What are you doing now to get more of the referrals you want? You can build a steady stream of referral business — maybe not enough to abandon ads or stop worrying about your website, but enough to sustain and grow your practice. You’ll have to invest thought, time and energy into developing and implementing a plan, and it won’t happen overnight, but it is worth the effort.
The first step is figuring out who is likely to send potential clients to you.
1. Who Will You Ask for Referrals?
Referrals work because they’re built on relationships. People don’t send their friends, clients and relatives to total strangers — they send them to lawyers they know, trust and like. Conveniently, it’s also easier for you to ask for referrals from people you know, trust and like. So, that’s where you start: people you know personally, who could send you business.
Friends and relatives seem like logical choices, though their referrals are probably too sporadic to be a steady source of work. Even so, don’t write them off! Asking them for referrals will be straightforward, too. But remember, while lots of people know you’re a lawyer, odds are most of them have no idea what you really do. Work up an elevator speech about what you do, and what you want. And talk like a regular person. Say “I help people set up and run their businesses,” instead of “I’m a corporate transactions attorney.” Instead of saying “I practice family law,” say “I represent people in divorces and child custody cases.” Then add: “I always appreciate it when someone calls me because they got my name from a friend.”
Next, ask your clients. They know what you did for them and (usually) appreciate it. When you’re ending a matter, give the client extra business cards and tell her, “I’ve enjoyed working with you. I like working with friends of people I know, so I hope you’ll give my name to friends and family who could use my help.”
These one-off referrals are helpful. But your main goal is to build a steady stream of business. In that light, you must methodically focus on people who regularly deal with the people who could be your clients.
2. This List Is Your Lodestar
Start by brainstorming a list of all people you know personally who fall into the following categories:
- Other lawyers who don’t do what you do. These lawyers have clients who need legal help in practice areas they don’t handle, and they need to refer them out. So will you.
- Other lawyers who do what you do. These lawyers have potential clients they can’t or don’t want to represent, and they need to recommend another competent lawyer to handle the work. So will you.
- Non-lawyer professionals whose services your clients need to use. If, for example, you represent small business owners, your clients work with bankers. Put business bankers you personally know on your list. If your estate planning clients or divorce clients need life insurance, put life insurance agents you personally know on your list. Your clients will need these professionals, and these professionals will have clients who need a lawyer like you.
You may not know a lot of these people personally — yet — so expand your list. Add people who fit into the above categories and with whom you have some sort of connection. If a client works with a broker you don’t know personally, put that broker on your list. If you have a lot of real estate clients, and a well-regarded realtor is part of your running club, put him on your list.
After you’ve brainstormed your list, take off the people with whom you have the most tenuous connections. For your remaining contacts, list their names, contact information, reasons they’re on your list, information you have about their social networks (both real-life and web-based), and the last time you communicated with them personally. Leave a blank space to list the referrals they send to you.
If your list is still short, that’s okay. Your goal now is to get a network up and running, so focus on the most likely prospects.
3. The Ask: How to Approach the Referral Source
Your next step is to talk, in person, to the people on your list and tell them — out loud — that you want them to send potential clients your way. Yes, asking for business can feel uncomfortable, and yes, you still have to do it. Remembering a few things will make this easier.
- First, you won’t be talking to total strangers.
- Second, you need each other.
- Third, and most important, you are building a relationship, not trolling for clients. The relationship is what helps you and your referral source trust each other.
With these thoughts in mind, use the relationship you already have as the foundation for the referral relationship you want. If you occasionally go to lunch with a person you want to ask for referrals, ask him to lunch and talk about referrals. If she’s your running partner, talk to her after a run.
For the people you don’t yet know personally, first get to know them a bit so you know which ones actually are good fits for referral relationships. Seek them out at social functions, or ask them to coffee or lunch. And don’t just talk about work — find out about their lives and what they like to do. You may have more in common than you initially thought, which makes your business relationship better (and more fun).
But how do you make “the ask”? You’re working with the ethics trifecta of clients, fees and getting business, so be sure to know the things you cannot say. (Like any ethics situation, check your local jurisdiction’s rules so you know where you stand, and call your ethics hotline if you have any doubts.) According to the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, these are the things you can’t say.
- You can’t promise an exclusive “we will only send clients to each other” arrangement with anyone, lawyer or non-lawyer, and you have to disclose reciprocal referral relationships to your clients (Model Rule 7.2(b)(4)).
- You can’t promise gifts in return for referrals (Model Rule 7.2(b)).
- You can never pay a referral fee to a non-lawyer — ever (Model Rule 5.4(a)).
- You can share fees with another lawyer who isn’t in your firm, but the total fee must be reasonable, your client has to agree to the arrangement in writing, and the fee must be proportional to the work involved, or else both lawyers have to agree to be jointly responsible for the representation (Model Rule 1.5(e)).
Do say the following things, in whatever order makes sense at the time.
- What you can do for him. Explain that you sometimes have clients looking for referrals, and you’re expanding your referral network so you can make good recommendations. You’d like to know more about him and what he does, so you can add him to your list and refer clients if it’s a good match.
- What he can do for you. You like to work with clients who are referred to you because they are usually a better match for your practice. You’re asking people you know to put you on their referral lists.
- An overview of the kind of work you want. Be specific enough, but again, talk like a normal person — don’t say “I want more elder law clients”; say “I help older people avoid guardianships by setting up appropriate power-of-attorney documents and advance directives, and trusts where they’re needed.”
Then what? If a referral relationship looks likely, discuss ethics rules that apply to your situation. When you talk with other lawyers, discuss whether you want to share fees for referred clients, and what the details should be. If it’s a non-lawyer, explain that, ethically, you can’t pay them for the referral and have to tell your clients when you have a referral relationship. Also, whether it’s a lawyer or another professional, your relationship can’t be exclusive — you have to be able to offer more than one name to your client.
Next, you’ll need to know what to do when you get a referral, and how to give referrals to other professionals. You’ll find out in the next post in this series.
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.