It has always been my belief that the "I need 3 names" method of referrals was invented at BigLaw, and it happened like this:
A young associate had the rare opportunity to be asked to whom he would refer a matter. He gave out the name of one lawyer who he knew and respected. The client hired the lawyer and wasn't happy. The client called the managing partner at the firm and complained. The managing partner decided that his firm would not be in the middle of unhappy clients and lawyers from other firms. The new procedure would be to only give out three names, and let the client pick. That way, BigLaw could never be on the hook.
And it spread. No longer would lawyers just give out the name of the one lawyer they believed was perfect for the client and the case, but would instead make no referral at all by giving out three.
The argument for giving out three names comes from lawyers who claim that "some clients like to have a choice, several lawyers to talk to."
The client wants three prices, and three opportunities to hear what they want to hear.
And it's our fault. We are the profession known best for referring business and we suck at it.
The lawyers practicing the longest, are the worst at it.
We never ask questions.
A client calls and wants an "aggressive divorce lawyer." We never ask why. We never ask, how long have you been married?" We instead refer the 3 year married guy with no assets, to a $400 an hour divorce lawyer who wants a $15,000 retainer.
A client calls about a "criminal case in ________________," and is looking for the "best criminal lawyer in town." We don't ask what type of case. We just refer him to the "marquis" criminal defense lawyer in that town - not realizing it's for stealing a t-shirt while on spring break and the kid has $750 for a lawyer.
A client emails they need an "employment lawyer." You don't ask why. Is it for a termination, sexual harassment, contract dispute? Doesn't it matter to you when referring the client to a lawyer? Or are you just looking to waste your colleague's time?
By doing this, we do a disservice to the client and the lawyer.
I see this routinely. I see the 30 year practitioner referring cases to their fellow 30-year practitioners, without even asking about the case. While I understand that a 30-year practitioner may not know too many younger lawyers who may be better suited for a particular case, I have to think they at least know how to find one.
Referring the wrong lawyer for the wrong case is how you become useless to potential clients. A client who receives a successful referral from you is one who is going to call back the next time they need a referral, or advice, or you.
As I watch emails go across listservs daily, I laugh at the referrals I see. Yesterday someone was simply asking a simple procedural question in a certain jurisdiction, and was told to call who is known to be the finest lawyer practicing in that area. I found the answer on Google. The other day someone had a very small matter in a certain city, and there was that 30-year practitioner referring him to a lawyer who probably wouldn't get out of bed for the case.
And back to giving three names. I never do it, even if the client demands. I tell them this is the lawyer I would hire (if it is) and that if it doesn't work out, to call me back and I'll try to help them. By giving one name, you are giving a referral, not a "which one doesn't belong" list of "pick one." By giving a name of the right lawyer for the case, you become a resource to the client. By giving three names, you are nothing more than a switchboard.
Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.