The ethics of intermediaries

I lost a really great potential job today due to a series of misunderstandings.

A couple of days ago, another translator gave me a referral to an attorney, who was looking for an IT translator. The attorney sent me several files, and asked for an estimate, CCing his client.

The client then emailed me and asked for the estimate that evening, because they wanted to make the decision the following morning and start the translation right away. I sent the estimate to the client, which upset the attorney. He accused me of being untrustworthy for doing so.

The attorney gave my contact information to the client, and the client contacted me, not the other way around. Since I'd just been referred to this attorney and didn't know his business relation with the client, I assumed they were working together. I didn't try to go behind the attorney's back, and told him about my communication with the client.

I thought that the attorney was working for the client, but he had set himself up as an intermediary. And since the client now knows my rate, it would be pretty hard for the him to add a big surcharge for doing nothing but providing an introduction.

The client called me this morning, and said they were having a big disagreement with the attorney over having contacted me directly, and asked me to do the job for them directly. The client said they thought that the attorney had only been making the introduction as a favor, and assumed that would be the extent of his involvement (he does work for them relating to patents and such, but no IT translation).

Although it has no bearing on the right and wrong of the case, this would have been a perfect job for me: software documentation with lots of cool technologies. It was also about 250 pages long (=2-3 weeks of translation bliss).

Having been "introduced" through this attorney, however, I felt that it would be unethical to accept the job directly, and turned them down. The client asked if they could contact me for future work, and I said yes.

I'm still not sure that I made the right decisions. Should I have ascertained the client's relationship with the attorney before sending them an estimate?

Was I obligated to turn down this job? This was my first time working with the attorney, and he got my information through a referral from a fellow translator. We had no agreements, signed or verbal. Yes, he did some legwork here, but I personally think that a finder's fee would be more appropriate than claiming the privilege of intermediary. I still turned down the job, though, to be on the safe side.

Also, assuming that I was right to turn down the job, was I right to say that I could do future work for the client? Having never had a business transaction with the attorney, I feel that saying no on the job at hand is the extent of my obligation. What do other people in the translation industry think? I'd be especially interested hear the opinions of translation agents.

9 comments to The ethics of intermediaries

  • I feel you could have offered the attorney 10% of the estimated amount. In this way, you still maintain good relations with the attorney and if the client liked your work, he would call you directly henceforth.

  • @Gururaj

    That sounds like a good compromise. The end client told me that they had ruled out any dealings with the attorney, so I didn’t feel that going through him was an option. But offering him a finder’s fee for his blessing to go forward could have been acceptable for everyone.

  • That’s a tough call, Ryan. I probably would have reacted the same way you did. I tend to assume any client that contacts me on behalf of another client has an agreement with that client already. Although the bit about Client #2 asking for the quote directly from you is a little odd, but I probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it either. I guess all you can do is send an apology to the attorney and try to explain the misunderstanding. It’s then up to him whether or not to accept it.

  • Methinks the attorney doesn’t have a leg to stand on. You could argue that by cc’ing the client when requesting your quote, the attorney was tacitly instructing you to cc him the quote; in other words, the client would have discovered how much you charge anyways. Your only mistake was in sending your quote only to the client without cc’ing the attorney. Then again, if there was an understanding between attorney and client, the attorney could still have charged for the time he spent on the referral (and possibly on drafting a contract, etc.). If he wanted you to keep your distances from the client, he should have told you so clearly or simply not cc’ed the client.

    I would have taken the job and told him he screwed up.

  • […] fellow translator Ryan Ginstrom yesterday wrote about one of those problems that can arise in the translation business when one is dealing with both the […]

  • Jonathan Merz

    I don’t see anything wrong with your actions. It looks like there was confusion between the attorney and the end client about their working relationship – but that’s out of your hands. He might have been under the impression that he was to be the go-between for this job, but obviously the client didn’t see it that way. Honestly, I think you were being more gracious than the attorney deserved in turning down the job, since presumably he won’t be seeing anything out of it now anyway – I’m imagining the client probably decided not to work with him after their big disagreement – and since the only “work” he did was to pass your name along.

    And there *definitely* is nothing wrong with accepting offers for future work from this client, as the attorney in question is presumably now out of the picture for good with this client.

  • MT

    Unless you signed some kind of agreement with the attorney in question, you did nothing wrong since the end client was the same. In fact, the attorney is at fault for not making clear to you what his (or her?) relationship with the client was. He also failed to make that clear to the client. His use of the cc also clearly implies that communications between you and the client are acceptable.

    The only person at fault in this situation is the attorney, near as I can tell, and I bet he’s trouble and that’s why the other person referred him away.

    I’m guessing that the attorney wanted to add a markup on the translation when he provided it to the client, which is why he was upset. I can’t think what the problem would be otherwise.

  • @MT

    I think the attorney was clearly trying to add a surcharge onto my fee, which was why he was upset about the client seeing my estimate. As Gururaj alluded above, a finder’s fee of about 10% of the first job is pretty typical in the Tokyo translation scene, but I’ve seen attorneys add 50% and even 100% markups on translation services they subcontract.

    I think that most of the commenters above agree that I could have taken the job directly with no ethical qualms, but I think that “playing it safe” could avoid some nasty problems down the line, even if I was “right.”

  • MT

    Feeling good about your decision is of paramount importance. 🙂

    Translation agencies usually have a 75% to 100% markup, actually, but that comes with value-added services (proofreading, DTP, etc.). I’m not sure what added value the attorney here might have offered…


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