A few days ago, Seth Godin wrot about referrals and their true meaning in a profession. When they work well, a referral comes with it a high degree of trust. When you refer a client to another person, you stake some of your reputation on the person to whom you made the

imagereferral. In addition, the person to whom you made the referral will hold you at least somewhat responsible if the client turns into a pain in the neck or is a waste of time.

My best clients come from referrals. Good clients have found me through Avvo, this blog, or someplace on the internet, but most of my good clients have come from other lawyers, from judges, or from former clients. Where does my internet presence come in handiest? It helps the most when clients who have been referred to me start doing research.

But there is a dark side to referrals. Sometimes, a lawyer refers a potential client because the two lawyers have a special arrangement worked out as in “send me all of your personal injury cases, and I will send you all of my criminal defense calls.” Even worse, lawyers have arrangement to along the lines of “I’ll refer you every criminal case, but I expect you to send me 10% of every fee you get.”

At worst, those sorts of arrangements violate ethics rules. When a client pays a fee, the client should know if a portion of that money is going to a third party. And those funds should go to a person who is working on the case.

But even at best, referrals based upon an agreement between counsel shortchanges the client. After all, a referral is a lawyer’s way of saying that, while I am not the particular person for the particular matter and client right now, my colleague may well be the perfect person. The focus should be on getting the client the right lawyer, not just on securing business for a buddy and particularly not on securing a kickback.

When referrals work well, they are a wonderful thing. Referrals get a client access to the right professional and the professional a client who is a good fit for the practice. Referrals are  about trust. When they are solely about money, they do not work well at all. There is much to think about when it comes to referrals.


Gratitude.JPGToday, I received a thank you note from a client whose case I just successfully closed. The case resulted in a negotiated plea to probation. The case had its ups and downs, and the result was quite great. The gratitude was genuine and the praise was effusive. And, as I sit to write this post, I couldn’t quote a single word of it. The note is back at my office, and I am writing this post on my laptop at home. I can remember a negative word from a difficult client spoken weeks ago verbatim. Many of my clients are happy with what I have done for them. Many write thank-you notes or express their gratitude during and after cases, sometimes in spite of the outcome. Yet, the negative minority speak the words that resonate the most. I read two articles lately that speak to the vocal and very small minority of clients whom you cannot please and why things go bad in the first place.


Enter Merlin Mann

Merlin Mann’s blog post at his blog, 43 Folders, is written in the form of a parable set in a sandwich shop. In the story, a man enters the restaurant just at the beginning of the lunch rush. A customer comes in who is unwilling to commit to the idea of buying a sandwich. Yet, he wants to talk about sandwiches and what the shop might offer. As he is invited to peruse the menu, he demands a deep discount and attempts to engage the owner in further dialogue. Meanwhile, customers who have come to buy sandwiches become uncomfortable and impatient. Eventually, the man behind the counter decides that he has had enough of trying to deal with the customer and invites him to take a seat until he is ready to order. When things still don’t work out, the customers behind him in line escort him outside. Unlike most parables, this one comes with an explanation:



The Sandwich Guy can’t do much for you until you’re hungry enough to really want a sandwich.

Once you’re hungry enough, you still have to pay money for the sandwich. This won’t not come up.

Few people become “a good customer” without understanding both 1 and 2.

Few companies become “a smart business” without understanding 1, 2, and 3.

Basing his business on an understanding of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 doesn’t make The Sandwich Guy a[n uncaring person]; it makes him a smart business.

He then references a blog on negotiation, which points out: “All […] variables can change except your worth. That can’t change. It’s an undeniable fact beyond subjectivity and beyond the reality-bending rhetoric of your client-to-be. You are worth what you are worth and unless you’re feeling charitable something else has to give.”


Application to Lawyers Representing Clients

The initial client meeting between an appellate lawyer and a potential client is not merely a sales call. After all, you will sometimes have a duty to turn the client away. And you are committing a considerable amount of your time and effort to the case that you may take. It’s important that you have a frank conversation about what lies ahead and the resources it will take for you to do the job properly. Maybe somebody else can do the job more cheaply. Maybe someone else has a different sense of worth. But if you sacrifice your worth or let your client’s willingness or ability to pay you substantiall less than the representation is worth, then your decision impacts you, your client, and those who are standing in line behind the client.

Enter Seth Godin

According to him, there are a vocal 2% of your customers who will protest any change you make in your practice or any innovation:

If you have fans or followers or customers, no matter what you do, you’ll annoy or disappoint two percent of them. And you’ll probably hear a lot more from the unhappy 2% than from the delighted 98. It seems as though there are only two ways to deal with this: Stop innovating, just stagnate. Or go ahead and delight the vast majority. Sure, you can try to minimize the cost of change, and you might even get the number to 1%. But if you try to delight everyone, all the time, you’ll just make yourself crazy. Or become boring.

The numbers are probably a little worse for criminal defense. And maybe they are worse still if you work in criminal appellate law. So, it is important to be a great lawyer. And it is also important to know your worth, know what it will take to do the job right, have an honest initial meeting, and serve the sandwiches for those with the means and desire to buy them. It takes hard work and skill to represent somebody well. And it’s harder to clean up another lawyer’s mess than it is to be the original lawyer doing the job right.

blog.jpgThere are some great law blogs out there, and I read many of them daily. But there are also some important blogs that are not intended for lawyers that help to make me a better lawyer. I think that these blogs will help you, too, no matter what your legal specialty is.


Presentation Zen

I have been reading Garr Reynolds’s excellent blog, Presentation Zen, for several years now. Mr. Reynolds is a professional speaker and designer. He’s the author of several books on making excellent presentations and slide design. I am a very different presenter now than I was before I started reading this blog. My slides were once filled with bullet points and, I’m embarrassed to say, virtually paragraphs of text. I have a long way to go, but this blog has helped to make be a better presenter. And many of his principles of design have also helped my writing and the layout of my briefs as well.


Steven Pressfield’s Blog

Appellate lawyers share many of the challenges of other professional writers. While writing it difficult to do, it is often nearly impossible to start writing. Mr. Pressfield’s blog deals with writer’s block and the deeper issues behind it, namely a force he refers to as The Resistance. Mr. Pressfield’s ideas have found their way into the work of other writers, namely Elizabeth Gilbert and Seth Godin. Mr. Pressfield is the author of several novels with military themes as well as the novel that inspired The Legend of Baggar Vance. His blog is very helpful when I find myself doing things other than writing the brief I need to write. 


Seth Godin’s Blog

He blogs every day. Like clockwork. And he always has something significant to say. I get his blog via email, and it is the first thing I read in the morning. His books aren’t half bad either. 


The Blog of Tim Ferriss

I really like this blog. It’s updated sometimes once or twice a week, seldom everyday. But the posts are meaningful and infinitely practical. Ferriss is all about lifestyle design. And while I have not been able to reduce my workweek to anywhere near four hours, I have learned some good counter-intuitive lessons from his blog over the last few years. He writes about everything form Stoic philosophy to bench pressing.