Posted by: johnocunningham | May 21, 2014

How to Get More Business Referrals and Why You Need Them

I have been surveying General Counsel about how they choose their outside counsel for some years now. Almost always, they respond that their favored method of choosing new counsel in a new field is based on referrals and recommendations from trusted sources.

Thus, it is clearly important for lawyers in private practice who are courting large corporate clients to build their network of referrals and references.

When lawyers in private practice ask me how best to do this, I offer up a list of tools and techniques for network building. Here are just five of my favorites to consider:

  1. Be visible, be social, be likeable. It is critical for lawyers (or other professional service providers) to get out of the office and interact with others in their profession and their community. People in your local or regional bar association might not know how good you are as a lawyer or service provider, but they know if you contribute something to events and causes, they know if you can be relied upon, they know if you show up to functions on time, and they know if you are socially pleasant or embarrassing. That is largely how they measure you when deciding whether to refer business to you. They will assume your competence if you are not a jerk. Likewise, members of your Kiwanis Club, Church, or other community organizations will see if you are a reliable and pleasant contributor, and that will go a long way to building referrals. A large majority of GCs report that they must “like” their outside counsel, and virtually 100 percent “prefer” to like someone they hire (among those I have surveyed).
  2. Provide referrals to others. This one is simple. If you want to get, you need to give. Besides, clients report in surveys that they love professionals who tell them, “This is not my forte, so I am sending you to someone else who can do it better for you.” This builds your credibility, especially if you give out excellent referrals that please your clients. Anyone to whom you refer business will be more likely to remember you when they are asked for referrals themselves.
  3. Thank your referral sources. This one should be a no-brainer, but it is amazing how many people forget to do this or just plain ignore it. When I was a GC, I often referred names of outside counsel who pleased me with their services. Most lawyers to whom I referred business were very thankful, and took the time to say “thank you” either with a card or a nominal gift. But some lawyers amazingly never said “thank you.” If nothing else, this lack of social grace does not reflect well on your “soft skills” that so many clients say they value.
  4. Share the story of your successes. Many high performers are reluctant to do this. It feels too much like bragging. But how is the public or just your referral network supposed to know whether you are competent if you never talk about results? Your Website, your collateral materials and other promotional content should, of course, feature some discussion of representative matters you handled and results you produced. But you can also use social media or just the good old telephone to chat up your pleasure with a great verdict or transactional outcome for a client. If you don’t like to brag, how about just saying “Congratulations to my client X who is most deserving of the award they won today,” or “Congratulations to client X, who acquired target Y today, and closed the transaction ahead of schedule and under budget.” Of course, if the client is publicity averse, you can just say, “Having a great day. One of my clients just won a verdict or scored on a big transaction and everything went just right, thanks in part to some really cool technologies we started using and some great prep work by our experts.”
  5. Share your thinking. It is easier than ever now to share your thoughts with the world. A blog, a social media page, or an e-newsletter allows you the opportunity to demonstrate your communications skills, critical thinking and issue spotting with a potentially global audience. Not only do many in-house lawyers love to read free legal content, so do many reporters and TV producers. If you write about something topical and newsy in a way that is cogent, compelling and unique, there is an excellent chance that editors or producers in traditional media will be calling you for comments on a news event.

Those are just five good ways to expand on your potential referral sources. Feel free to comment on others that work for you.

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