Even though the 1977 Bates v. State Bar of Arizona1 case overturned the 69-year ban on advertising, many attorneys are still reluctant to advertise. They may be right: According to one survey2, for example, 61 percent of accountants had a negative opinion of law firms that advertise. Further, in my own experience, I've discovered that the personal touch beats advertising: those walking through my door who have been referred to me ended up doing business with me 66 percent of the time, while those who simply found our firm’s name online or through the media did business less than 25 percent of the time. If you're a professional, you have to market like a professional.
And that means referrals, which lawyers can get through five different methods:
- From clients;
- From other professionals, like accountants;
- From seminars or public speaking;
- From people they associate with; and
- Through web content.
Before addressing each source type, consider if you are happy with your referral pipeline. The agenda for this past year’s Heckerling Conference (the nation's leading conferencefor estate planners) indicates that attorneys should put more thought into this referral pipeline. There wasn’t one session dedicated to business building. For the national Financial Planning Association conference, more than one-third of the sessions were dedicated to marketing, primarily centering on referral generation.
And business building is more important for attorneys than for financial planners. Various sources estimate there are just over 1 million licensed lawyers in the United States. About three-quarters of them are in private practice. There are fewer than 10,000 financial planners.
How can you build your referral pipeline?
You have to realize you’re always working toward referrals. The key is clear communication. For example, a 1986 study3 examined attorneys’ presentations in 50 trials by 477 jurors. The study concluded that attorneys rated their presentation skills significantly higher than the jurors did.
Most attorney communication is with clients, and frequency is just as important as quality: Attorney coach Irene Leonard lists verbal communication as the most important means of communicating—the lack of which is the most common complaint from clients.
Attorneys need to make it clear to clients that they are looking for referrals, and this can be done in subtle ways like offering a toll free number. In the white pages for New York City, only 36 percent of attorneys4 offer a toll free number, that surest sign you are looking for new business.
Following up on a job well done is the best time to ask for referrals—the client is happy for the follow up. Recently, an attorney did a plan for a client and the client later died. After the death would have been the perfect time to follow up with the clients' adult children and offer service. But the attorney waited. Later, he tried to get another retainer, but the children were turned off and went another direction. As I’ll show, timing is everything.
From Other Professionals
The most important thing to remember about referrals from professionals is that they don’t want their referral to make them look bad. I once referred a client for estate planning, and they went to the attorney for an initial consultation. They were happy and gave the attorney a retainer. The client had two children and they were young at the time. After the meeting, one of the children got sick. The attorney kept trying to reach them but, at the time, estate planning had to wait. Eventually, the attorney grew frustrated because his calls were not returned and left a loud message asking them what their problem was. Needless to say, not only did the attorney lose their business, he never got any more referrals from me.
The easiest way to find professionals is through your own clients. If you’re a tax attorney, you’ll often work with your clients’ accountants. Find those professionals whom you enjoyed working with and ask them out for lunch. Lunch is less forward, more efficient and cheaper than dinner—or worse, the golf course. Find out if that professional has opportunities to refer business and let them know you would be interested. In the accounting survey mentioned earlier, less than 10 percent of the accountants had ever been asked out for lunch by another professional
If you enjoy speaking in front of a group, seminars may work for you. With 23 years’ experience offering hundreds of seminars, we’ve found one key to getting referrals from this method: repetition. You’ll not likely get referrals from one lecture. But if given the chance to be a regular speaker, even if only annually, jump on it, especially if you know the audience includes people who need your services.
From People You Associate With
Some attorneys are good at being a walking advertisement for their practice. They are the exception. Most of us aren’t good at that. The easiest way to get business from your associations is to carry your business card and be willing to give it out. Be sure the card refers to your web site, where interested parties can get information about your practice.
A web site in and of itself is the least effective way to get referrals. It’s like a walled garden—people have to be looking for you. But as a tool to supplement your other marketing efforts, it’s crucial. In a survey of executives looking for services, three out of four say that a firm’s web site influences search. That survey was for services in general. It’s probably even higher in importance in looking for a professional. And the best web sites are created by web professionals.
Your web site does not have to set you apart from all the other attorney web sites—it only has to convince someone who is already considering you to make the phone call.
Is your phone ringing enough? Perhaps you don’t aspire to be known as a rain maker, but if you want more business, the best way to get it is through referrals. Go get them.
2Survey conducted by ACPE in 2008. Respondents were accountants who were attending a continuing education course. There were 327 respondents out of 1117 attendees at 14 course offerings.
3Law and Human Behavior, Volume 10(4). December 1986. 281 – 302.
4From a review of the White Pages for New York City, August 2012.