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Referrals or Search, Law Firms Need a Strong Digital Marketing Strategy

To keep growing, protect your referrals and leverage online search.

By Mark Homer

When the 2019 Clio Legal Trends Report was released this past October, it quickly took over my Twitter feed with many worthy stats, such as:

  • 60% of law firms never reply to emails from potential clients.
  • When consumers try to call a law firm, 27% get no answer or leave a voicemail and never get a callback.
  • 82% of consumers say timeliness was most important to them.

Among the many tweetable stats, however, one section was overlooked: How consumers are looking for legal services. Not only does the Legal Trends Report show how, but it also dives into what consumers are looking for once they find a potential lawyer.

According to the report, when seeking a lawyer, 59% of consumers use a referral from someone they know, 57% search completely on their own, and 16% of consumers do both. With the sample size of 2,000 consumers and given a 2% to 3% margin of error, I think it is safe to say that half of the consumers look to referrals and half search on their own. Referrals are still important to at least half of the consumers looking for legal services.

But What Do Consumers Do Next?

There is important information we can view alongside the Legal Trends Report on how consumers search for legal services and, more important, what they do next.

In 2015, an earlier edition of my book, “Online Law Practice Strategies,” provided data from a survey we conducted that matches closely to the Clio report’s findings. Our data showed that over 50% of consumers looking for legal services look to family and friends. However, when asked what they do next, an overwhelming majority indicated they research online before they call the lawyer. In addition, data shows an increasing number of people read online reviews for local businesses — 82% according to the 2019 Local Consumer Review Survey. It seems that as a society we trust strangers’ reviews as much as our friends’ referrals, be it for a book, restaurant, doctor or lawyer.

Digital Marketing Strategy No. 1: Protect Your Referrals

Let’s say you are a law firm that mostly relies on referrals. Based on the above data, you are only accessing about 50% of the consumers who are looking for legal services. And when those consumers are referred to you, they are checking you out online, with an overwhelming majority reading reviews about your firm before they decide to call.

To keep referrals flowing, it is imperative that you take steps to control and influence the information potential clients find when they search your firm name or your name. I call this marketing strategy “Protecting Your Referrals.”

You also need to make sure you have a process for clients leaving you a great review, based on the key things consumers care about when it comes to service from law firms.

What are the key areas consumers care about?

Fortunately, for that information, we can look at “Think Like a Client,” a study published last fall by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS). Using data from Avvo, IAALS examined 700,000 reviews to figure out the top areas consumers focus on when writing positive or negative things about their experience with a lawyer. They came up with:

  • Communication
  • Demeanor
  • Business value
  • Tenacity
  • Lawyering

Note that these areas of concern are more about what it is like to work with the law firm and not about the outcome of the case — all things you can control. You will need a lot of positive reviews to help protect your referrals, so make sure your law firm has processes or training to hit these key points and that it speaks to the issues consumers care about. The IAALS report gives examples, and you should check it out.

Digital Marketing Strategy No. 2: Grow Your Leads

Let’s talk about the other 50% of consumers who don’t ask anyone for a referral, but instead do their own research. The Legal Trends Report broke down the more specific ways that people look for a law firm, from asking a friend to visiting an online review site. (A small percentage still use the Yellow Pages.) Since the report was released, I’ve had conversations with other legal marketers and we all agree that much of the information people identify as “how they look for a law firm” likely started with a search engine.

For example, most people who say they looked at a lawyer’s website, online reviews, lawyer directories, blogs, articles, videos or an online map service most likely got to those resources by starting off with a Google search. Think about your own behavior. When is the last time you typed the exact URL of something you were looking for in your browser instead of just searching on Google?

This is one reason we coach law firms who ask “how did you find me” during intake to push for more when someone gives the typical answer “your website” or “on XYZ lawyer directory.” You want to know how they found your website — did they know to go straight to the directory or did they search something on Google that took them to the directory where they found your firm? Or maybe they were looking for something completely different when they saw an article on your website that led them to realize they should consult an attorney.

How do you reach that 50% who do their own research?

If the majority of people who search “on their own” are starting with a search in a search engine, it follows that you should focus on being in the right place for the right searches in the search engines. This can take many forms, and the best place for you to start will depend on your current web presence.

Top things to consider include:

  • Optimizing your Google My Business profile
  • Search engine optimization (SEO) work
  • Advertising in the directories that already dominate the searches in your market
  • Content marketing
  • Google paid ads

One reason SEO and Google paid ads work over the long term for a law firm growth strategy is that they hit not only the people looking for a law firm, but you can get your website in front of people who don’t even know they need a lawyer.

The Clio Legal Trends Report doesn’t even get to this issue — the “50% referral vs. 50% search on their own data” debate is only for people who knew they had a legal problem and were already looking for a law firm. An entire set of people out there don’t fit that criteria. They have a problem that a lawyer should be helping them solve but they either don’t know that is an option or they think they are not a fit for a law firm.

Either way, great content combined with SEO and perhaps Google ads on nontraditional keyword searches can lead these consumers to your website. Once there, you can help them understand they need your help, that they can afford it, and that they can benefit from working with a lawyer.

Referrals Are Important, But They’re Not a Growth Strategy

In summary, yes, referrals are important, but you can see that people don’t just pick up the phone based on one person’s recommendation. You must do the work to protect your referrals with reviews and search strategies.

I’ve heard Maddy Martin, head of Growth and Education at, say that “referrals are not a growth strategy.” The 2019 Legal Trends Report data supports this. If you are only relying on referrals and really want to grow your business, you need to rethink your marketing strategy and be where that 50% who don’t ask for referrals are going: online.

But don’t stop at consumers who already know they need a lawyer. Think about how to use search engine strategies to access more of the people who are using Google to get the answer to a problem that a lawyer should be helping them solve.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

For more about referral stats:

“Clio Legal Trends Report Part 2: Is Referral-Based Marketing Dying a Slow Death?” by Jared Correia

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Mark Homer Mark Homer

Mark Homer is CEO of GNGF, a leading law firm marketing agency. At GNGF, Mark leads the team to help empower and educate law firms to grow their practice. He is co-author of “Online Law Practice Strategies” and often speaks around the U.S. on marketing and social media ethics for law firms. Sign up for GNGF’s  Legal Marketing Academy here. Follow Mark on Twitter: @mark_homer.




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