Tonight I saw a Tweet from Rachel Rodgers:
Any Colorado business attorneys out there? I have a potential client for you.
Rachel’s Tweet reminded of something that happened to me a few years ago. I had recently gotten my law license, and I was going to “build a referral network.” Become a rainmaker. During the year, I went to networking events, had lunch with people, and acquired business cards left and right.
At a young lawyer networking function, I met this guy. We’ll call him Steve. Steve seemed like a nice guy, and said he focused on, let’s say for the story’s sake, criminal defense and family law, two areas outside of what I do. Steve was a year older than me and liked to talk a lot. He also shared my affection for Jack and Coke. Steve was a dude’s dude. In addition, this seemed like a mutually beneficial relationship for us, because I refer out criminal and family law, and he refers out civil litigation matters. Like me, Steve was looking to network and build a practice.
Now, I had never seen Steve in a courtroom or observed his work product. I had just met him at a networking event, although he seemed pretty cool.
As fortune would have it, a little while after I met Steve, a former client of mine was looking for a good family lawyer to handle something fairly complex. I had built up a good relationship with this client.
Naturally, I had to show the client that I “knew” people, and that I was a one stop shop to help meet their legal needs. Hell, I “know a guy” for everything. Plus, hopefully Steve would send me work in the future. This was networking, baby!
Now, what I should have said was: “I don’t know anyone. I’m sorry.”
What I did say: “Oh yeah, I know a guy! You should call Steve!”
There was one huge problem with me telling him to call Steve: I didn’t know anything about Steve or how he practiced law. I had never seen Steve’s office (did Steve even have an office?), any of his papers, or interacted with Steve outside of this networking event. In reality, Steve was just some guy with a business card that I knew nothing about, other than the fact he shared my affinity for Jack and Coke. Given that was the case, why in God’s name would I use my credibility and trust with a client to “recommend” Steve?
I wish I would have asked myself that question at the time.
Unfortunately, the representation didn’t go well. The client gave Steve a generous retainer, the representation was botched, and the client came back angry at me. The client felt he had spent a hefty chunk and change and nothing had been accomplished. And he was probably right.
The client was very disappointed with me when we discussed the matter:
“Jordan, I don’t mean to be critical, but I don’t think Steve knew what he was doing.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“… so why did you send me to him?”
I didn’t have a good answer. Then it dawned on me — it was incredibly reckless and irresponsible to send someone who trusted me to some guy I had just met at a networking event. I had violated the client’s trust.
I went to my boss, James, and asked what to do. Naturally, James wasn’t happy with me.
“Jordan, I’ll be blunt. You fucked up. You should never refer work to any schmuck you meet at a networking event. Doing that is incredibly irresponsible, it’s stupid, and it will just make your clients come back mad at you. You had no idea about this guy’s practice, but you lent him your credibility. For what? What were you thinking? I take that back, you weren’t thinking.”
James could tell I knew I messed up, and was then kind enough to turn it into a learning experience…
“The most important thing you have with your clients, your adversaries, and the court is your credibility. You become credible by doing the right thing and being a man of your word. And unfortunately, your credibility is going to be shot with this client for awhile.
Kid, I know you’re eager to build a practice, but slow down. You have an obligation to do what’s best for your clients. And when they know you’re always going to act in their best interests, they’re going to come back to you and refer you other clients, because they will trust you. That is how you build a practice. The quickest way to sink your practice is to sacrifice your credibility, like you did today.
Moving forward, here is what we are going to do… we are going to make it right. I know this woman, Carol, who does work in that area. Her office is right by the courthouse. I’ve known Carol for many years and I can vouch for her as a competent and ethical attorney. We’re going to apologize to the client, and then we’re going to refer him to Carol.”
Thankfully, James fixed the situation and Carol made everything right. The client was happy and all was well. Though to this day, I still wonder if whenever I talk with the client, I’m still the guy who sent him to Steve…
After that incident, I won’t send work to someone unless I know them. If I don’t have a guy, I will tell the client “I don’t have a guy for that.” If I do have a guy, it’s because I know that person and I trust their abilities. Any client with a brain could Google “business attorney Colorado.” When a client comes to you for a referral, it’s because they trust you, and they believe you will refer them to someone you trust. Anyone who refers their clients to “some guy who knows a guy on my Twitter feed” violates their client’s trust and is doing them a disservice.
My credibility is far too important to send work to someone just because they subscribe to my Twitter feed and ask for work in a certain area.