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In the first two posts in her series on lawyer referrals, Mary Lokensgard explained how to “Get More Good Referrals for Your Law Practice” and what’s involved in the “Nuts and Bolts of Getting and Giving Referrals.” How do you keep the network going, and growing? Part three explores the basics of maintenance.
Your referral network is a living thing. If you don’t feed it and water it, it will die, and if you don’t prune it back occasionally, it will collapse under its own weight.
If you’ve developed a network by identifying good sources and asking them for referrals, and you’re getting and giving referrals, then you’re already doing basic maintenance. Because good referrals are built on strong relationships, though, you’re going to need to do more than the basics to keep a consistent stream of business going. And, because you’re dealing with the ethics trifecta of clients, fees and getting business, you’re going to need to perform your maintenance within ethical boundaries.
1. Know who’s in your network, and keep it current. Your time and energy are limited, so focus your attention on referral sources who are a good fit for your practice. Find out who’s a good fit by keeping good records and reviewing them periodically.
Begin with your list of potential referral sources, which includes not just names and contact information, but also the reasons each person is on the list, and information you have about their social networks — both real-life and Internet-based. Note all the times you communicate with your sources personally, as well as any other information that might be helpful in the future. And make sure you’re contemporaneously recording referrals they send to you and referrals you make to them. Review your list periodically (annually, at the very least), and remove the names of people who aren’t a good fit.
2. Keep building relationships. Keep working on your personal relationships with your referral sources — don’t focus only on business give-and-take. Get together socially, and talk about something other than work. When you see something good about your contact (or her family) in the news, congratulate her. If you have something interesting and useful for a person on your network, send him a link. When something good happens to you professionally, let them know.
Social networking sites are useful for this kind of communication. At some point, though, it becomes noise. So, if your link isn’t really interesting or useful, don’t send it. Toot your own horn, but only for the big stuff. Don’t spam people — they’ll tune you out.
3. Show appreciation. Remind your referral sources that you exist and you appreciate them. Send thank-you notes. Have an open house with good food and drink for everyone on your referral list, and for people you want on your referral list. Send little gifts to everybody, but skip the traditional holiday rush when your good wishes will get lost in the shuffle. Instead, pick an unexpected time of year — the anniversary of your firm, first day of spring and Thanksgiving are all good choices. But remember: Ethically, gifts can’t be quid pro quo for business. Check your jurisdiction’s rules about parties and presents, but thank-you notes are always appropriate.
The concept behind keeping your network healthy is simple: People refer potential clients to lawyers they know, trust and like. At every turn, ask yourself, “Does this action strengthen my relationship with this person?” If the answer is yes, and it’s ethically permitted, do it. If the answer is no, skip it.
When you’re short of people to whom you can refer your own clients, or you can handle more referral business yourself, you may be ready to expand your network. Go back to the basics — if you want a bigger network, you need more relationships to build on. Once you’ve got relationships started, keep building on what you have. You’ll eventually get to the referral relationships you want. Here are a few suggestions for where to begin.
1. Ask your current referral sources. “I’d like to broaden my referral network. Is there anyone in your office, or anybody else you know, who needs to refer clients to a lawyer who does what I do?”
2. Get social. Meet more people with whom you have something in common. You don’t have to attend dreadful dog-and-pony shows billed as “networking opportunities.” If “we’re both looking for business” is the only thing you have in common with someone, it’s a weak connection. Strong connections make for better relationships, and consequently, better referrals. Your time is limited, too, so focus on things you like to do. Help out at your kid’s school, if that’s your thing, and talk to teachers and other parents. Join a book club if you like to read, or a running club if you like to run. Give everybody your elevator speech about what you do.
3. Join up. Using the categories you used to come up with your original list, make a general list of categories of professionals who could send clients to you — “accountants,” “realtors,” “business owners” and so forth. If there’s a professional development group they have in common, join it if you can. Again, life is short, so if it’s only peripherally related to your work and you hate going, don’t do it. Find a better match.
4. Demonstrate your expertise. Does one of your professional or social groups ask its members to give informative presentations at its regular meetings? Do that. Many groups you don’t belong to may be looking for speakers, too, and will be thrilled if you offer to give a presentation on a topic that’s helpful to their members.
5. Help a nonprofit. Serve on a board, or sponsor an event — and then go to the event. Again, though, do this only if the nonprofit’s mission matters to you. Talk to the people you’re working with or sponsoring about their organization and why it matters to them. Tell them about your practice. Their mission and your practice may overlap, or not, but what matters is the relationship.
Treat your referral network like the living system it is, and it will continue producing benefits for you. And because it’s built on relationships, the benefits will be personal as well as professional. Can’t beat that.
Mary Taylor Lokensgard is a recovering attorney with over 15 years of experience in private practice, including plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, estate planning and administration, and elder law. She’s now working as an independent writer, and she tweets @marylokensgard.
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