Building a sustainable law practice that depends solely on referrals isn’t easy. It takes years of cultivating relationships and requires that you set a clear purpose for your firm, provide outstanding client service and show your appreciation for every referral that comes your way.
Stopping the Big Google Ads Spend
My road to building a referral-based firm was not only daunting but expensive. From 2010 to 2020, I consistently spent an average of $25,000 per month on Google AdWords while doing little else in the way of marketing. My entire practice was built on advertising, even though I hated spending so much. Then the pandemic hit and I was forced to rethink my strategy, and I stopped my ad spending altogether.
Although I’d been planning for at least two years to stop the ad spend, ending it was one of the scariest business decisions I ever made. In March 2020, I went from spending thousands of dollars per month on Google ads to spending nothing.
I had been working to build a referral network, but part of me thought the phone would never ring again. Two months into this “new” normal, things were going really slow — but something exciting happened. The cases kept coming as referrals took the place of online leads. Because my practice focuses on criminal defense, I was receiving referrals from other lawyers, substance abuse counselors, and even former clients.
All my clients come by way of referrals now, and my practice is more profitable and less frenetic.
Building Referral Relationships Three Ways
Because I had known for years that I wanted to shut off the ads, I worked to create referral relationships that could replace my advertising efforts. If you’re interested in building a referral-based firm, focus on building a referral relationship with your current and past clients, with lawyers in other practice areas and in your own field, and with people within those pipelines related to your practice niche.
1. Current and Past Clients
The simplest type of referral is a client referral. Imagine an estate planning attorney who helps a wealthy family litigate a probate issue. They’re impressed and introduce the attorney to friends who need help setting up probate avoidance trusts.
A practice that is based on client referrals is beautiful because new clients lead naturally to more clients. But without exceptional service, your client referral program will not be very robust.
Outcomes Alone Won’t Get You Client Referrals
A few years ago, it seemed like all my clients hated me. They would call my paralegal every day complaining that I was hard to reach and nonresponsive. Some even called me rude. I refused to acknowledge their feelings because I was getting them great case outcomes. Not surprisingly, I received few referrals that year.
Since then, I have realized that there is more to being a good lawyer than getting my clients great case outcomes. I needed to build trust, and the best way to build trust is through honest and open communication. My firm has made a commitment to providing an exceptional client experience that begins and ends with clear and consistent communication. By making such a conscious effort across the firm, we have received over 100 5-star Google reviews in just over a year.
2. Related Pipelines
Criminal defense work, like many practice areas, doesn’t lend itself to client referrals. That doesn’t mean you have to rely on advertising, though.
As a criminal defense lawyer, my best clients are professionals who get charged with a crime. They typically do not refer new clients to me. Rarely is a doctor going to say to a fellow doctor, “You got charged with a felony? Call Josh. He helped me get my felony reduced to a misdemeanor.”
But I have found that I can focus on related referral sources. A related referral might never be a client. But they know lots of people who may need your services.
Think about the people who know your clients before you do. If you’re a real estate litigator, it might be realtors. If you perform debt collection, getting to know some accountants could lead you to your ideal clients. No matter how specific your law practice niche is, there are people whom your ideal clients trust. It’s your job to build relationships with them.
3. Other Lawyers
It takes years to build the trust of other lawyers in your field or in other practice areas, and those relationships should not be taken for granted. Plant the seeds early in your career, then cultivate them regularly. Stay in contact with former classmates, become active within your local bar, and engage with colleagues via social media.
The most common type of referral tends to originate from a lawyer who practices a different type of law. Even though I don’t practice family law, I get lots of calls for divorce and custody issues. For this reason, I keep the contact information of a few family lawyers so that I can offer a referral.
Lawyers who practice in the same area also refer clients to each other. Why? To make their own lives easier and to make themselves look good. I don’t send out referrals as a “favor” — that lawyer is doing me a service by taking care of that client.
The One-Strike Rule
I have a good friend who is a criminal defense lawyer and has never advertised. I asked for advice about referrals, and he said, “When I send out a referral, I have a one-strike-and-you’re-out rule. If I send you a referral, and the client calls me complaining that you won’t call back, you’re out. I’m never sending you a referral again.”
I have adopted a similar stance. If the client calls me complaining, the referred attorney has created more work for me and has made me look bad.
You can’t expect to receive high-quality referrals unless you provide a great client experience. If you screw up that experience, your referral sources will cross you off their referral list forever and your referral network will dry up quickly.
A Few More Tips on Building a Referral-Based Firm
- A niche will help. Everyone knows a lawyer. But not everyone remembers what kind of law that lawyer practices. Pick a lane and be super clear about what you do so your connections will know what cases to send your way. I only do criminal defense and force myself to decline everything else.
- Make yourself available. Make it easy for your referral sources to send referrals to you by removing obstacles. Find out what works for each source. Do they prefer email? Text? A phone call? You do not want to miss a high-quality referral because you’re hard to reach. Make yourself available and you’ll quickly build referral relationships.
- Be thankful. Always thank your referral sources. Be quick and sincere when showing your appreciation. I want my connections to know I appreciate it when they trust me enough to send me referrals.