Chicago attorney Jay Frank had a client with a major problem very far away a couple of decades ago. The client needed legal help in California and turned to Frank for assistance.
Frank checked Martindale-Hubbell to look for qualified attorneys in the jurisdiction where the matter occurred, and he referred his client to someone he thought would be a good match.
“The case went south,” Frank recalled. As a result, the displeased client severed ties not just with the firm that Frank had referred, but also with Frank’s firm.
“I decided there had to be a better way of doing this,” said Frank, a member of the 44-lawyer Chicago firm Aronberg Goldgehn Davis & Garmisa, and president and founding member of the Legal Netlink Alliance.
In the early 1990s, a handful of lawyers from mid-sized firms who knew one another and had referred work among themselves sat down to come up with a solution to problems like the one Frank described. Ed Volk, a partner at Newby Lewis Kaminski & Jones LLP in LaPorte, was one of them.
“It was an effort to solve a problem every lawyer has had over the years,” Volk recalled. “What do you do when you have a good client with a big problem halfway across the country?”
Larger firms with offices and networks around the country had the resources to easily make those sorts of referrals, but firms such as Volk’s – now with 13 lawyers – were at a disadvantage.
Volk recalled that the seven attorneys who came together for that first meeting at the Standard Club in Chicago agreed to each come back with one more new member they knew and trusted.
“These are firms we have relationships with,” he said.
And that’s the difference that members of Legal Netlink Alliance point out when comparing the affiliation to other similar legal networking organizations.
Since it was founded more than 20 years ago, Legal Netlink Alliance has grown from a handful of firms to about 150 across the country and in 41 nations.
“It really does level the playing field,” said managing partner Marc Fine of Rudolph Fine Porter & Johnson LLP, which has offices in Evansville and Crawfordsville, and has been affiliated with the network for many years.
Firms must meet a few key criteria: they must be small or mid-sized firms in their markets with a range of practice capabilities, must have attorneys with AV ratings from Martindale-Hubbell, and must come from the recommendation of an alliance member who’s had good business dealings with the firm.
“You don’t just fill out an application and join this organization,” Volk said. It remains very much a word-of-mouth system of referral.
Frank said that’s important, too, because it makes firms answering inquiries more responsive. He said his office prioritizes matters referred through the alliance, and he believes other firms do, too.
It’s who you know
Volk said the alliance is a nonprofit and manages to keep its dues minimal compared with other networks. But it also asks a bit more of its member firms than other networking organizations might.
“The important thing is members of firms attend meetings on a semi-regular basis so they get to know each other,” he said. “That’s important. … That personal aspect is very high on our priority list.”
“What this allows us to do is a couple of things,” said Arend Abel, a partner at Cohen & Malad LLP in Indianapolis who’s on the alliance’s executive committee. “It allows us to help out our clients whenever they have a problem in another jurisdiction, and it allows us to know they will be placed in good hands with firms we know.”
Abel gave a quick overview of the kinds of client assistance Cohen & Malad has provided that’s been facilitated through the alliance. The firm had clients with matters in Kentucky with respect to estate planning and family law, and commercial litigation. The firm has used an Ohio firm with respect to some health care matters and used the alliance on behalf of clients in Michigan on a banking matter.
Locally, the firm has assisted alliance members from Minnesota and California, among others.
“It happens at least several times a year,” he said. “I even had occasion to assist a firm in the UK with respect to a matter where they needed service on an Indiana resident.”
Abel said a key for membership in the alliance is firms need to show an ability to handle transactional work and business litigation well, which allows the mid-sized members to compete with larger firms.
“We look for firms that are responsive and responsible,” he said.
Volk said when the founding partners sat down to discuss what is now the alliance, the idea was to build a national network. As time passed and practices went global, so did the vision for the alliance.
“We’ve had situations literally all over the world,” Volk said. “I’ve talked to people in Beijing, Romania, Germany.”
But an examination of the alliance’s member firms shows very little overlap in geographic regions. “That’s by design,” said Volk, who like Abel also is a member of the executive committee. “We’re looking for a good firm that can handle the work when it’s there.”
Indiana is representative of that, he said. Just three Hoosier firms are members – Cohen & Malad, Newby Lewis, and Rudolph Fine.
Frank and other attorneys said the alliance has produced some unanticipated results.
He chatted at a recent alliance conference with an attorney from Turkey, and they got to know each other over a drink and swapped stories about their families. “I know if I call him, he’s going to be there for me and take care of my clients,” Frank said.
There won’t be a referral fee, nor would there be for the Turkish lawyer if he needed Frank’s help with something in Chicago. “We run kind of a low-key organization, and economics doesn’t play a role in what we do,” Frank said.
“But we have the ability to refer our clients anywhere in the world, and to my clients, that makes me look like a hero,” he said.
“They literally treat our clients as their own clients,” Fine said, “putting them in line as if they were their best clientele.” That kind of treatment ensures reciprocal treatment when other matters arise from member firms, he said.
“When you are welcomed it really does create a nice feeling for the referring lawyer, and I think the client experience is enhanced,” Fine said.
Members of the executive committee teleconference monthly, and the alliance hosts twice-annual conferences in the spring and winter that Volk and others said are well-attended.
“The opportunity to establish really fine, personal relationships with good people has been an unexpected byproduct but a very welcome one with this organization,” Volk said.
“Back when we started this, there weren’t a lot of legal networks around,” Frank recalled. “We grew not just to make sure we had someone in Tulsa, Okla., but a very good firm in Tulsa, Okla.
“We have some darned fine lawyers involved in this organization, and it’s sort of morphed into this situation where we’re not only professional colleagues but personal friends,” he said.•