Success and profitability in law firms are strongly dependent on a steady stream of referrals. In fact, our research into Australasian law firms shows that 70% of firms consider referral relationships and personal networks their number one source of new business. And nearly all of the 151 surveyed firms said that increasing referrals and recommendations was the most important element of their growth strategy for the coming year.
With their low cost of acquisition and high conversion rate, referrals are undoubtedly one of the best ways to develop your business.
So, how can you and your firm get more referrals?
#1 way to get referrals
The number one way of propelling valuable referrals to your firm is to be worth referring to in the first place. That means delivering positive outcomes for clients, and exceptional client relationship management. There is nothing more powerful than a satisfied client who acts as a natural evangelist for your services.
But to systematically increase referrals, you also need to ask the right people for them, at the right time, in the right way. And make sure to reciprocate (if you can): you have to give to get.
Understanding the 3 referral drivers
It can be helpful to understand what makes lawyers referral worthy. Referrals to lawyers are driven by three factors (sometimes individually, but usually in combination):
- Direct experience of your firm’s superior service, and stand-out results or outcomes achieved by your lawyers.
- Your lawyers’ expertise in an industry or specialist field, especially when your lawyers are positioned as visible experts.
- Firm reputation, standing, and profile – especially if it’s strong in a narrow sphere or a distinct speciality.
But I’m a lawyer, not a salesperson!
Many lawyers don’t like to ask clients or contacts for referrals because they:
- feel they may jeopardise the relationship
- are scared of rejection
- don’t want to come across as desperate or unsuccessful
- don’t really know how to ask.
Don’t let fear paralyse you. Practice will help; you can refine your approaches as you go. The only certainty is that doing nothing gives you a 100% chance of getting nothing.
If you don’t like the term “referral”, consider asking for “an introduction” instead.
A quick-start guide to getting referrals
Done the right way, you don’t have to feel ashamed or embarrassed about asking for referrals. It takes only a little bit of planning to work out who to ask, when to ask, and how to ask.
Ask the right people
Who can introduce you to potential clients that have the sorts of problems your legal work can solve? To answer this, you need to know the type of client you want and the sort of work you want to do for them. The more specific you can be, the easier it will be for you to identify who knows those types of people.
Existing clients can make excellent referral sources. For example, if you provide estate planning and advice to high net-worth individuals, your existing clients are very likely to know many other high net-worth individuals with similar needs to them.
If your firm focuses on personal legal services, your clients may have good connections, such as friends and family members, community contacts (sporting groups, church parishioners), and other service providers (GPs, hairdressers, mortgage brokers, real estate agents).
If you’re a business to a business lawyer, your clients or other network contacts might know:
- colleagues in other departments
- industry association contacts
- key people in organisations they deal with (i.e. their own clients or suppliers)
- other professional advisers (accountants, financial planners, barristers).
Tip: Who knows who?
LinkedIn can be a powerful aid to your research. Searching on position titles or roles, and by location, can help you target and shortlist decision-makers. You may be surprised by how many connections you have to them through LinkedIn – list and leverage them!
Ask at the right time
Timing is everything. Ask for referrals when you’ve achieved a great outcome for a client, solved a critical issue for them, or received positive feedback. This offers you an easy lead-in to the conversation:
“I’m thrilled you’re happy with the outcome of the matter. Do you know anyone else who might be facing similar issues?”
Ask in the right way
One of the most powerful phrases you can use is, “I need your help” (or try a variant: “Do you have advice for me on how I can get introductions to (or find) more clients like you?”). Most people will go out of their way to help others when asked, so don’t feel shy.
Sometimes, asking for a referral or introduction can put that person on the spot, so be open about why you want a referral:
“I’m building my practice in area X, and I’m looking for some introductions – can you help?”
Your contact may not have suggestions immediately, so give them time to consider your request and ask for the best way to follow up with them. If they seem reluctant, don’t press; simply move on to another source.
If you have done your research (e.g. via LinkedIn), you can ask the potential referral source for an introduction to a specific person you’d like to meet.
Finally, wherever possible, offer to reciprocate in some way.
A little thanks goes a long way. Whenever you get a referral, acknowledge and thank your referral source (even if the referral hasn’t yet converted to work, or they may have misdirected a referral to you).
What next? The art of converting referrals
Give them a real reason to talk to you
Just because you’ve now got a referral lead, doesn’t mean the prospective client will automatically agree to a meeting with you. You will generally need to offer them a compelling reason to share their valuable time with you and a lame “I want to learn more about your business” won’t cut it.
Better reasons include:
- you have identified a problem they have that you can solve
- you can demonstrate how you can save them money/time
- you have something that is of value to them ‑ something they cannot get elsewhere, and that is almost too good to giveaway (a resource or tool, or access to an exclusive opportunity or a network of your contacts).
The more tailored and nuanced your insights and wisdom are, the better (so make sure you’ve done your research). Your solid reasons for meeting should be driven by what’s in it for them, rather than what’s in it for you.
Ace the first meeting
Most of this should hopefully be obvious to a modern professional, but remember to approach a newly referred prospective client:
- with warm courtesy and authenticity
- ready to listen with patience – don’t inadvertently send out “too busy and important” vibes
- on a peer-to-peer basis – neither arrogant nor obsequious
- appreciating that their time is valuable and never taking it for granted
- respectful of their current choices of legal advisers
- with a series of specific business reasons which communicate clearly the benefits, they can expect from investing precious time with you.
Large organisations are often locked into using pre-approved law firms, and cannot freely engage with others. In this case, ask if you can keep in touch and if they would consider allowing your firm to compete for their business in the future. This way, you may be invited to bid when their service contracts are up for renewal.
Ideally, your meeting goes well, and you get an opportunity to work on a file. But the hard work is just beginning: do an excellent job (both technically, and in terms of your relationship management), and meet expectations, and you will have a strong chance of future work and another potential advocate and referral source.
About the Author:
Amy Burton-Bradley is an experienced bidder, business developer, marketer, and copy-writer who has worked with more law firms than she cares to remember! She is a Partner and Consulting Director at Julian Midwinter & Associates, a business development consultancy whose team has helped law firms attract, win, grow, and retain new clients and business since 1993.
- Download the research report into Referrals and cross-selling in practice
- Julian Midwinter & Associates has plenty of other free tips and resources on developing business for your law firm.