It began in 1973. A young associate in a big law firm received a call that created a staple of the legal profession. While researching an arcane area of law that had already cost the client 6 hours of worthless fees, he received a call from an old friend living in another state. He needed a referral to a lawyer. A real lawyer, to do real work. The young associate had never received such a call. Until then, he had understood all legal work available to mankind was done “within the firm.” But this was a criminal case, and the firm didn’t “do that type of work.”
He immediately ran down the hall to the senior partner, relayed the odd nature of the call, and a firm-wide meeting was called. There, the “3 names” referral was born.
The goal was not to get the client in the hands of the “best” lawyer, or the lawyer that someone within the firm respected and liked, it was to keep the firm from any liability for the referral.
Instead of one name, they would give 3. That way, the client could choose, and would never have a reason to blame the firm if the representation was not satisfactory. There would be no “referral” per se, no confidence placed in any one lawyer, just a list of names.
Why tell the client the best Italian restaurant in town, when you can give them a list of 3? That way if they don’t like the one they choose, it’s not the lawyer’s fault.
In football, we call that “punting.” You can’t get the ball where you need it to go, so you just give it to the other team and see what they can do with it.
The story above is completely untrue. I made it up. Although I think some of it is true. I’ve always believed that big firm lawyers are taught this method of referrals. It’s cheapened our profession. It’s meant to create cheapness, it’s meant to protect the referring lawyer from any perceived liability (even if that liability is merely disappointment) for the wrong referral.
Working from the 3 lawyer referral method also creates the “who’s cheaper” philosophy. It encourages those that see lawyers as cars, to shop. A car is a car. Doesn’t matter where you buy it, as long as you get the best price. Some people, a lot of people, think lawyers are lawyers. Anyone with a Bar license can do the work, so let’s just find the cheapest one.
I will never give a list of 3, and I tell lawyers who refer me cases, not to put me on a list of 3. I’m not playing the Bahamian Flea Market game, and I don’t really care what “the other lawyer” you saw is quoting you. I refer one lawyer. One good lawyer. Someone I know, and someone in whose abilities I'm confident
If you’re referring 3 lawyers, you’re referring no one. You’re punting.
This all leads me to yesterday. I was asked for a referral for a criminal lawyer in another state. I know one criminal lawyer in that state, and I’ve referred that lawyer cases and been happy with the representation. I made the referral, and got back: “thanks, know any others?”
Why do I need to know others? You were asking for a referral, I gave you one. Is the client looking for a price, or a great lawyer?”
Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. Read his free ebook: I Got A Bar Complaint.