Referrals

Occasionally, someone wants me to do legal work outside of my practice area. I tend to refer the potential client to an attorney who can handle it and ask for a referral fee when appropriate. But sometimes it makes sense to work the case myself with outside help — for example, if the work is for an existing client and he cannot afford the referring attorney’s fee. So as a gesture of appreciation to the client, you want to help him for a reduced fee. Or you want to get experience in the area of law that is involved.

And let’s be anonymously honest. Sometimes the case has potential for large attorney’s fees and you want a bigger cut than the firm’s standard referral percentage. It’s hard not to feel bitter when you get a paltry referral fee up front and later learn that the attorney who handled the matter got a half-million-dollar payout.

So today, I want to write about how I typically (but not always) decide whether to refer a case out completely, or co-counsel with someone else. I assume readers are familiar with and will follow the ABA Model Rules 7.2 and 1.5(e) and your state’s versions of these rules. My first priority is to refer a client to a competent attorney, even if it means a smaller referral fee or none at all. But when there are three or more equally competent and business-savvy attorneys competing for your referrals, the size and girth of the compensation package can be appealing…

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How our original tipsters felt.

Yesterday we shared with you a controversial firm-wide email sent by a fairly senior partner at Kirkland & Ellis. After receiving too many “requests for information” that he viewed as a waste of his (and everyone else’s) valuable time, corporate partner Kenneth Morrison fired off a firm-wide response that made fun of three offending messages and offered guidance for future RFIs.

The K&E sources who shared Morrison’s message with us disapproved of it. They viewed it as a share partner essentially engaged in cyberbullying of junior colleagues, publicly humiliating them before the entire firm.

But some folks disagreed — including, for example, many commenters on yesterday’s story. And since then, we’ve heard directly from multiple people, both at Kirkland and outside of it, who support Ken Morrison’s email. Let’s hear what the members of #TeamMorrison have to say, shall we?

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When it comes to annoying emails, deletion is often the better part of valor. Some irritating emails, such as ones from opposing counsel or clients, might require a response. But if you receive an annoying email that does not require a response, don’t respond. Simply delete (or archive) the offending message.

There’s no need to be a hero. There’s no need to publicly call out the sender for being annoying. If you have a burning desire to complain, shoot the sender a private email.

But look, this is just my personal opinion. One equity partner at a super-elite law firm apparently disagrees. After receiving three annoying firm-wide emails, he sent a firm-wide response aimed at chastising and humiliating the senders. In the end, though, he may have humiliated himself most of all….

(Please note the UPDATES below; the partner in question has his defenders.)

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There are plenty of good reasons why a solo lawyer should, and indeed must, refer a case to another firm. For example, if a particular case isn’t compatible with your business – either because it falls outside of your firm’s practice area or it’s not economical for your firm to handle – there’s no reason to hang on to it.  And notwithstanding the advance conflict waivers that large firms foist on clients, in my view, conflicts of interest are a non-negotiable grounds for referral, because they “spawn an alarming number of ethics complaints.”

But there are other situations where a solo shouldn’t be so quick to send a case packing, notwithstanding conventional wisdom to the contrary. Here’s a list of examples where you might want to think twice before referring a case:

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Conventional wisdom says that solos and smalls should join a bar association — either the American Bar Association, a state or local bar, or a practice-specific bar (such as an association of telecommunications or criminal defense or real estate lawyers) — as a way to generate clients. Here’s but one recent article that recommends pounding the pavement at bar events to find clients.

I disagree.

I’m not suggesting that solos and smalls steer clear of bar membership entirely; after all, bar associations provide a myriad of practice benefits, including substantive information on practice trends, affordable continuing legal education (CLE), and advice on starting and running a law practice. But if lawyers think that they’ll find business through bar membership, most are sure to be disappointed….

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As we have discussed the past two weeks, Biglaw business development is not easy. The available flavors at the Biglaw business development ice cream stand are hardest (cold calls), harder (intra-firm networking and beauty contests), and plain old hard. As in turning referrals and unsolicited contacts from prospective clients into engagements. That is hard to do, but nowhere near as difficult as trying to land the matter when the prospective client has not invested in contacting you beforehand, or at least heard about you from a source that they trust. There is a reason rainmakers take the largest share of the Biglaw pie, even at white-shoe lockstep firms.

