One of the best things – best for business, best for professional ethics, best for peace of mind – that an attorney can do sometimes is to get a potential client or current client to the right attorney outside one’s own firm.
How do you do it? Here’s one approach on how to do it.
1) Jane Client – good client – calls. She wants help with, say, a business incorporation or a tax issue or whatever. You tell Jane that it’s not your primary area of skill (assumed true), but that you would be happy to provide a preliminary consult for her. Perhaps you charge for this, perhaps you don’t. By policy, I bill for every consult, but when it’s in an area where I don’t feel strong, I zero-rate the item, demonstrating that I keep track of time, but that I don’t charge when I am not able to give a full professional consult at my own skill set standard.
2) You consult with Jane at your office not to get the final answer but to assist Jane in narrowing the issues so that the attorney whom you “bring in” – not refer out, “bring in” – can help more efficiently. “Bringing in” may mean a consult in your office, a consult in that other attorney’s office or both. Jane gets the red carpet treatment, you value is reinforced to her and your care for your client in bringing in additional professional firepower is reaffirmed.
3) Jane works with the attorney “brought in” if appropriate, possibly using your notes and probably correcting your superficial oversights and even errors. Jane gets what she wants, your ally gets what she wants and you avoid getting what you DON’T want – a quagmire of a file outside your main practice area, or worse.
4) In some states, it may be customary to pay and receive a referral fee. Many states prohibit, or nearly prohibit, such fees and I (Godfrey) discourage them. It’s better to have the other attorney thinking about a way to refer an appropriate case back than to get the 25% of whatever fee and mark the moral “bill” paid in full. Under some states’ ethics rules, an agreement to make mutual referrals may be unenforceable or an ethical violation, but there’s probably nothing wrong with the other attorney trying to look out for an appropriate referral to make back to you, so long as there’s no money changing hands and no formal duty to do so (consult your local ethics authorities to make sure I haven’t just discussed something ruinous.)
5) The takeaway: the client gets the best service, your value to the client gets reinforced and your value to your ally gets reinforced. You probably don’t get paid, but instead of no one looking to make referrals to you, you now have two “evangelists”: your grateful client and your grateful “brought in” attorney – and all ethics rules get observed strictly. In due course, you will get your fees and meanwhile you have just resisted Satan telling you to take that divorce, that business transaction, that could cause you untold nightmares. You sleep well.
6) Knowing how to traffic-direct to other attorneys is of immense value in the long term. Sifting the potential client pool so that you get that which you do most efficiently is critical to your long-term profitability and satisfaction as an attorney. Getting away from work that is “no good” for you due to skill set limitations, conflicts of interest, practical reasons, etc., is also critical for your profitability, your happiness and the plump health of your law license. Case sifting and client “sharing”/referrals are part of ethical practice, because if you think you are good at everything you are probably good for nothing.
What you need is an army of people who know you, justifiably trust you, respect you and want you to succeed; the best people to enlist in that army (enlist, because it’s NOT a draft) are happy, sensible attorneys and satisfied clients who respect you and feel respected. The best way to this, in my view, is to act as a catalysts towards others getting what they want while protecting your own ethic standards, reputation and value to your clients and others.