In my own practice, I think of referral sources as my personal sales force. If my contacts know enough about the services I offer and how I define my ideal client, they can essentially pre-screen potential clients for me and make introductions. I suppose this sounds like dating, and to some extent, it’s true. A former coaching client recently referred me to a potential client in what he called a “matchmaking” email. Sometimes our friends have a better sense of relationship chemistry than we do, and can predict a successful outcome.

As with any business development activity, the cultivation of referral sources takes time and planning. However, the investment generally pays off in a shorter “sales” cycle. When a client receives a recommendation from a trusted source, he or she is more likely to hire you, rather than the lawyer who is an unknown quantity.

Potential Referral Sources

The marketing plan template that my coaching clients use includes a section that focuses on referral sources. If you are interested in seeing the template, my contact information is at the end of this article. The section starts with the categories below. Think about the number of contacts you have in each category and the strength of those relationships.

  • Other attorneys
  • Professional service providers
  • Community and social contacts
  • College and law school colleagues

Other Attorneys

Depending on your practice, referrals may come to you because of client conflicts. Larger firms, naturally, tend to have more conflicts, and may not take on smaller matters for their clients. If you work for a smaller firm, cultivate your contacts at larger firms and make sure they know what services you can provide. If other attorneys are a main source of business for you, it makes sense to join your local bar association and become active in your section.

Professional Service Providers

Accountants, financial planners, business appraisers, bankers, insurance brokers and others may deal with individuals, or businesses of any size. Their clients often ask for referrals to lawyers. If you track your referrals over time, you may find that certain types of providers are more likely to work with the kinds of clients you prefer.

Community and Social Contacts

For most of us, involvement in non-profit organizations and social groups is not driven by our business development goals. We participate because these are meaningful groups and we are happy to contribute time and energy to them. Being in a more relaxed social setting makes it easier to meet people, have interesting conversations and let relationships develop more naturally. I know lawyers who have made great contacts at their kids’ soccer games, at fundraising events for non-profit groups and, yes, on the golf course.

College and Law School Colleagues

If you haven’t stayed in touch, you can start attending alumni events and join discussion groups on LinkedIn or Facebook. Virtually every school has a group on these sites, so you can connect with friends and make new contacts.

Constants in Marketing to Your Referral Sources

  • Deliver your marketing message. Speak succinctly about your practice and what services you provide for clients.
  • Define your ideal client.
  • Invite your contacts to join your online networks (LinkedIn, Facebook, etc.)
  • Update them on your speaking engagements, articles, attendance at events.
  • Introduce them to potential clients and other people in your network.
  • Stay in touch regularly, virtually and in person.
  • Refer work to them, whenever you can.

Thanking Your Referral Sources

The final step in this process is simple: thank your referral source for bringing you business. At the very least, make a phone call and send an email, and assure your contact that you will take good care of the client. A referral that results in a significant engagement or long-term work deserves more acknowledgment, even if your referral source doesn’t expect it (and many don’t). Take your referral source to lunch or dinner, or send a gift. Your referral sources can make introductions to any number of people. They will tend to refer business again if you appreciate and acknowledge their actions, and let them know that the engagement went well.