Don’t Refer Bad Cases or Clients

Referrals from other attorneys are a key source of clients for many law firms.

There is a difference between good referrals and other attorneys trying to dump a problem client or a bad case on someone else.

The next time you are considering referring a potential client (or current client) elsewhere, make sure you are doing the right thing.

Your Legal Community is Small

I practice in the Twin Cities, which is the sixteenth biggest metropolitan area in the country. That means there are a lot of people here and there are a lot of lawyers. That said, I am consistently surprised at how small the legal community feels.

Part of that is because I practice a niche within a niche. Part of that is because legal communities are generally closely held. And in case you haven’t figured this out yet, your reputation as an attorney and a person travels fast. Like it or not, your reputation is known by a lot more people than you think.

For that reason, I am always shocked to hear about a lawyer doing something that most lawyers consider bad manners or bad business. For example, opposing counsel that consistently burn bridges with the other side. Or an attorney who constantly refers lousy cases or problem clients to other attorneys. Word travels fast, and reputations are hard to shake. Especially when there is a pattern of behavior.

Cases and Clients You Should Not Refer

To be clear: I’m not saying that you can, or should, have the ability to recognize great cases in other practice areas. But every attorney can spot a potentially bad case, and they can usually see a problem client coming. You are doing more harm than good if you are referring those clients to other attorneys that you hold in high regard.

I also would refrain from the apparently prevalent custom of sending bad cases to someone you don’t like. You are not required to provide a specific referral to another attorney. You can simply say that you don’t have a referral, or refer them to the bar association.

Here are some types of clients and cases you should not refer.

A Bad Case or a Case With Major Issues

This usually happens in one of two ways. One, a case within your expertise that you don’t want to take because of a major issue. Or two, a case that is not in your practice area, but you still know enough to realize it’s a not a great case. Under either scenario, those are probably not the type of cases you should be referring to people you know.

There have been a few times in the last year where other attorneys have tried to refer me a case that is clearly not a good case. Heck, they usually pitch it as “rock-solid” or “can’t miss” case. Attorneys don’t refer rock-solid or can’t miss cases to other attorneys unless there is a very legitimate reason. If it’s a close colleague of mine, I believe them. If they say there’s a conflict, I believe them. If they tell me “I’ve got too much going on” or “I just can’t deal with this particular case right now” that’s a big red flag. It’s probably just a bad case.

If you are a solo attorney, you know what I’m talking about. The only way I’m referring a great case to someone else is because of a conflict. That’s it. If I’m already swamped, I will put in more hours and take the case.

The Problem Client

If you don’t know how to spot a problem client, here is a good place to start.

Here are my two (non) favorite referrals from other attorneys. One, a client looking for a free attorney to handle a case that I don’t handle (and the other attorney knows this). For example, I’ve had attorneys call me and say “I know you practice consumer law, but I’ve got a business client I’m trying to help with a lease, and I don’t handle that. They can’t afford to pay anything, but I figured I’d give you a call.”

In other words: the other attorney doesn’t do free work for their own client, but they expect me to (for a practice matter I don’t handle). Frankly, the more I write about this, the more I wonder about this other attorney.

My other (non) favorite referral is the client with an actual case, but the attorney couldn’t work with them. Those calls usually go something like “Look, they’ve got a solid case, but the client is really high maintenance and has totally unrealistic expectations. I figured maybe you would be a better fit for them.”

In other words: the other attorney wants out of the case, but they don’t want to look bad and want to send the client somewhere else. This other attorney also has such little respect for me that they think I will take any/every case that walks in my door.

It’s a pretty simple rule: if the client is not an individual you want to represent, then simply decline representation. Sending them to someone else is a bad idea in the long run. I have a very good memory about attorneys who have referred me cases. I even have an excellent memory about attorneys who tried to dump their problem clients on me.

When in Doubt, Give the Referral a Heads Up

Referrals from other attorneys are a huge part of my practice and a huge source of business for many attorneys. Whenever someone calls/e-mails me with a legitimate referral, but they have lingering doubts about the case, I tell them to send the person my way.

To be fair, these are people that have consistently sent me good leads, not people that repeatedly try and dump their problem clients on me.

When I refer a case to someone else, but I have doubts about the case, I give the other attorney a heads up. Just a friendly “just referred you a potential client. It sounds like it could either way, but I figured you would know better than me.” In some situations, I will even follow up with them to see if the case worked out. It’s not because I’m looking for a referral fee (I don’t request or accept them), it’s because I want to make sure I’m not wasting their time by sending them bad cases.

Good lawyers want to help other lawyers by sending them good cases and good clients. Before you try and dump a problem client on another attorney, be sure to think about the long-term implications.

Originally published 2013-10-05. Republished 2016-09-30.

Featured image: “bored couple at dinner oblyed to listen to a mexican musician” from Shutterstock.


  1. Avatar Michael Bryant says:

    I sort of understand what you are saying, but having talked to a lot of “problems” and at least listening had created a number of other cases down the road. It is true that bad cases and bad clients are a road to ruin, but sometimes by being the only lawyer that actually gave them time, even when you properly and politely turn down the case, you get many things back.

    If you are getting bad referrals from someone , call them and thank them for thinking of you, but maybe take the time to educate them on what you are looking for. At least the phone keeps ringing.

    Interesting piece.

  2. Avatar Chris Hill says:

    Great thoughts Randall. I hate to get the referrals that are clearly trouble. I also won’t refer cases to attorneys who see me as a “dumping ground” for every small matter they don’t want to handle. In short, I try and refer cases that I wouldn’t handle (as opposed to can’t handle due to conflict or practice area) to the local bar referral service if one exists. That way I send the folks away with something other than just “no.”

  3. Avatar Ben says:

    I am glad I read this. I was taking it personally when I received terrible referrals. With one lawyer, when people call and mention that they were referred by him, I hang up.

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