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Business Development

How to Create a Referral Machine: Nine Tips

By Julie Savarino

This list can increase the number and quality of attorney referrals — including the types of work referral sources send you.

Incoming referrals can account for anywhere between 25 and 80 percent of a firm’s or a lawyer’s annual new business. Satisfied clients are usually the best referral sources. But other great sources include lawyers (both within and outside the firm), staff members, friends, industry leaders, influencers, former colleagues, brokers and advisors.

One problem with referrals is that many lawyers and other professionals tend to take their referral sources for granted. They think, “We are such great lawyers, we will always get referrals.” As a result, they treat referrals in a mainly reactive manner — they take the call or email, run conflicts and, if clear, they do the work. Rarely, however, do lawyers thank the referral source more than once or stay in touch proactively over time.

Here is a list of changes or upgrades you can make to increase the number and quality of referrals you receive — including the types of work your referral sources send you.

Fuel More Referrals

1. Be Clear About Your Objectives

To increase the number and quality of the referrals you receive, your objectives should be to:

2. Educate Your Team

Educate your secretaries, assistants and other staff members on the roles they play in the referral process. You should explain the importance of referrals, who the key referrers are and what staff can do to help leverage your time. Staff can also be some of the best referral sources.

3. Invest Wisely

Determine what percentage of your annual work originates from referrals. You should take at least that same percentage from your marketing and business development budget and efforts, and reinvest it in the referral process and relationships.

4. Track Everything

Create and maintain a written list or database to track referrals: incoming, outgoing and cross-referrals both from within your firm and from external sources.

5. Learn More About Who’s Referring You

Along with your staff, create or upgrade a system to keep track of who refers to you. Track who, which firm, type of work and the name of the client referred. So that you will be able to reciprocate and refer to them in the future, track the capabilities of the referral source and what type of clients and work they look for.

6. Create a System

Create a step-by-step system to immediately capture and add all referral sources to all your and the law firm’s contact lists. You can automate this process by adding specific (and required) referral information as part of your new-matter intake procedure.

7. Connect

Ensure all lawyer referral sources are sent to the firm’s opt-in list, and then connect with them on social media as appropriate. Send them personalized “let’s connect” messages on LinkedIn, follow them on Twitter and create Outlook contacts for them.

8. Be Proactive About Reaching Out

Schedule reminders for yourself to communicate with your referral sources at least once each year in a personalized manner. (Avoid simply sending a generic annual holiday greeting.) This is the key to success in this arena: Plan, have and follow up on a proactive conversation or communication with each primary referral source to express sincere appreciation. You should also expand the conversation to learn:

  • Which additional or different types of work you could be referring to them.
  • Which other types of work they could be referring to you or your firm.
  • If referring work to them is not possible, what else might be of value to them and be permissible under ethics rules.

9. Update LinkedIn Connections

To expand your network and potential new attorney referral sources, visit LinkedIn at least a few times each year to check who your best clients and current attorney referral sources are connected to that you might like to know. Then ask the current contact to set up an introduction or meal, as appropriate.

“Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over” by Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

“Rewarding Your Referral Sources” by Sally Schmidt

“Keep Your Referral Sources Vibrant” by Mike O’Horo

“Best Way to Organize Your Contacts” by Sally Schmidt

“Advanced LinkedIn Tips for Lawyers” by Ari Kaplan

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Julie Savarino 2019 Headshot Julie Savarino

Julie Savarino holds an MBA, a JD, and is a licensed attorney. Over her 30-plus-year career, she has built a reputation as a leading business developer and client development and service strategist, trainer, and coach for lawyers, law firms and other professional services providers. She has been named a Top Thought Leader on LinkedIn for several years and has served in-house in client and business development positions for the law firms Dickinson Wright and Butzel Long and the accounting firm Grant Thornton. Connect with Julie on LinkedIn, contact her at and follow @JulieSavarino.

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