How Do Small Law Firms And Solo Practitioners Generate Referral Business?

By | February 8, 2016

law firm marketing,smalllaw

For business, particularly small business, earning referrals is typically a key component of a new business development strategy!

And in SmallLaw comprised of solo law practitioners and small law firms, this fact of business life is certainly no exception!

So for those who are working or possibly considering working in the SmallLaw arena, an article at AboveTheLaw that was written by guest author Gary J. Ross of the law firm Jackson Ross PLLC, offers some business referral tips that have worked for him.

Some are common sense and others are ideas that you may not have thought of but, either way, reinforcement is never a bad thing.

The SmallLaw Guide To Getting Referrals

…The clients I get through referrals tend to be — hmm… what’s the word? — oh yeah, awesome. They are much better than the people who randomly find my card in a coffee shop. They’ve been given a pretty good recommendation of me from either a client or another attorney, so they are very respectful and the onboarding process is much better. Not insignificantly, they are also less likely to try to negotiate on price. They’ve asked around and determined I’m the guy, so they’re not about to lose me over a few dollars and have to start the process over.

Okay, we can (hopefully) agree that referrals are a good thing. Now how to get ’em. In my two and a half years of running a SmallLaw practice, these are what I have found to be effective means for getting referrals.

Do good work. Though today I’m mainly going to talk about referrals from other lawyers, the very best referrals are from satisfied clients. When I ask for dentist referrals and someone tells me their person is the bomb, I’m probably going to use the person. Law is no different. In fact, many people discount non-client referrals. I have a person I recommend for family law matters, and I’m always getting asked if I personally have used her. (And the answer is no, because I’ve never needed a family law attorney.)

Bar Associations. Most lawyers find practice area-focused national (or even international) bar associations are the best bang-for-the-buck for referrals. If you’re the one guy from Peoria who routinely shows up at the biannual meetings, you’ll probably be the go-to person for any association member who needs to locate an attorney in Peoria. (Unless you develop a reputation for enjoying the hospitality suites a little too much.) Local bar associations are also good, though perhaps for those you want to develop contacts outside of your practice area. If I have someone local ask me if I know a good patent lawyer, I’m probably going to give her the name of someone I met at the city bar, whereas if someone needs a local securities law attorney, I’m not giving them any name but mine, no matter how many securities lawyers I’ve met at bar events.

Make sure everyone knows what you do. You won’t get on-target referrals unless folks know what you do (or what you want to do). A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column on attorneys using Facebook. One thing I left out is that if you’re an active Facebook user, it’s good to drop a comment every six months or so to subtly remind people what you do. “I had such a great time this morning down at the courthouse getting drunks out of jail,” or something like that.

Ask people to keep you in mind for referrals. If you don’t ask, people might not know. I’ve had current clients ask me, “Hey, are you accepting new clients? My friend needs an attorney and I was going to pass along your name but thought I should check with you first.” My first thought is always, “How could anyone think I’m not accepting new clients??” My second thought is always, “Because I never told her.” And in terms of referrals from lawyers, think of the following likely scenario. You go to a bar association dinner and meet 30 lawyers. Twenty of them give you a card, and you yourself give out 20 cards. You’re not alone, because everybody goes home with 20 cards. How many of the 20 follow up with you the next day? Maybe five. How many of those five say, “Great to meet you, let’s keep in touch,” or “Nice talking to you, have a great day”? Maybe three. Only a couple of people will say, “Hey, nice to meet you, please keep me in mind for any family law matters you may come across.” You don’t have to have a coffee with everyone you meet — there aren’t enough hours in the day for that. But it really does help to follow up with everyone, remind them of what you do, and then explicitly ask for referrals.

Do good work. I always think it’s kind of cheating when someone starts repeating items in a listicle, but this format can lead a reader to believe all of these points are of equal importance, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Doing good work for clients is the very best way to get more clients, and more work in general. People will take note, especially if they had other, less-stellar experiences with other attorneys. By the way, to the law firm clients out there, if a client has been good about referring people to me, I’m going to be much, much more likely to work with that client if they find themselves in a pickle and can’t pay my bill on time. Whereas if a person has never once referred a potential client to me, I’m probably going to tell him to sell a kidney.

Figure out which practice areas share your client base. I know several startup attorneys who make it a point to network with IP attorneys, figuring many entrepreneurs will see an IP attorney first to inquire about protecting their idea, and only then will they go about building a business around it. I often represent “angel” investors, which almost by definition are high-net-worth individuals. So for me, I would probably benefit from networking with trust and estates attorneys, who often handle estate planning for HNWIs. However, since that didn’t occur to me until about 30 seconds ago, this hasn’t been tested yet.

Be nice. Create a warm, fuzzy feeling for yourself in people’s hearts. Act happy to meet everyone, even if deep down inside you know you’re to the manor born and shouldn’t be fraternizing with these serfs. If I meet someone and say hi and the first thing out of their mouth is some kind of pejorative comment about my accent, I probably won’t even add them on LinkedIn — and I add everybody I meet on LinkedIn — much less keep them in mind for referrals. I might not go out of my way to prevent the person from getting work, but then again, I wouldn’t put it past me.

Refer out. If a fellow attorney has sent me work, I’m going to do all I can to make sure I return the favor, even if it’s a year later. My best referrals have come from attorneys that I sent work to previously. A lawyer will still get referrals if she just happens to be the right person. But a lawyer who never refers anyone out isn’t going to get near as many referrals coming in. (Another reason why you shouldn’t try to handle every matter that comes through the door.)

If a SmallLaw attorney is looking for a referral for a client, or to team up on a matter, unlike in Biglaw, he or she will typically not get inundated with referrals. So a lot of times if you get referred, you get it. I’ll get an email asking if I represent startup accelerators, I’ll say yes, and then 10 minutes later the email will come introducing a potential client to me. It’s a great thing, having your own practice. You build a network of other folks who are out there just like you are, trying to sustain a practice and make a living. The frequent referrals back and forth with your friends, helping each other out, is yet another reason SmallLaw is preferable to Biglaw…

Michael Haltman is President of Hallmark Abstract Service in New York. He can be reached at




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