Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Difference Between A Referral, And "3 Names"

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?”

Answer: “Both.”

Of course.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. Read his free ebook: I Got A Bar Complaint.



Eric Cooperstein said...

Brian, this is a fun post. I’m sure there are people who give 3 names to avoid responsibility for what happens later, and I agree that’s a poor way to make referrals. For one thing, if you’re going to make a referral, wouldn’t you rather make it to someone who is likely to refer you cases back? Harder to do that if you’re just giving out a list of 3 people.

In my experience though, I’ve never had a reason to be quite that cynical about the practice. There could be good reasons to give multiple names, such as to avoid the appearance that you’re steering business to one person. If you know several people who do the same type of work, you might not want to play favorites yourself among them - let the prospective client figure out who they like. Also, if you give one name and that person is in trial or out of town, the prospective client might call you back for another name, which is just another interruption in your day.

Personally, I don’t mind being on a list of 3. If the other 2 names are people I respect, then I’m in good company. If the other names are not as good as me, then I’ll probably get the business anyway. People should shop for lawyers - big corps do it, why not individuals? We’d have a better and more client-responsive profession if we knew people were shopping around.


My Law License said...


There's definitely different ways to look at this issue, and I appreciate your input.

I agree that I take a different approach to all of this. When I make a referral, I want the person to know that I am referring someone that I may use myself, or someone in whom I have the highest confidence. Even if I know 3 DUI lawyers in a particular city, I may have one that I think is "the best" and will refer only them. I usually tell the person asking me for "a couple names" to call that one person, and if it doesn't work out, to call me back.

I also think a lot of lawyers don't explore the referral. I frequently get calls asking for "a criminal lawyer" or "the most agressive, best divorce lawyer." I always ask "for what?" Is it a misdemeanor, felony, federal case? Does the client have significant funds or is money an issue?" In the divorce situation I always ask "how long is the marriage?" "Are there kids?" By asking these questions, I can put the client in the hands of the right lawyer.

As to being on a list of 3 names. I'm frequently on a list, but when a lawyer calls me and tells me he gave my name "and a couple others," (and I have a relationship with that lawyer), I tell them my philosophy on this issue. I don't mind being on those lists, I just prefer not to be.