Q. We are thankful for the many satisfied clients who have recommended us to their friends, coworkers and relatives. To encourage more referrals, may we send them tokens of our appreciation?
A. Tokens of appreciation to loyal clients are probably fine. Rewarding them for referrals isn't.
Under Rule 7.2(c) of the Rules of Professional Conduct, an "attorney shall not give anything of value to a person for recommending the attorney's services." While other businesses may thrive on a program of incentives for new referrals, you are not soliciting gym memberships, magazine subscriptions or the sale of high-end merchandise. You are offering professional services to clients who require strong legal skills—not marketing savvy.
When you reward your clients with sizable gifts, discounts or kickbacks, they are more likely to recommend your services for the wrong reasons. In banning such incentives, our ethical rules favor a meritocracy in which the best and brightest profit from their legal acumen alone.
By trading tangible incentives for new referrals, we encourage others to lure unsuspecting clients into our firms for reasons other than the quality of our services. And if the incentive is valuable enough, we are arguably sharing our profits with these unlicensed goodwill ambassadors in violation of other provisions.
There is nothing wrong with showing appreciation for those who recommend us on the basis of merit. Wishing our loyal clients and other friends well around the holidays with a gift basket or nice bottle of wine is probably fine. But promoting referrals with a program of valuable incentives undermines our professionalism and violates our code of ethics.