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Law Firm Growth

Nuts and Bolts of Getting and Giving Lawyer Referrals

By Mary Lokensgard

You can build a steady stream of referral business — maybe not enough to stop buying ads, but enough to sustain and grow your practice — if you have a good plan. Here’s a guide to building and managing your lawyer referrals network.

lawyer referrals

Building Your Referral Network

The first step in building your referral network is figuring out who is likely to send potential clients to you.

1. Who to 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 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. These referrals are probably too sporadic to be a steady source of work, but 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.”
  • 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 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 need to recommend another competent lawyer to handle the work. So will you.
  • 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 know on your list. If your estate planning clients or divorce clients need life insurance, put life insurance agents you 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 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, remove 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 blank space to list the referrals they send to you.

If your list is still short, that’s OK. 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, but you still have to do it. Remembering a few things will make this easier.

  • You won’t be talking to total strangers.
  • You need each other.
  • Most importantly, 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, speak to her after a run.

For people you don’t know personally, you’ll want to take the time to get to know them, so you know which ones are good fits for referral relationships. Seek them out at social functions, or ask them for 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).

How to 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, 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 them. Explain that you sometimes have clients looking for referrals, and you’re expanding your referral network so you can make sound 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 they can do for you. You like to work with clients 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.”

If a referral relationship looks likely, discuss ethics rules that apply to your situation (see below). When you talk with other lawyers, discuss whether you want to share fees for referred clients and the details. If it’s not a 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.

Deploying Your Lawyer Referrals Network

Building the referral network isn’t an end in itself. The goal is getting and giving the referrals you need to sustain and grow your practice. So, when the calls start coming in, what do you do? And how can you make good referrals for your own clients?

Rules and Boundaries for Getting and Giving Lawyer Referrals

Getting and giving referrals is governed by two sets of rules: good manners and professional ethics. We’ve been trained since law school to mind our ethics, so that’s usually where we focus our attention. But too many lawyers forget to mind their manners. Ignoring the basic rules of etiquette will break your referral network just as quickly, if not faster, than a breach of ethics.

When working on your referral network, remember always to use good manners, which sometimes need to be moderated by professional ethics. Do your homework. Know your jurisdiction’s rules, and contact your local ethics board or hotline if you have questions. For simplicity’s sake, this article defers to the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

For every referral you receive, you need to do four things:

1. Let the client make the contact

You’re at the Rotary club’s monthly meeting when a realtor who’s part of your lawyer referral network pulls you aside. She’s convinced that her client needs your help, but you have no idea whether he thinks he needs a lawyer. She ends with, “Here’s his number. You should give him a call.”

Don’t. Your state’s version of ABA Model Rule 7.3 would consider this the unethical solicitation of a client. Instead, tell your referral source the truth:

“I could talk to him and see if I can help. But lawyers’ ethics rules say he has to contact me first. If he contacts me, I know he wants to discuss this matter with me and that he doesn’t already have a lawyer. Then he can decide on his own if he wants to hire me or somebody else.”

2. Inform the client

ABA Model Rule 7.2(b)(4) says the client is entitled to know if he was referred to you as part of a reciprocal referral arrangement and the terms of the arrangement. Following the rule covers your professional assets but also lets you strengthen your attorney-client relationship if you do it right.

Tell the client, “I know your accountant, Jennifer,” and we sometimes send clients to each other. I’m glad she gave you my name. Is it OK with you if I let her know you called? If you don’t want me to, I won’t, and I will never share anything with her about what you and I discuss unless you say it’s OK.”

Now your client knows why he has your name and knows you won’t discuss anything about him with anyone, including the person who sent him to you. If he says you can tell her he called — and clients usually do — then take the next step.

3. Say thank you, repeatedly

Your first thank you should land right after you talk to the client (again, if it’s OK with him). Send a simple email to your referrer, without details:

“Greg Jackson contacted me. Thanks for giving him my name.”

Then, when you’re hired, send a real thank you note — handwritten on nice paper or a card with a real stamp — through the mail. Handwritten anything is rare these days, so it stands out more than a text or email — and it’s not that hard to do. Keep some note cards and stamps in your desk, and send the note (again, if your client says it’s OK) to your referral source as the last step in opening your file. Write:

“Thanks for sending Greg over. We’ll be working together on his project.”

