As young lawyers, we all have heard the advice that we need to get our name out there as a strategy for developing business. The more people who know our name, the more people who may one day refer business to us. We probably go about getting our name out there in similar ways—by attending law school alumni events, serving on a bar association committee, writing an article or passing out business cards to anyone who will take one. In doing so, we may overlook one potential source of business referrals: opposing counsel.
Think about it: Aside from the partners and associates more senior than you at your firm, who receives more exposure to your work product, attitude and abilities than opposing counsel? They end up reading (or should be reading) everything you prepare in the case in which you oppose them, and they see how you handle yourself in front of the court and, of course, in front of opposing counsel. While they may not realize it at the time, they likely are formulating opinions about your competencies as an attorney when reading your submissions. Don’t you form similar opinions about theirs?
If you proceed with this thought in mind, you may be able to set yourself up so that once you no longer are opposing a particular attorney, you can develop a cordial professional relationship that may lead to the referral of business.
This tactic is particularly helpful if you practice in an area where you exclusively (or at least predominantly) appear on a particular side of the “versus,” such as employment law or personal injury work. You may represent only employers in discrimination cases or only plaintiffs in malpractice suits. Developing a reputation as an excellent lawyer with the attorneys who represent the other group can be especially beneficial, because they may receive calls from the type of client you represent that they could refer to you.
As an example, I represent employers in lawsuits brought by employees. Occasionally, individuals interested in suing their employer or former employer will find my name online listed as an employment attorney and will call me about their case. While I cannot represent these individuals, I can refer them to an attorney who represents employees, which I always do. I imagine other attorneys do the same. As a defense attorney, some of the first plaintiffs attorneys who come to mind are those who once sat across the aisle.
Regardless of the area of law you practice, however, you never know when opposing counsel may have the opportunity to refer business to you. While you likely have a similar practice as opposing counsel, you likely don’t have an identical one. Opposing counsel may receive a call about a type of matter he or she does not handle but in which you happen to specialize. If opposing counsel knows that you practice in this area and has a favorable impression of you, you just might get the call.
So how do you go about developing relationships with opposing counsel? Obviously you cannot cease to zealously represent your client in the interest of buddying up to opposing counsel. Below are some tips that, in addition to being good practice for other reasons, just might result in a former adversary sending some business your way.
Do Good Work
You certainly run no risk of failing to zealously represent your client with this one. Of course, you already take great care with any work product that you submit to the court. But do you ever find yourself relaxing your standards when it comes to work product that has little chance of finding its way to the judge’s desk? We’re all busy, and it can be tempting to send a quick letter or email to opposing counsel without proofreading it, but try to break this habit. Use the same amount of care when drafting correspondence that only should be seen by opposing counsel as you use when drafting documents you plan to file with the court. This is good practice anyway—you never know when your nasty note about what opposing counsel can do with his discovery requests will end up as Exhibit A to a motion to compel—but will also leave opposing counsel with a favorable impression of your competence and professionalism. Make sure all correspondence, whether letter or email, whether directed to court or counsel, is accurate, professional and proofread thoroughly.
Zealously advocating for your client does not necessitate that you be difficult, rude or nonresponsive to opposing counsel. Rather, prompt, courteous communication will place you in a better light with both opposing counsel and the court, should any of your disputes end up in front of the judge. Even if you impressed opposing counsel with the quality of your summary judgment brief, he or she still will not choose to refer business to you if the thought of you makes him or her cringe. Make sure opposing counsel remembers you as a professional, competent member of the bar. This also can benefit your client; you don’t want to refuse to grant a request for an extension just to be difficult and then find yourself needing to make the same request.
Set an Example
The concept of opposing counsel as a potential source of business goes both ways: If you want opposing counsel to refer you business, you have to refer them business, too. Start considering current or former adversaries as individuals to whom you would refer business. They may return the favor. If you do refer business to someone (opposing counsel or not), make sure he or she knows about it. Follow up with an email or phone call to let attorneys know you’ve sent someone their way. They will appreciate not only the business but also the heads up so they can be more prepared when they get that call.
Treat Attorneys Like Potential Clients
Once you get into the mindset that opposing counsel could serve as a potential referral source, you should find it easier to maximize this opportunity by treating them as you would any other potential referral source. Engage them in conversation—not related to any case that you have or had against them—if you see them at a bar association event or run into them around town. Make sure they know what you practice when you’re not working on the case that you share. Take advantage of any opportunity to get to know them outside of the courtroom so that they think of you favorably.
Your firm probably encourages you to send holiday cards to clients and potential clients. Don’t forget to include other attorneys—whether opposing counsel or not—on your list. You don’t necessarily have to send a card to someone you’re currently embattled in litigation with, but it can’t hurt to connect with someone you went up against a year or two ago. Include a note letting them know what a good job you thought they did on the case, and that you hope you can meet again under friendlier circumstances.
Most of this advice simply repeats what you should already be doing to be a good lawyer. By looking at it from a different perspective, however, and applying it in a new realm, it just may generate some new business from a (previously) unexpected source.
Lindsay Orr Clizbe is an attorney at Drinker Biddle & Reath in Wilmington, Del. She defends employers in employment-related lawsuits and represents corporate clients in litigation regarding general business matters. She can be reached at 302-467-4218 or email@example.com.