On Keeping Referrals Personal

Yesterday I had a nice chat with another attorney on the practice of client referral. Some of the material we discussed might be beneficial to lawyers starting their careers, so I thought I would share a few takeaways from our discussion. If you’re a non-lawyer, some of this might benefit you too, but this post is mostly for people in the legal profession.

There are times when someone like me has to admit they simply can’t help a client coming into the office. I work in limited fields, and if the matter is something requiring extremely specialized information I have to tell the person sitting across the table from me “I’m sorry, but I can’t help you with this. Let me see if I can find someone who can help you.” This is where I pull out my list of lawyers in town I trust and begin a referral process.

Never refer a potential new client to someone who can’t get the job done. 

Sure, there’s a never ending supply of bankruptcy lawyers, personal injury attorneys, and child support lawyers. That’s the nature of this business. The difference is that I won’t send someone to another attorney unless I know that lawyer is competent, professional, and will get the job done for the client.

If I know someone in that field, I’ve got a copy of their business card saved in Evernote. I keep separate notebooks grouped by practice area in Evernote (personal injury, bankruptcy, etc.) and copies of those business cards scanned for each. I will then write down the attorney’s information for the potential new client and then tell them I’ll be making a call on their behalf to let the lawyer know that person is coming.

If I don’t know someone who can help them, I’ll simply apologize, let them know I’m not the person for their job, and refund their consultation fee.

On the occasion I might be able to give someone some business, I call that attorney, let him or her know to expect a certain person, a brief discussion of the type of case, and let them know that person will be coming or calling by saying “Chris said to call you.”

Check in to see if the lawyer got the business. 

Once I make the connection, I set a reminder about seven days’ out from the date I make the referral to see if the prospective new client came to the other attorney and sought counsel. Usually I’ll get one of two responses: “Oh yeah, thanks. We did business” or “No, unfortunately we didn’t do business.”

“Doing business” is shorthand around here for “Yes, the client came in and signed the contract and paid the fee.” If the lawyer did business with the client, I’m happy for them.  If the client no-showed, or they somehow didn’t come to terms, I’ll usually toss out a “bummer” and offer to buy said lawyer a beer the next time we catch up.

Make sure to say “Thank You” for a referral. 

I’m of a mind that if a colleague refers me business and it ends up with money to feed my family, there’s a thank you coming to that colleague. It means they thought of me when they couldn’t help somebody, and it means they think I’m good enough for the job. That’s as good time to express some gratitude.

I don’t send money or participate in “kicking back” any of my fee to that lawyer. Some states may have rules against that. Personally it’s not my style. What I do is keep detailed notes on the interests of my colleagues and then make sure they get a very personal gift along with a nice, handwritten “thank you” note.

Here’s an example: I have a colleague who does crisis level domestic relations work. The kind that makes me cringe. He’s really good with high-maintenance clients. I’m not. He likes a certain type of Shiraz. If he sends me business, and the client and I do business, this guy’s getting a bottle of that Shiraz delivered to his office with a “thank you” note.

I have a thing for rare playing cards. When I refer out people to other attorneys, I always find it nice when I open the mailbox and find a deck or two of Madison Rounders, for example, with a thank you note.

Keeping the “thank you” personal is a way of showing you actually care about your colleagues enough to pay attention to their interests. It goes a long way, especially if you work in smaller communities. After all, the clients will come and go, but you’ll be working with the same lawyers for a good chunk of your career.

What to do if everything goes south? 

There are times when you will refer a client to someone, just knowing in your heart of hearts it’s a perfect fit. You know that client will work well with the attorney, and you know it will be a match made in heaven. You know the client will pay.

Then everything goes nuts. The client doesn’t pay. The two have a falling out. What do you do at this point?

This is a good time to review the three stages of an effective apology.

  1. “I’m sorry.”
  2. “It was my fault.”
  3. “What can I do to make it right?”

Most people forget parts 2 and 3. Let’s take a page from history to see how to remedy this situation.

