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This article was originally published in June 2018 with updates made on March 9, 2023.
During the holiday season, many solos and small firm lawyers begin juggling more tasks than normal. In addition to the regular client work, they will likely have several year-end tasks to deal with, including collections, budgeting and strategic planning.
But with the arrival of the holiday season comes another task that might be even more stressful than all those other ones combined: gift giving.
Here are four tips for solos and small firm lawyers who are considering giving gifts to clients and referral sources during the holidays.
Before thinking about what gifts to buy for clients and referral sources, lawyers first need to determine if they are ethically permitted to give those gifts. Lawyers should consult the rules of professional conduct that govern their jurisdiction(s), as well as any ethics opinions those jurisdictions have issued regarding gift giving.
As for gifts to clients, the American Bar Association’s Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(e) prohibits lawyers from “provid[ing] financial assistance to a client in connection with pending or contemplated litigation.” But the rule does not speak specifically to gifts typically given during the holidays. Various states do permit lawyers to give gifts to clients when those gifts are legitimate and made with “true donative intent.”
As for gifts to referral sources, ABA Model Rule 7.2 allows a lawyer to “give nominal gifts” to people recommending the lawyer’s services if those gifts are “an expression of appreciation that are neither intended nor reasonably expected to be a form of compensation for recommending a lawyer’s services.”
While some jurisdictions’ rules of professional conduct, like California’s, are consistent with the ABA’s Model Rules, other jurisdictions like Pennsylvania prohibit lawyers from “giv[ing] anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services,” except in limited circumstances that do not include gift giving.
Lawyers practicing in jurisdictions like Pennsylvania would be wise to further research what their jurisdictions have said, if anything, about whether giving relatively small gifts to referral sources would run afoul of their local ethics rules.
After a lawyer determines that they can ethically give gifts to clients and/or referral sources, the fun (or stressful) part of the gift-giving process really begins: choosing which gifts to send, and to whom.
While giving everyone the same bottle of wine or insulated beverage container is perfectly acceptable, it is also the path of least resistance. Chances are, your recipient is already receiving multiple bottles of wine or beverage containers from other professional acquaintances.
Solos and small firm lawyers should strive to personalize as many gifts as possible. Recipients of personalized gifts are likely to be more appreciative of (and more loyal to) the lawyer and law firm that gave those gifts.
Personalization, however, is not necessarily synonymous with “plaster our firm’s logo on it,” “monogrammed” or “budget-killing.” Personalization simply means giving a gift that is likely to have special meaning or value to the recipient.
For example, globetrotting clients might appreciate external power packs for their mobile phones or tablets. Likewise, referral sources who have young children might be thrilled to receive memberships to a museum or zoo (if they don’t already have one). Or, if you know the person well, online shopping will yield many unique items that cater to the recipient’s personality.
The cost of a gift should be personalized as well. A client responsible for giving a law firm tens of thousands of dollars in business each year should not receive the same gift as a referral source that referred a single $1,500 matter.
Gift baskets, boxes of chocolates and even bottles of wine are going to have a limited shelf life. Once those gifts have been consumed, they’re gone. And once a gift is gone, the recipient is unlikely to think much about the gift and the person who gave it.
But gifts like external power packs, museum memberships and other items or services that can be used again and again will be more valuable to both the recipient and the giver. Each time such a gift is used by the recipient, there is a good chance that they’ll think about where it came from. When that happens, the lawyer that gave the gift further cements their place at the top of the recipient’s mind whenever they learn that someone has a legal issue of the sort that the lawyer handles.
Most gifts in the professional world come with pre-printed cards that contain enough space for all of about five words. Solos and small firm lawyers should consider going a step further.
They could include a handwritten note or perhaps even call the recipient to them to an upcoming delivery (or to confirm the delivery). Of course, while they have the recipient on the phone, they should reiterate how much they appreciate the recipient’s business, referrals, etc.
When solos and small firm lawyers give holiday gifts, they have a golden opportunity to make a long-lasting impression. By being strategic about the gifts they give and how they give them, lawyers can increase the chances that the impressions they make with those gifts will be favorable.