Networking and Cultivating Referrals

Referrals are a good source of new clients, but referral business doesn’t just happen by magic. You have to work diligently and consistently to cultivate referral sources.

Where to Find Referrals

Existing and former clients are a good place to start. They already know you and your work and are in an excellent position to recommend you to others who might need a lawyer. Stay in touch with your clients through newsletters or emails that keep them informed of developments in your practice area as well as significant victories or honors you have achieved.

Other businesspeople who serve your same clientele can also be good referral sources. For example, an estate planning lawyer’s referral network might include accountants and financial planners.

Referrals can also come through your involvement in organizations that serve your target clientele. Depending on your practice area, that might mean anything from a pharmaceutical trade association to a local youth soccer organization. For trade organizations, ask your clients which trade or business organization meetings they attend. When you find an organization that seems like a good fit for the clients you want to reach, volunteer and try to become a board member. This visibility and commitment to your target clientele can be invaluable as a source of business.

Other lawyers can also be a source of referrals. Try to form relationships with lawyers who serve similar clients in a different area of law. For example, a divorce lawyer’s clients may need an estate planner. Transactional business clients may eventually need a litigator, an immigration lawyer or a patent attorney.

And people who you have referred business to may in turn refer their clients to you.

Getting Referral Business

Getting referrals isn’t just a matter of finding potential referral sources and trading business cards. Once you have pinpointed people who might refer business to you, you need to develop the referral relationship.

You must ask people to refer business to you or they’re unlikely to realize that you are looking for referrals. Create an “elevator speech” with a short description of the type of work you do and the kinds of clients you serve, so that your referral source will understand who might be a good fit for your services. Stay in touch with potential referral sources by meeting or speaking with them periodically, sending them relevant articles, and commenting on their social media posts. Referrals should be a two-way street, so take the time to understand what your referral source does and make an effort to refer business to him or her as well.

Speaking engagements to bar association groups or organizations that serve your potential clients is another tried and true way to obtain referrals. Make sure you explain your practice and have business cards and brochures available. You can also obtain email addresses to keep in touch with attendees.

Referral marketing must be done consistently to pay off, and you should keep track of your efforts and their effectiveness. Some experts recommend that you spend about 4 hours a week on developing referral sources if you want referrals to be significant source of business for your firm. And take the time to thank the people who send you business.

Referral Fees

If you’re developing referral sources, the subject of referral fees is bound to come up. If the referral is from a non-lawyer, the rule is simple: you can’t pay a referral fee. The ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, adopted by most states, prohibits lawyers from splitting legal fees with non-lawyers, and prohibits lawyers from giving anything of value to a person for recommending the lawyer’s services.

Several states have cited ways that legal referral service Avvo violates ethics rules regarding referral fees. Avvo charges clients a flat fee for a lawyer’s services, forwards the fee to the lawyer, and then collects a marketing fee from the lawyer. Check your state ethics opinions before signing on with a referral service that operates like Avvo.

If the referral is from a lawyer, the Model Rules and most state rules do permit fee-splitting, provided the fees are split proportionate to the services each lawyer performs, or both lawyers assume responsibility for the representation. The fee must also be reasonable, and the client must agree to the fee splitting. Since professional responsibility rules vary from state to state, consult your state’s rules before considering any referral fee or fee splitting arrangement.