The two best sources of new business for lawyers are current clients and referral sources (also referred to as word-of-mouth). Having just finished an action plan last week for a relatively new, young lawyer who does not have his own client base, it became pretty obvious that the place for him to start in building a client base is with referrals.

That is why I found the post “It’s Never Too Early to Pursue Referrals” by Miriam Lawrence on Automatic Referrals very timely. She shares three thoughts that “new advisors” (in our case, lawyers) should keep in mind to build a base of clients. She draws from points raised by her Automatic Referrals’ colleague Bob David:

  1. Research supports the idea that “the most important factor in a new client choosing to do business” with you is not experience but “chemistry”;
  2. Although you may not have a “track record” you do, as does everyone, have a story worth telling, and
  3. Concentrate on your strengths – whether that be a particular niche, or ability to listen well (a skill many of us lawyers could use a lot more of), or whatever.

The important thing is that you have “strengths and knowledge to offer clients and their associates right now.”


So, a lack of a client base is no reason for anguish, just start developing business with a focus on referral sources – whether from existing contacts or new ones you develop through networking activities.

After getting more work or referrals from clients, the next best source of new business is from referrals from other sources. Many of the same types of business development activities you undertake for clients are effective for referral sources as well. They include: visiting their offices, seeking feedback, sending them clients, sending information of interest and newsletters, etc. etc. However, will clients and other contacts actually refer work?

Seth Godin in “How to get referrals,” says that much has been written about how referrals “are the very best way to grow your business,” yet often they simply don’t happen. Why?

Three reasons in Seth’s view:

  1. Not important to the referrer,
  2. Referrer has a lot to lose (mostly credibility) by referring a friend, and
  3. Recommending isn’t easy (as in bringing up the subject, I think he means).

So, what’s a lawyer to do?  Well actually, Seth isn’t referring (oops, sorry about that) to lawyers in the following five suggestions, but I thought I would:

  • Make it easy for someone to bring up what you do (that is, let your contacts know something unique about your practice, your practice niche),
  • Give clients something of real value to offer their friends (as in a dynamite, outstanding client service experience),
  • Paying a person to refer rarely works (and could get a lawyer disbarred, but returning the favor would work);
  • Low-risk referrals are easier than high-risk ones (so ask for referrals in a way that reduces the risk to the referrer); and
  • “Be worthy” and known as such in marketplace (if you are not known by the referral source as offering value in eyes of the community, then it is much tougher to make the referral).

 Hope there is some food for thought for you and your firm there.

Every law firm should know by now that the best sources of new business are existing clients (in the form of new work or referrals) and other referral sources. Often called word of mouth marketing.

Miriam Lawrence at Automatic Referrals has a recent post where she advises financial professionals on how to get referrals in what she calls an “ugly market.” As I read her post, I realized that it was good advice for lawyers as well – at any time.

Her suggestions:

  • Proactively getting in front of your clients by emailing and calling them, sending letters, and “talking to them in as many ways as possible.” (I would add visiting them in their workspace, sending news articles, press clippings, etc.);
  • Putting “client calls into your daily action plan”;
  • Taking your “show on the road” (seeing visiting clients above); and
  • Building other “measurable referral targets into your business plan,” and always being on the alert for clues to referral opportunities you run across.

All good advice. I would add another aspect relating to client referrals. Part of any business development effort needs to include keeping basic client relations enhancers at the forefront of your attorney-client relationships. That is,

  • Returning phone calls promptly (if not sooner),
  • Meeting deadlines,
  • Avoiding any surprises,
  • Meeting (or exceeding) client expectations, and
  • et cetera. 

In other words, doing everything within your power to give clients a reason to give you more work and refer others to you and your law firm.

Whatever form your rolodex takes, it is time to not only review it for the names of contacts you want to remember during the holidays, but also to work on your referral system. As we approach year-end, it’s a good time to ensure your business development is on track for 2008.

Since referrals (also called word-of-mouth marketing) are so valuable, you don’t want to sit around just waiting and hoping that referrals will occur. Rather, have a system in place that will increase the chances that they will actually happen.

John Jantsch of Duct Tape Marketing fame has a 7 step process for the “ultimate referral marketing system” in his recent newsletter. Not all the steps fit exactly for lawyers, but there’s enough that does apply and is worth sharing:

Step 1: Develop a list of likely referral sources from people you know;

Step 2: Identify your best referral types (actually I’d do this first);

Step 3: Develop a value-added message (or elevator pitch) for referral sources;

Step 4: Design an education system for letting sources know what makes a good referral, what the advantages are for them in helping a client or friend, and how you will help those referred;

Step 5: Offer something in return (here’s where it gets a bit iffy for lawyers ethically – better to simply start referring potential clients/customers to them first and letting them know about it);

Step 6: Create a process for turning referrals into clients, if they don’t become one immediately; and

Step 7: Have a follow up strategy, both for those referrals not yet clients, and for referral sources to thank them (and send a gift), as well as keeping them informed and motivated.

Don’t sit back and wait for referrals, be proactive to develop business sooner rather than later.

If you are like many lawyers, I know the answer. That isn’t a criticism per se. It’s merely recognizing that busy lawyers sometimes overlook the most basic of business development techiques. We know that the best sources of new business, as I have said many tmes (here, here, here and here), are clients (either in the form of new work or referrals) and other referral sources. So, why are so many remiss at thanking the sources of their business?

It’s baffling actually. I remember hearing many years ago about a firm in New York that had received 10 referrals from (obviously) a fan, and the firm admitted that it had NEVER EVEN thanked the person.

Why? Well, probably the lawyer is so happy to get the new work, the he or she jumps right into serving that new client. That’s a good thing. However, if they forget to thank the source of the new business, that’s a bad thing. 

As my friend Thom Singer at Some Assembly Required tells us in a post he calls “Express Your Appreciation” many lawyers “[w]hile they had great intentions to say ‘thank you’ to the person who made the referral, once some time passes the immediacy to properly express gratitude begins to dwindle.”

Please, don’t let time get away from you when you get a referral. Send a handwritten note the VERY same day. Might just lead to more referrals. The alternative doesn’t bode well for the future of your practice.