Getting other lawyers to refer you matters, even from within your own firm, is hard. The foundation one needs to generate referrals is the exact same one that is required to have success generating business through other methods. But there is an extra ingredient, or at least a greater emphasis on a particular ingredient, that needs to be there if you hope to get referrals. That ingredient? Let’s call it likability. No matter how skilled a lawyer you are, or how hallowed your reputation, you simply must be likable in order to generate referrals. Of course, the definition of likability becomes quite a bit more expansive when applied to lawyers considered at the top of their fields. Simply put, the person referring you has to feel good about making the referral, and they are much more likely to feel good if they consider you an agreeable person, at least to do business with.

Unsurprisingly, the definition of likability in the Biglaw context is quite different from the standards we normally apply when talking about the real world. For those who like analogies, consider that Biglaw likability is to indisputable real-world likability as Biglaw “hot” is to indisputable real-world hotness….

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Tom Wallerstein

Next week my firm will celebrate its fourth anniversary. I can’t believe it has been that long. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting at my desk at Quinn Emanuel, thinking about cases worth millions of dollars but still too small to be economically handled by traditional Biglaw firms. I wondered if I might try to serve a growing market hungry for less expensive but still high-quality litigation. Not long thereafter I was conspiring with my partner over the details, drafting business plans, and conducting informal marketing surveys.

As my firm approaches its fourth anniversary, it’s interesting for me to think back to my early plans and consider what worked, and what did not. What happened as I predicted or hoped, and what was unexpected…

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One of the good moments in the practice is when you see the result of a networking event, online introduction, “hit” on that marketing blog that you’ve never written a post on, or God forbid, a happy former client.

The result being a referral.

A real referral. A real case, a paying client who wants to meet with you “as soon as possible.” This person calls and says they got your name from someone you know. They read your canned post on the latest fatal accident, they think your automated Twitter feed with links to your website is awesome, or they heard you did a great job for their good friend and now they need you (but I hear that never happens anymore and that lawyers that rely on doing a good job and getting referrals as a result of that are part of the past and are going to go out of business very, very, very soon).

So this is all very nice. It shows that something you are doing is working. It may for a while take your mind off suing your law school for lying about getting you a job.

But then there’s the call that goes something like this….

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For those ignoring the unemployed “future of law” idiots typing away from their kitchen table in some crap city with a regional airport and instead still living in the universe where you believe practices can be built and survive on the referrals of others, I have some advice on maintaining your referral base. Some good stuff here, so keep reading if you actually practice law and have to bring in business instead of living off the originations of lawyers who people actually hire.

A referral base is sometimes, but not always, a two-way street. This is where honesty comes into the equation. There may be a lawyer who refers you business, to whom you would never refer business. There may be those lawyers who refer you business, but you have never had the opportunity to send them any. On the other hand, there are those lawyers to whom you send business, who haven’t sent you anything.

Referrals from other lawyers happen for two reasons, either the lawyer is your BFF, or because they know your reputation in the practice area. Sad news for some of you, your reputation, as I’ve said before, is not based on how many people have accepted your begging them invitation to write online testimonials about you….

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This past week, I was in Chicago for a national conference of professional responsibility lawyers. We usually meet in the same city and at the same time as the ABA, as we have many dual members (no, not at the same time as ABA toy tech show — I’m talking about the ABA meetings where real lawyers discuss law and policy). So although I don’t attend the ABA meetings, those that do come over to our conference and vice versa.

One of the benefits of attending national (real) lawyer conferences as a small-firm lawyer with a real practice (not the social media conferences where broke and unemployed non-practicing lawyers hang out in the vendor hall), is that besides learning something, you have the ability to network and develop relationships that may turn into referrals. I hear lawyers talk about not going to conferences because of the cost. The cost, including transportation, hotel, and conference tuition should usually be no more than $1,000-$1,500. If investing that amount of money in your firm is not worth it, then you are doomed to be nothing. Stop reading now and go work on your internet presence….

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