One hallmark of a contented and mature personal life is that you can help others without expecting a return. Few of us are consistently mature, but many lawyers do give referrals without strings to other lawyers. It is also true that lawyers’ maturity may not be tested much, because lawyers who help their fellows often get helped in return.
In the world of legal referrals and business collaboration, long-lived selfless giving is not expected. Business reciprocity is not about love, or even karma. It is about respect, helping each other’s (or shared) clients, and getting a job done well. You will not, and should not, be sent work for which you are ill-suited, and which you could not do well.
Three key ways to obtain referral work from other lawyers are 1. Having and maintaining technical legal skills and acumen, 2. Having a reputation for the same, as well as for good judgment, and 3. Being trustworthy regarding not stealing another lawyer’s clients.
Becoming an excellent lawyer is not the sort of subject typically covered in my Make It Rain® blogs. Suffice it to say that it requires hard work, caring about your clients, humility, and intelligence.
I can, however, suggest ways that one can become known as an excellent lawyer within the legal community. Shine light on your accomplishments, your knowledge, and work you have done. When possible, inform lawyers who may be referral sources about non-confidential aspects of your work. “I recently did this,” is not viewed as bragging if it is also interesting. Help people know exactly what you do and where you might fit into their referral scheme., “I had an opportunity to participate in something related, but not identical, to the kind of work you do,” will keep you top of mind for possible referrals or collaborations. For tips on how to spread news of your articles or speaking engagements, see Writing Articles and Public Speaking.
Write about your work in alumni and other newsletters. Send news of recent accomplishments to other lawyers and perhaps other service professionals, preferably with an interesting tidbit or nuance about the work.
While excellent legal work is the sine qua non for consistent referrals from other lawyers, good judgment is also crucial. No one wants to refer to a lawyer who bills fifty hours when five will do, nor to one who is willing to give a slapdash analysis of a complex issue simply to keep the fees down. If you believe something will take significant time, let the referral source know that. If a client is seeking an impossible or highly unlikely result, communicate that fact before starting work. You may be asked to leave things alone.
Knowing how to read people is crucial. Pay attention to who sends you work and what they want. Ask them why they chose you. You will learn things. It is likely that the reason you were chosen is something others could want as well. Think about whom else you know who may need similar help, and plan to communicate with them accordingly.
The trickiest part of being on other lawyers’ referral lists is instilling confidence in other lawyers that you will not steal their clients. If you have been asked to handle one aspect of a deal or litigation, do only the work you have been hired to do. Unless asked, do not share your opinion of other aspects of the work. Most importantly, if you are with a law firm of any size, tell your colleagues in no uncertain terms not to horn in on the client. Clients do sometimes change lawyers because of referrals, but it should be the client’s idea.
Referrals are regularly withheld because a particular lawyer does not want to give work to a particular law firm because one or more lawyers at that firm are known to have grabbed additional work from clients for whom they had been assigned a discrete task.