Back in the infancy stages of my practice, a well meaning lawyer referred a guy we’ll call “Trucker Dan” to me for a child support case. “Trucker Dan” was behind on his child support payments. Dan was so far behind on his child support payments the local cops were ready to arrest him unless he paid in full what he owed his baby mama.

I met with Trucker Dan, we signed a contract, and I asked for payment. He told me he didn’t have the money that day, but he’d pay me the next day. After his hearing was finished, and I pulled his ass out of the fire.

I naively accepted this proposal. And pulled Trucker Dan’s ass out of the fire.

The next day I went to my mailbox and found an envelope with Trucker Dan’s name and address on it. It was a thick envelope. I went inside the office and opened it, thinking Trucker Dan decided to pay his bill in cash.

Turns out Trucker Dan never intended to pay me. The envelope was stuffed with coupons from fast food restaurants and truck stops in the total value of the price I’d quoted him, along with a note that said “I never had the money to pay you to begin with, and I’ve lost my house so I can’t pay you. I hope this makes up for it, and I’m really sorry.”

After loudly cursing a few times and taking a few deep breaths, I then called the lawyer who referred Trucker Dan my way. Said lawyer got parts 1, 2, and 3 right. When asking how to make this right, I said “Your guy paid me in coupons for food. I want dinner at (x) restaurant.”

“You got it.” my colleague replied. “Just go there tonight.”

So I made plans for dinner at that restaurant that night. I ordered a steak. I had a beer. When the time came to pay for the check, the wait staff said “Sorry sir, but we can’t accept your payment. It’s been taken care of.”

I tipped the waiter and left. The next day the referring lawyer got a thank you note for standing by their word.

There you have it. Hopefully this helps people who’ve not had the same life experiences as I ease their way into practice with a better relationship amongst colleagues. Referrals are great sources of business, but if you don’t handle it right you’re the one who comes out looking bad.

Remembering West Irish Street

It was approximately eleven AM when the power went out at my West Irish Street office in Greeneville.

It wasn’t a great start to the day as I had emails to answer, a meeting with a client in an hour, and a contract that needed printing.  These tasks looked insurmountable given the electricity was off at my office.  I’d paid the bill, that much I knew.  The rest of the street didn’t look like it had any issues.  I stepped outside on the front porch of my office and looked around.

Immediately, I knew what caused the outage.  The old guy across the street looked at me, large utility gloves over his hands, wielding tools.  He yelled from across the street to me.

“Shit, did I turn off your power? I’m sorry, I was trying to screw with that old bitch that lives next door.”

That toothless old man with a penchant for creating moonshine in his backyard was one of the more colorful characters I remember from my earliest days practicing law in Greeneville.  His next door neighbor was an old churchgoing lady who saw alcohol as the devil’s brew and continually threatened him with police calls.  His response was to urinate on her front porch at two in the morning, try to shut off her water and power, and have his son’s roosters bred for cockfighting defecate in her back yard.

I never took an issue with the old man or his son.  On at least one occasion the son actually helped me out on a case, providing information that led to a not guilty for my client.  The son was a horrendous alcoholic with a bad tendency to get into shouting matches with his on-again, off-again girlfriend at the early hours of the morning.  One of my favorites went something like this:

“DAMMIT GET  YOUR ASS BACK IN HERE, WOMAN!  WE AIN’T DONE TALKING!”
“NO!  WE’RE THROUGH!  I’M SICK OF YOU BOGARTING ALL THE DAMN JOINTS IN THE HOUSE!”

Eventually I left West Irish Street behind, and moved to a newer, brighter, better office.  I live in a different city, and have a different perspective on life and work than I did when I first moved into that office.  It recently changed hands to a new owner, and during the sale I inquired about the old man and his son.

“Mr. Seaton, that house burned to the ground about a year ago, if my memory’s still good.”

I recently returned for a brief appearance in Greene County General Sessions Court.  After eating my requisite steak tacos at the best dive in town, I drove by my old office.  Sure enough, what once was a site of entertainment, confusion, and occasional craziness was gone.  Nothing remained save for a little scrap of land.

I hope the old guy and his son are ok, and they’re out somewhere living the real life version of the Discovery TV show “Moonshiners.”