When I speak with other attorneys about my firm – and most of the attorneys I know are not in small firm/solo practices – they often ask, “What do you do to bring in clients?” The phrasing of the question indicates that they are thinking of active/pounding the pavement-type activities, such as making speeches, writing (like this) or even cold calling prospects (shudder). While I don’t always know the process by which my clients determined to hire me, the reality in my case is that it’s a more passive process. Most of the time, it’s a referral scenario where a potential client asks someone for a recommendation for a corporate lawyer, and fortunately that someone thinks of me and makes the introduction. The recommenders come in all shapes and sizes: existing clients, other attorneys, various friends and family.
While I refer to this process as passive in the sense that I’m relying on people to call me rather than the other way around, in reality none of this happens without a lot of active laying of groundwork. First and foremost, the majority of my career was spent in a few large firms, and I think I made a good impression on my colleagues at those firms as well as other deal participants that I worked with over the years. If I don’t come off as smart and, perhaps more important, reliably able to meet client demands, I’m not getting the referrals. Then, I needed to make sure people are aware of my practice such that they think of me when asked by a potential client, and I accomplished that by letting everyone I even vaguely know that I was starting a firm, and on an ongoing basis I try to keep in touch with friends and colleagues generally, even without a definite expectation that any particular relationship will lead to business.
Some of my referral sources are hoping for, and a few directly ask for, tit-for-tat referrals back from me, which obviously I try to do when it’s appropriate for the particular circumstance. But it’s unrealistic to expect cross-referrals to be equal in scope going each way. Even if you’re more a “taker” than a “giver” in a particular cross-referral relationship, if you do a bang-up job for the client you took, then you’re making the giver look good.
While paying fees for referrals can be an ethical no-no, there are permissible relationships that serve a similar function. For example, a small firm that doesn’t have corporate/securities expertise can have a corporate solo attorney act as part-time “of counsel” to the firm (I’ve done this with a few firms), and because the economic arrangement involves the working attorney keeping some but not all of the fees paid by the client to the firm, the firm who would otherwise refer the work out is also compensated.