Tips for building a referral network

  • November 27, 2018
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

Radio and television commercials can help lawyers get name recognition, but word-of-mouth advertising is “way more important,” according to business coach, Dave Fuller.

“People often don’t trust advertising and they don’t trust what they see on the internet or in the media. But they do trust when a friend says, ‘Go see this lawyer’,” says Fuller, a certified professional business coach with Profit Yourself Healthy based in Prince George, B.C.

Fuller says referral sources can be an excellent way for small law firms to develop a client base. Here are three key steps to develop your network:

Focus your networking

The first step to any marketing plan is figuring out your target market – even when you’re aiming to develop relationships with referral sources. 

“You really need to focus on who your core clients are before you do anything else,” says Fuller. “You can go out and solicit a bunch of business, but if it’s not the sort of business that you want then you’re wasting a lot of time, energy and money.”

Fuller recommends reviewing your practice to determine who that “core client” is for you and then coming up with a plan to target more of those clients.

“If you already have core clients, profile them: Are they business clients? Family clients? Where are they coming from? Who do they associate with? What are they reading? What are they listening to?” he says. “The more we understand them, the easier it is to reach out to them or people they trust.”

Brian P. Stephenson, a lawyer with Pushor Mitchell LLP in Kelowna, B.C., says your strategy will change based on the type of law you practice and the stage you are at in your career.

“If you’re a first-year call, for example, and you’re still trying to figure out what area of law you want to practise obviously you will want to cast a wider net than if you are specializing and homing in on industry sectors,” says Stephenson, a solicitor who focuses on business law, real estate and wills and estates. “Intentionality matters when you are doing marketing and that changes depending on who you’re talking to.”

Ensuring you target the right referral sources is the key, adds Stephenson.

“As a lawyer, you are going to be very time-poor and you need to be conscious as to how you’re using your time and how you are investing those networking hours,” he says. “For example, if I’m going to an event or grabbing a beer with someone that means I’m not going to a different event or not grabbing a beer with someone else or taking time away from my family in order to build that relationship.”

Build relationships

The best way to develop referral sources is to develop meaningful relationships.

“If you are building your relationships and connecting with people, they’re more likely to refer to you,” says Fuller. “They’re more likely to use you themselves and refer all their friends and family to you because they trust you.”

Stephenson says the best referrals come from “know, like and trust” relationships, says Stephenson, and that requires some consistency and repetition.

“You cannot develop the same kind of relationship from meeting a person one time at a cocktail event versus someone you play soccer with once a week for six months. You develop a very different type of relationship.”

Fuller recommends inviting people to lunch and getting to know them as well as asking questions and being curious about their line of work – expressing an interest in them builds their interest, he says.

“No one is going to refer to you unless they trust you. It is all about developing those relationships and nurturing those relationships.”

Put in the effort

But building and nurturing take time, so your referral network won’t materialize overnight.

“You need to work hard when you’re starting your practice. As your practice grows, if you are good at what you do and develop those relationships it’s going to snowball. But it’s tough when you’re starting out,” says Fuller.

“You have to be aware that you are going to be putting in work,” says Stephenson. “It’s very important to think of networking as a two-way street. Always consider the value of what you can offer other people.”

Stephenson says that a common misconception about networking is that all you have to do is hand out business cards and make sure people know your name. Instead, he recommends thinking about what you can do for other people.

“I think the most effective form of networking is learning about the other people around you because that allows you to offer a much more tailored value set to those individuals once you know a bit more what they want and need,” he says.

“When we are talking about referrals, often it starts with us,” Fuller agrees. “We have to be referring to other people. We can’t just expect other people to refer to us.”

Fuller also recommends that lawyers consistently “fill the pipeline.”

“Sometimes we think we are busy enough. But when we get busy, we stop doing our marketing, we stop referring and taking people out for lunch, because we think we’ve hit our peak. And then our work starts to drop off and we don’t understand why. But it’s because we are not keeping that pipeline filled,” he says.

The best case scenario, according to Fuller, is that your practice grows to a point where you do not need to rely on traditional advertising for clients and incur that expense.

“If you can get your clients by invitation or referral, you don’t need to advertise,” he says.

Carolynne Burkholder-James is a lawyer in Prince George, B.C.