Referrals are typically the leading producer of new business for law firms. In other words, referrals mean revenue. Coming as they do from third parties, referrals might seem to be out of your control; however, you can actually take an active role in generating more referrals. Several steps in particular can pay off when practiced regularly.

Do Good Work

The best way to generate referrals is to provide a strong work product. Satisfied clients who can personally attest to your work quality give the most credible referrals.

However, it is important to realize that "good work" extends beyond merely achieving the desired outcome in a matter. It also includes superior customer service. If you do not respond promptly to client inquiries or keep your clients up to date, they may not recommend you, possibly because they fear your poor customer service will reflect negatively on them. Attention to details can mean a lot to your clients and, in turn, affect referral volume.

Ask Clients for Recommendations

Get in the habit of asking your clients for referrals at appropriate junctures — when you are conducting intake, receiving compliments on your work or concluding a matter. Also, include a referral request in your e-mail signature line, such as "We always appreciate referrals."

Why do this? Won't clients naturally send business your way if they are pleased with your work? Not necessarily. It might not even occur to many clients that you are continually looking for new business, especially if they have visited your bustling law offices. That is why it never hurts to remind them that you value their business and would love the opportunity to work with other clients like them.

When you request referrals from clients, be specific and clear. By explaining the type of work you are looking for (for example, divorce cases or individual bankruptcy proceedings), you are less likely to receive referrals you cannot use. Also, provide clients with business cards that they can share with potential referrals.

Network Smart

Every attorney knows how essential networking is to building and sustaining a practice, however, not every networking opportunity is created equal. It can make more sense, for example, to speak at a small seminar with an audience full of potential referral sources than to deliver a keynote address for a major convention with attendees who are unlikely to provide many referrals.

You might find, therefore, that you can get more from being active in your local bar association than a national bar association (or vice versa, depending on your practice area). You should also consider joining sections for practice areas other than your own if those attorneys work with clients who could use your services. For example, business attorneys might benefit from networking with intellectual property lawyers whose clients are launching new ventures. This strategy works with non-lawyer referral sources, as well. Forming relationships with CPAs, financial planners, bankers and real estate attorneys can lead to new work.

Nurture Referral Relationships

Resist the temptation to think of a referral as a transaction. Ideally, a referral will mark the start of an ongoing relationship that includes numerous referrals over a long period of time.

To nurture these relationships, always thank sources for every referral, regardless of whether they translate to new work for you. Thank your source when you receive a referral, when you are hired and when you complete the matter. This will show your sincere appreciation and keep you top of mind with the referral source.

Finally, when the opportunity arises, refer business back to people who have sent work your way. The best personal relationships are two-way streets, and referral relationships are no different.

Worth the Work

Even in this digital age, there is simply no replacement for word-of-mouth when it comes to landing new clients. Making the practices discussed an integral part of how you work can help increase the odds of receiving referrals that grow your business and your bottom line.

Sidebar: Do Not Forget Ethics Issues

The rules of professional conduct do not prohibit attorneys from seeking and accepting referrals, but they do impose some restrictions on what you can and cannot do in this area. For example, you generally cannot:

  • Enter into exclusive referral agreements whereby you and a referral source refer clients only to each other (in other words, the referring party must be able to recommend more than one attorney to its client);
  • Neglect to disclose reciprocal referral relationships to clients;
  • Promise gifts or referral fees in exchange for referrals; and
  • Share fees with a non-attorney.

You can enter fee-sharing agreements with an attorney in another firm as long as the total fee is reasonable, the fee-sharing is proportional to the work involved (or both attorneys are jointly responsible for the representation), and the client agrees to the arrangement in writing. Ethics rules vary by jurisdiction, of course, so always check applicable local rules when in doubt.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.