Courtly Manners: Rewarding Referrals Can Go Haywire
California Lawyer
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Courtly Manners: Rewarding Referrals Can Go Haywire

July 2014

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Losing a rich referral source can be avoided by caring for the relationship (see this column in May ESQ.). But problems also can arise if your expression of gratitude doesn't appropriately reflect the gift. Here's a look at some referrals that went bump in the night, and how to keep yours intact.

There's a lawyer we'll call Daniel who referred his colleague Ken to a client who had landed a $200,000 contract. A short time later, Daniel received an envelope from Ken containing a $200 check with "Thanks!" scrawled across it. "I was shocked. I didn't expect any compensation," says Daniel. "Yet this made me feel that's what he deemed the referral to be worth, which didn't sit well, either."

Attorneys have mixed feelings about this. "At least he acknowledged the referral," quipped one lawyer, who said he rarely gets a thank-you card. But another said, "Getting clients connected with the best advisers is part of our job. What's the big deal?"

If you ask Kathy, it's a very big deal. She referred one matter to an attorney who ended up netting $1.3 million from the work but didn't even send a thank-you card in return. "Damn right I wanted to be thanked - and nicely," she says. "Tickets for a trip, a five-star weekend, something that showed the caliber of the referral made."

Staying within ethical bounds and striking the right balance of gratitude and respect for the scale of the matter is easier if you follow these three pointers:

Promptly thank your colleague, whether orally, with a thank-you card, or by email or text. Always make a handwritten card part of any mix.

Find the intersection of uniqueness and sincerity by showing you know what a person likes. Giving a $300 bottle of wine to someone who doesn't drink will backfire, while donating sports equipment to the baseball team he coaches could be just right.

Remember that the State Bar allows members to make or promise gifts to one another only if the gifts are not offered in consideration of a promise and are not intended to encourage future referrals (see Rule 2-200, Financial Arrangements Among Lawyers).

It takes effort to show gratitude in a genuine manner, but it keeps you on the short list for the next referral.

Crystal Rockwood, president of Rockwood Communications Counsel in Seal Beach, provides communication, reputation, and business etiquette services to law firms.

Reader Comments

Diane Rifkin - August 14, 2014
This really hits the nail on the head, Crystal, by touching on how easily referral sources can become resentful or feel unappreciated. It's not always easy to know just how to express thanks in the way of a gift, but better to err on the side of a thoughtful gesture that shows you care about what matters to the referral source.

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