Exploring legal issues facing businesses and individuals in IP-intensive fields

Referral Best Practices: An Interview with Justin Mikowski

Monday, November 19, 2012

By Gerrit Betz

What's your firm?
Mikowski & Leonard, LLC@mikowskileonard

What size is the firm? 

It's me (Justin Mikowski) and my partner Ryan, and an associate (former law clerk) who we’re bringing on starting December 1. 

What type of law do you practice? 

Family law, some business law, and patents.

How long has the firm been in business? 

One year.

When you give out a referral to another attorney, do you typically ask for some percentage of the fees, or do you simply say, “think of me!” or something to that effect? And when you get a referral, what’s your response—do you offer fee sharing, or offer anything else?

My experience so far is that when we refer out, I personally don’t ask for a percentage unless I’ve dealt with them before on the receiving end and they’ve asked for a percentage. Overall I favor building up the relationship with the other attorney over getting a few hundred dollars on the back end, plus the hassle of complicating the initial fee agreements, ethical considerations, etc.

Some people wanted to refer cases to him, and he asked them straight up if they wanted a fee. At that point, there’s some negotiation about what the proper percentage is based on how much work the client will be, what the probable total spend is—is it a “banner client” or a one-off kind of thing?

So initially, you offer the percentage? What’s your typical response to an incoming referral?

I just send a thank you note via email or snail mail, with a gift card or something, and follow up with a message to the effect that they’re happy to consider a referral fee or simply ask the referrer to teach him how to refer back. What’s your ideal lead. 

We’ve actually referred out cases before that we had considered taking ourselves, on the basis that it wasn’t as valuable to us as a one-off case as it would have been as a referral to another lawyer in order to build a productive relationship.

For example, we do some employment matters in the course of doing business law, and we recognize that sometimes we can refer a client out to another lawyer who specializes in that area. Or if the matter takes place in a court that’s further away, that’s another good referral to send out. 

Do you ever deal with referrals to and from non-lawyers? How do you approach it, given that fee sharing isn’t allowed?

We participate in a couple networking groups, and some have been pretty fruitful for us. E.g., we’ve met insurers there who we’ve been able to refer other attorneys to for malpractice insurance coverage, or real estate attorneys who we’ve been able to connect up with realtors. These folks still get the thank you letter and a gift card if possible.

Any other referral sources?

I get a lot from college actually. I studied engineering, and so now my friends are doing things.

Sounds crazy, but I actually get referrals from Facebook! I’ll get messages out of the blue saying, basically, “Hey I have this friend you’ve never met, but he’s got this idea going and I said he should talk to you!”

Probably about 30% of my patent work has come from friends who just knew what I was up to. I always make sure to offer to take them out to coffee. We’ve even had a few people who are repeat referrers, which is awesome.

I’ve heard that friends and family can be great referral sources, too. Any experience with that?

Yes actually. My partner’s wife’s family is from this area, so when we started and send out our mass announcement, it worked out pretty well. They spread it out by degrees and we still get calls. We sent out magnets, too, which has gotten some people to pick up the phone months later. It’s a slow trickle, but it definitely helps. 

My friends and family are spread out all over, but that’s not such a bad thing since my practice is patent which is mostly federal.

Do you do anything differently if the client you’re referring is a close personal friend or family member?

It’s more or less the same approach. Over the course of networking you develop relationships with other attorneys and professionals. So, to the extent that I know one attorney better than another, I feel more comfortable referring to that attorney because if I have to check in, like if my mother is telling me “This lawyer is giving me the runaround and I don’t know what’s going on!” I would feel much more comfortable calling up a close acquaintance to find out what’s going on and exert some pressure if necessary, knowing there’s no hard feelings.

Do you want to share any fun stories or remarkable incidents with referrals?

We had one that my partner got from his networking group. It started with a low-value, one-off task, and we were only excited about it because it was among our first clients to come from that group. But this one person just ballooned out, and gradually everyone in that person’s family came to use us for something, and now we’re basically the lawyers for that family.

It may have been partly because we were able to give a lot of time and attention to them and, being early on, we could undercharge a bit. Each thing was small but it was good cash flow and it produced a lot of satisfied clients to help spread things by word of mouth.

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