Elder law and estate planning attorney Matthew Lenza discusses “for profit” networking groups and why they didn’t work for his practice (and may not in yours).
When an attorney decides to go solo there will always be one question that is top of mind for them: “where am I going to find my next client?”
In terms of business development, what didn’t work for me (and many other solo attorneys) are “for profit” networking groups. Two big groups that come to mind are BNI (Business Network International) and the Bucks Business Network.
Basically, the way these groups work is you pay a yearly fee to attend a weekly meeting. Each local group is filled with members from all types of professions, from insurance brokers and bankers, to florists and fashion designers.
In theory, this sounds like a great idea! What a wonderful way to meet new people, share ideas and expand your network. Unfortunately, the actual implementation falls short of being useful for my estate planning practice. Here’s why:
1. Time commitment
The time commitment is impractical for most law practices. One of the hallmarks of these groups is that members meet every week at the same time.
The frequency of the meetings would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that attendance is mandatory at all meetings with little exception. During one trial meeting I attended it was clearly explained that you were REQUIRED to attend 21 out of 24 meetings every 6 months.
For a solo attorney, committing to such a schedule is nearly impossible. Between court appearances, depositions, client consultations and family obligations, our schedules can be very fluid and incredibly packed.
As an alternative, you can “send a client in your place.” This wouldn’t work for me because I’m not going to jeopardize my relationship with a client by sending them to be bombarded with solicitations from the other group members.
2. Mandatory release of client information
Attorneys would be violating attorney-client privilege if they provide client information at meetings. For example, one of the ways these groups sustain themselves is by forcing members to provide the names and contact information of their clients to the rest of the group. This ensures that every member leaves the meeting with a list of people to contact with a sales pitch.
If you think about this rule in the context of a non-lawyer group, it poses no issue and I understand why this requirement exists. It prevents one or two people in the group from doing the heavy lifting while the rest just show up for the free referrals.
But as an attorney, these groups will never work for me. Under no circumstances am I going to violate the attorney-client privilege by providing contact information to other group members. There isn’t a state in the union where this would be permissible under a strict interpretation of ethics rules.
Perhaps other attorneys follow a liberal reading of the rules regarding this sort of thing, but I’m certainly not interested in facing a bar complaint panel when a client receives 25 unsolicited phone calls referencing my name.
3. Paying for referrals
Lawyers are not permitted to pay a referral fee to non-lawyers, which means paying a membership fee to gain access to referrals is unethical. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted by most states, are quite clear.
Rule 5.4 (a) states that “a lawyer or law firm shall not share legal fees with a non-lawyer.” Additionally, rule 7.2 (b) states “a lawyer shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services.”
Remember what I said about these organizations having members from all types of professions and requiring a fee to become a member of the group? In many cases, members pay a joining fee, an annual membership fee, and a weekly meeting fee to cover room and refreshments. So essentially, you are paying money to a non-lawyer organization whose only benefit to you is referring clients.
Other people may not see the conflict, but for me this is as clear as day. All it would take is one disgruntled client to make a bar complaint about this and I would be forced to defend myself against the rule.
4. To me, the whole experience just felt uncomfortable
Networking in these groups doesn’t feel as natural as it does in other networking groups for solo attorneys. This is a personal feeling, but the whole concept of the organization seems to put a lot of pressure on its members.
There is constant talk about recruiting new members and how to find new people to bring as guests to meetings. There is also talk about gaining “levels” within the organization.
To be clear, I have never met anyone at any of these meetings who was anything short of respectful, pleasant, and enthusiastic. Although, I feel as if these organizations have provided too much structure, which makes the networking process feel significantly less genuine.
While I do believe every member wants to legitimately help one another as well as increase their own bottom line, these groups fail to provide an environment where professionals can develop real relationships. They have underestimated the level of trust attorneys must establish before they give or receive referrals.
The bottom line
I think “for profit” networking groups are a great opportunity for non-lawyers, but a solo attorney’s time and money would be much better spent in other organizations and on different marketing endeavors. For example, joining a local rotary club or getting on the board of a local not-for-profit is a great way to meet people, many of whom become clients themselves or refer other clients to you.
Of course I believe there is value in some networking groups for solo attorneys. Networking is a huge part of being a solo attorney and without it many law practices would fail.
At its core, a group of like-minded individuals meeting and discussing ways to do business with one another is a fantastic idea, but it must be executed in a way that is ethical and authentic.
*Please note the opinions in this article are that of the author and not necessarily those of Law Firm Suites. We welcome all types of advice and insight from practicing small firm attorneys.
About Matthew Lenza
Matthew Lenza received his J.D. from Saint John’s University and is the principal in the Lenza Law Firm, PLLC. He and his staff focuses on matters relating to Estate Planning, Elder Law, Medicaid Planning and Probate Litigation. He is an active member of the New York State Bar Association and a member of their Elder Law and Trust and Estates Sections. He speaks regularly on Estate Planning and Elder Law matters at local symposiums and seminars. Readers can connect with Lenza Law Firm PLLC on Facebook and Twitter or reach out to Matthew on LinkedIn.