Most of the lawyers I know rely on referral sources for new business, at least to a certain extent. Depending on your practice, the relationships you develop with potential referral sources may be more important than knowing prospective clients. For example, estate planning lawyers rely on insurance brokers and private bankers to meet wealthy people. Attorneys serving middle-market companies are introduced to business owners by accountants. Bankruptcy and white-collar criminal lawyers refer different parties in their matters to other lawyers in the same practice.
When developing referral relationships, a lot of lawyers are concerned that they do not have much business to refer back. Even if the referral source does not expect a quid pro quo, everyone would like to see more business come their way.
Still, there are plenty of things you can do besides referring work to stay in the good graces — and on the radar — of your referral sources. Here are some thoughts.
Focus on the Business
Do a good job with the referral. Reciprocity may be important at some point in time but taking care of the client is job one.
Express appreciation. Send a handwritten thank-you note ASAP — even before you are sure you will be retained. As a banker once said to me, “There are plenty of good lawyers I can send work to; I want to send it to someone who appreciates it.” If it is a particularly large matter, consider whether you should provide more substantial recognition at holiday time or when the matter is concluded, such as a nice bottle of wine or a dinner.
Keep the referral source in the loop. If the client relationship allows it, find out if and how referral sources would like to be kept informed about their clients’ matters, especially if something may affect the work they are doing (e.g., taxes).
Attempt to Reciprocate in Various Ways
Build a relationship. Take referral sources to lunch and ask about their practices or companies. What kind of business are they seeking? Who is their ideal customer or client? How can you recognize a prospect for them? Let them know you will do your best to identify opportunities.
Make introductions. Even if you don’t have business to give, you have contacts to share. Perhaps a banker can meet with your firm’s CFO. Maybe an engineer would enjoy playing a round of golf with you and your contractor client. You might even facilitate a networking event or host a happy hour for people who would benefit from knowing one another. Maybe an HR trainer can submit a proposal to work with your firm.
Include them. Invite referral sources to firm parties and events so they can meet others in your circle.
Return the favor. If you can, send business back to people who are referring business to you. Obviously, this needs to be in the best interest of the client. If you don’t already, maintain a list of your contacts and track both inbound and outbound referrals.
Be strategic about your referrals. Everyone has strengths. There are banks, for example, that finance yachts or insurance companies that cover art collections. Learn the personalities and niches of your referral sources and be sure to factor these in when sending out business.
Spread the wealth. If you give a client the names of three real estate brokers to interview, you can advise all three that you passed along their contact information.
Promote Them and Provide Value
Use social media. Follow referral sources on LinkedIn and Twitter and share their articles or comments.
Give them exposure. If you are putting together a panel, it is a chance to give a good referral source some visibility. If you are writing an article, consider co-authoring with someone who sends you business.
Nominate them. Look for chances to get referral sources recognition or benefits through awards (e.g., investment banker of the year) or other activities (e.g., a board or club membership).
Provide substantive information. Ask if you can speak at a contact’s annual client or customer seminar. Offer to write an article for the referral source’s client or customer newsletter. Do a lunch-and-learn for company employees (e.g., the basics of estate planning) or provide a service to the company (e.g., an employment hotline for supervisors).
Four or Five Good Referral Sources Can Make a Career
For many lawyers, referral sources are critical to developing a practice. Rather than targeting every prospect, it’s more efficient to know the people who know the people you’d like to represent.
Keep in mind that quality is more important than quantity. You don’t need dozens of referral sources to build your practice; four or five good sources can make a career. Focus on your best opportunities and concentrate your efforts on taking good care of them and their clients.