Occasionally we get requests for free advice from lawyers who are younger, or whose practices focus in another field of law, and who are struggling to figure out how to handle a complex personal injury or wrongful death case. Eventually I sometimes ask if they have considered referring the case to someone who handles such matters routinely.
A majority of my cases over the past 17 or 18 years have come by referral from other lawyers. This occurs in three or four primary circumstances. Many lawyers send their clients to us when they get a case outside their daily practice area. Others ask for our assistance with they get a particularly complicated case in their practice area – a case that will require a tremendous commitment of time and/or money. For example, a lawyer handling car wreck cases may recognize the need for help with an interstate trucking case or a products liability case. Other lawyers ask us to work with them when they obviously have the skills and money to handle the case but they simply have too many other irons in the fire to handle the case in a timely, responsible fashion.
And of course there are cases that come from lawyers in other states who need to refer to a Georgia lawyer. Next week I will fly up north to meet with referring and cooperating lawyers to confer about a mass disaster case that occurred in Georgia.
It is extremely difficult to have the large number of files the average lawyer handles and throw into that mix a significant personal injury or wrongful death case. A significant case can require hundreds or even thousands of hours of work, even for people who routinely handle those cases. That can adversely impact all of their other clients and adversely impacts cash flow. Then, in an effort to tend to those clients, the major case languishes, increasing the risk of error and potentially diminishing the value of that case. Lawyers in that position should recognize that they are all their clients are much better off getting some help with that case on the front-end.
The caller occasionally says, yeah, but I don’t want to give up the fee.
Georgia Rule of Professional Conduct 1.52 (e) authorizes fee sharing as follows:
A division of a fee between lawyers who are not in the same firm may be made only if:
(1) the division is in proportion to the services performed by each lawyer or, by written agreement with the client, each lawyer assumes joint responsibility for the representation;
(2) the client is advised of the share that each lawyer is to receive and does not object to the participation of all the lawyers involved; and
(3) the total fee is reasonable.
We routinely share fees consistent with this rule, and pay out a lot of money in referral fees. Once I calculated that one lawyer — who is now retired — had made over a million dollars in referral fees on cases where I had done the lion’s share of the hands on work. Referring lawyers are routinely pleasantly surprised when they receive a referral check and reflect on the number of hours they spent to earn the fee. And when the referring lawyer gets to share the fun of a good trial in his hometown far from Atlanta, the rewards in be associated with a record verdict in the hometown can extend beyond the fee in that one case.
I think the referral system is a fair one. It rewards lawyers who work in the trenches, develop relationships with clients, and for one reason or another are not able to handle a given case at a given time. It helps clients – it gives them access to a larger team of lawyers who often handle a larger volume of "bigger" cases, and therefore are more familiar with the particular challenges of those types of cases. It does not cost the client more money – we charge the same fee whether a client calls us directly or the case is referred by another lawyer. It works for everyone.
Finally, thanks to John Day for reminding me in his blog that this is even a question that needs to be addressed.
The Shigley Law Firm represents plaintiffs in wrongful death and catastrophic injury cases statewide in Georgia, and in other states subject to the multijurisdictional practice and pro hac vice rules in each state. Ken Shigley was designated as a "SuperLawyer" in Atlanta Magazine and one of the "Legal Elite" in Georgia Trend Magazine. He is a Certified Civil Trial Advocate of the National Board of Trial Advocacy, Chair of the Southeastern Motor Carrier Liability Institute and former chair of the Georgia Insurance Law Institute. He particularly focuses on cases arising from truck wrecks and accidents (tractor trailers truck wrecks, semi truck wrecks,18 wheeler truck wrecks, big rig truck wrecks, log truck wrecks, dump truck wrecks.