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On Referrals

by Erik Mazzone |

Most of the successful private law practices in North Carolina and around the US – and I am speaking here about individual lawyers’ practices as opposed to law firms – have been built on the backs of referrals. Referrals from other lawyers, referrals from other professionals serving the same client base, referrals from former clients, or – the gold standard, as many lawyers like to tout – referrals from opposing parties.

From whatever source a referral comes, they all share the common trait that someone, somewhere said to a friend, colleague or loved one: “you know who you should call for help with that?” A referral is an implicit endorsement and accelerates trust right at the beginning of a potential client relationship. Compared to a cold call from, say, a Google search, it’s like you start the sales process on third base.

So, how does a lawyer set about to generate potential client referrals? 

Well, to borrow from a Cher commercial from the 80s, if referral generation came in a bottle, every lawyer would have a thriving, referral-based practice. Generating referrals is the result of lots of hard work done over a lengthy period of time. Whatever quick-fix solution the web guy of the month is promising to law firm riches, referral generation is the opposite of that. 

Think of it as growing a plant: you do all the right stuff, plant a seed, water it, give it sunlight. But then, you wait for it to grow. Adding gallons of extra water doesn’t make it grow any faster. It is a natural system. Referral generating for a law practice is the same. 

Lawyers who have been practicing since the earth’s crust was still warm always tell young lawyers, “just do good work and keep your head down and it will happen”. That is not completely untrue; but with due respect, the competition from technology and market saturation for lawyers in 2023 is quite a bit more intense than when I started practicing in 1996. And it is surely a lot more intense than it was in say, 1976. 

So, I’d suggest the following thoughts on referral generation – not as a replacement to doing good work, but as an adjunct. Think of them as fertilizer to go with the sunlight and water. And yes, I do realize what I just suggested my writing is largely made from.


Know Like and Trust

The backbone of any referral generation strategy is to know that the result you are after is to have your referral sources know, like and trust you. They need to know you – which is to say, they need to know who you are and what kind of work you do. What kind of clients you serve, what kind of problems you solve. If they don’t know you, they can’t refer to you in any meaningful way.

Once they know you, referral sources also need to like you. Nobody refers business to someone they don’t like. You don’t need to be best friends and take trips to beach together or anything, but you they have to like you well enough to want you to succeed. For all practical purposes, this means you need to like them, too. People know when you don’t like them, and it’s a good bet they don’t like you much either. Think of referral sources as being a friend-adjacent relationship. You don’t need to be actual friends (though it doesn’t hurt – presumably your friends would refer business to you if they could), but you need like them enough to feel like you could be.

Finally, referral sources need to trust you. In this context, I think of trust as less about trusting you to be a generally honest person, and more about trusting you to do quality work on the matter they have referred to you. If you have ever recommended to a friend that they use a service or buy a product that you like and had that recommendation go poorly, well, then you have felt the pain of a breach of referral trust. Nobody makes a referral to a colleague or friend hoping to hear back, “well, that was a disaster.” Referring someone unavoidably contains some responsibility, so the referrer always wants to hear back, “thanks so much for referring me to X, she saved me!”


Top of Mind

Once you have established that your referral sources know, like and trust you, you need them to remember you exist. You need to stay “top of mind”, as the marketing folks say.

What that means is that when your referral source comes across a potential client with the kind of matter you work on, and she is considering the many qualified and ethical lawyers she knows who can handle the matter for the potential client, you want your name to spring to mind first. Top of mind.

So, how do you do that?

Well, there are two ways. One is you become an incredibly important person in their life. Like your mom or your spouse or your best friend will always (one hopes) think of you first when they have a referral to make. So, you make your referral source your mom, your spouse or your best friend.

The problem is, you only have limited slots available for moms, best friends and spouses, and one assumes at least one of those slots has already been filled. So, plan B.

The second way to stay top of mind for a referral source is to systematically stay engaged with them so that when a potential referral comes in you are the lawyer whose name is at the top of the list.

There’s lots of ways to systematically stay engaged with folks, and certainly the internet and a global pandemic has changed the game pretty significantly. Choose the method (email, text, phone calls, lunches, coffees, breakfasts, football games, spin class, etc., etc.) that feels most authentic to you and is most enjoyable and useful to your referral source. And choose the interval that fits most naturally. 

“Great!” I can hear you exclaiming. “I already send holiday cards once a year. Done!”

Unless you are sending some magical holiday cards, I’m going to suggest, holiday cards once a year aren’t going to get it done. Don’t believe me?

Try this thought experiment: right now, without looking at any notes, lists or anything, write down everyone who sent you a holiday card last year. If you conjure a complete list from memory, well, then you are the exception that proves the rule. You also should seriously think about trying out to be a contestant on Jeopardy!, if that is that is still a thing.

As a rule, I’d try to connect at least once a quarter with referral sources. You might need to do it more, but much less than that and probably some other enterprising lawyer is going to spin class with your referral source. But it’s not me, I promise. That sounds exhausting.


Using Tech to Help

And last, I am always a fan of considering what technology there is available to help a lawyer with practice management tasks like referral generation.

There’s a growing presence of tech-forward lawyer-to-lawyer referral platforms. Overture Law is a recent one and seeks to help lawyers “unlock hidden revenue in their practice” by monetizing their referrals. 

While this sounds great for folks in lots of jurisdictions, anytime I see anything about value being given in exchange for referrals, my NC ethics antenna goes up. I reached out to my buddy, Josh Walthall, who does ethics and professional responsibility work, to get his thoughts on North Carolina lawyers using a service like this.

Josh said he would caution NC lawyers thinking about using a service like this about the following:

  1. You need to make sure you aren't referring work to someone who isn't licensed in NC, thereby facilitating the unauthorized practice of law.  See Rule 5.5.
  2. Also, per Rule 1.5, a fee split between lawyers at different firms is only permissible if various conditions are met:
    1. the portions are proportionate with the services provided by both attorneys AND both attorneys accept joint responsibility for the representation;
    2. the client agrees to the precise division in writing; and
    3. the total fee is reasonable.

The portion on accepting joint responsibility requires both attorneys to be actively involved in the representation.  It is more than just financial responsibility; it includes responsibility for the work product, the pleadings, the claims, the case activity, et cetera.  This requires active involvement in the case from both sides of the fee split. 

Beyond a service like that, lawyers seeking to systematize their referral generation could benefit from using a CRM (customer relations management) software. Or, more likely, using their practice management software (like Clio or MyCase) to serve that function.

But at root level, all you really need is a list of your referral sources, their contact information, and a reminder or calendar entry to prod you into reaching out for the next get together. Bonus points for taking notes after your meetings so you remember key points about your discussion and the little niceties that build a relationship: kids, important dates (like graduations) other major life events.

There’s lots of tech that you can throw at this problem, but practically speaking, none is really needed beyond an address book and a calendar.

I hope this was helpful. As always, I am happy to discuss this (or any other practice management issue) with you in depth in a consultation. As a Lawyers Mutual insured, you’re entitled to three complementary consultations each year. You can schedule with me directly on my Calendly page. Best of luck and I look forward to talking with you soon.


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