stanko
The Editorial Board of Young Lawyer is composed of members of the legal profession. They serve voluntarily and are independent of Young Lawyer. Through their ongoing exchange of views, members of the board attempt to develop consensus on issues of importance to the bench, bar and public. Members of the legal community are invited to contribute signed op-ed pieces.