What if the potential client doesn’t hire you? Thank your referral source anyway. Remember, you’re building a relationship, not just trolling for clients. You aren’t grateful only for the clients who hire you; you’re grateful for getting the chance to talk with them. Simply say:

“Thanks for sending Greg over. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good fit, but I appreciate the referral.”

Finally, when closing the file, say thank you again with another real thank you note. The matter may have taken a while, so remind your referral source that you exist and you do good work:

“We just finished Greg Jackson’s matter. Thanks for sending him over — he was a pleasure to work with. Please keep me in mind if any of your other clients could use my help.”

Thank you notes are fine, but what about taking your referral source out to dinner or sending her a gift? What about a referral fee? Legal ethics rules constrain your manners here. Model Rule 7.2(b) says you can’t give anything of value in exchange for a recommendation, and some jurisdictions interpret this strictly to exclude even de minimis gifts. Check your local rules, but when in doubt, remember — no quid pro quo, ever. Save the gifts and dinners for regular social activities, or make them part of a standard business development plan that isn’t limited to your referral sources.

4. Work out the details, and inform the client

Under Model Rule 5.4(a), you can’t share fees with someone who isn’t a lawyer, ever. But if a lawyer referred the client, you are allowed to share fees if you follow Model Rule 1.5(e) or your jurisdiction’s equivalent. The total fee has to be reasonable, the fee-sharing has to be proportional to the work involved or both lawyers have to be responsible for the representation, and the client has to agree — in writing — to the arrangement, including the fee split.

What constitutes “reasonable,” “proportional” and “responsible” varies by jurisdiction and is too big a can of worms to open here, so check your local rules and local practice. Then, clarify details with the lawyer who referred the client to you, even if you’ve discussed these issues before. Spell out your fee-sharing agreement in your written fee agreement with your client, so there’s no question about who’s getting paid, how much, and why.

How to Give Lawyer Referrals: Three Steps

When you make referrals, you have social and ethical rules to follow, just like when you get lawyer referrals. When making a referral, though, you have one more piece to consider. You are sending your client to someone else. The client’s needs must be at the forefront of the interaction for their sake and yours. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of an ethics or malpractice complaint.

Follow these three steps to give a good referral:

1. Identify a good match for your client

It’s tempting to default to a name you always give out or refer to the person in your network who sends you the most business. But stop and think first — consider the expertise and the personalities of the people whose names you’ll give your client. If the person to whom you refer your client isn’t competent, you might lose your client and end up on the phone with your malpractice carrier. If he gets on her last nerve, it’s still a lousy referral — she’s going to wonder about the company you keep and might start wondering about your advice generally.

2. Always give at least two names

Your clients are entitled to choose the people they’ll work with and may not share your opinion about who would be a good fit for them. You also cover your assets a bit by giving two or more names — if your client ends up disliking the person she chooses, she knows she had other options.

What if you have only one person in your network who’s competent to handle her matter? Competence is your priority, so give her your contact’s name, plus the names of one or two other people with a reputation for competence. You can tell her which one you know personally and must tell her if you have a reciprocal relationship with that person (and fee-sharing agreement if it’s another lawyer), but also tell her that the others have good reputations. All of this disclosure is meant to ensure she has the information she needs to choose who to hire.

3. Let the client make the contact, but give a heads-up if you can

Your client, not you, should decide whether to contact someone about his matter. And remember, if you’re referring him to another lawyer, that lawyer can’t call him first. However, you may (and should) ask the client if he wants you to let the other lawyer know the client might be calling — and assure him you won’t discuss the legal matter. Giving your referral a heads-up does double duty — it lets her know that you’re thinking of her, even if your client doesn’t call, and it can ease your client’s concern about calling someone he doesn’t know.

One More Crucial Step

There’s one last step in giving or getting a referral: Write it down. When someone sends you a client or when you send a referral, record the details in your list or database of referral sources. Do this whether or not the referral works out. Make it easy on yourself and record it contemporaneously instead of trying to recreate all your referrals for the year. It’s part of keeping your network alive.

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