Building relationships with potential referral sources is an important part of building your law practice. But given the huge range of possibilities about who you can spend your time with, where do you begin?
The starting point of course is deciding who you identify as your ideal client. Once you have established this, your next step is to identify who are the referral sources who work with these same clients. These can be other professionals who provide different services to the same clientele; they can also be other lawyers who are billing at a different rate and need a lower-cost alternative to refer work to when prospective clients cannot afford their fee.
Beyond this, how do you spend your time efficiently and focus on good “potential referral sources”. The following is a four step process for making that determination:
1. While your referral source may serve some of the same clients that you would like to serve, is that referral source well-connected to that clientele? Does that individual seem like someone who is interested in relationship building and do they seem well connected to those clients?
2. Is the individual the type of professional who likes to connect professionals with each other? In other words, is the person a connector who has a helpful personality and who will go out of his or her way to try to make connections on your behalf? (This certainly does not describe many professionals you may encounter, not because professionals are antisocial; rather, because being a good connector is a skill in and of itself – so look for the bright spots.)
3. Is the individual someone you like and someone that you feel you can relate to? Don’t underestimate the value of spending your time with people who you like and whose company you enjoy. If you focus on this group, you will be much more motivated to spend time with them, and you are much more likely to make connections that will result in referrals.
4. Does the individual have any shared interests? This of course is related to item number three. If you both happen to enjoy baseball, then not only will you have more to discuss, but you may have an activity that you can spend time doing together. In contrast if you think you have a good referral source but you have nothing in common with that individual and you don’t particularly care for their company, it will be very difficult to form a relationship with that individual.
While this may all seem like common sense, it is easy to fall into the trap of chasing individuals with whom you have little in common and whom you do not care for. We have all met charismatic individuals who seem to be the key to our future success. While these individuals may be seemingly well-connected to the clientele that you want to serve, the barrier of trying to build relationships with these individuals is likely to be high. So aim for your ‘best’ prospects when putting together your list of potential contacts
Instead you are much better off trying to spend time with people that you do like and with individuals who share your interests. This is the foundation that relationships are built on this is the kind of trust you need in order to generate referrals.
I was speaking to one of my clients the other day and he described for me what he does any time he makes a court appearance. At the end of the day, he goes back to his office and takes a few minutes to document what happened. He has a longstanding practice of doing this and he always tries to do it the same days so that his memory is fresh. In effect, he has created a habit which ensures that he does not have to rely on his memory to keep track of his cases.
Many lawyers do this as a matter of course. In fact it is good practice whether you are a litigator or a transactional lawyer to generate file memos that are written after you have met with a client or interviewed someone on behalf of a client. As lawyers, we are very good at documenting in our case work.
But when it comes to networking meetings, we forget to use the skills we use all the time in practicing law. We do not prepare in the same way. I wrote about this after the blizzard in February. And we do not take the time to document our activities (and calendar next steps).
This litigation client of mine has begun incorporating his regular business practices into his marketing activities. After each networking meeting, he makes sure to write down notes about the conversation (including both personal and professional things he learned from the individual). I am also encouraging him to “docket” a next step with that individual (if he deems the individual to be a potential referral source or client).
No one likes to take time to do this. Tracking time, documenting what you have done and making a point of deciding on next steps before the day ends is all cumbersome. But when it comes to relationship building, documenting is an invaluable activity that can help you greatly as you cultivate relationships over time.
Posted by Stephen Seckler
Technology has been a great equalizer for small law firms and other professional services businesses. There are an ever-increasing array of tools to help you with your practice management, marketing and casework. In fact figuring out how to incorporate technology effectively into your practice is really an imperative in 2013. The ABA is even adopting new model rules that are “coming soon to a state near you”.
Integrating new technology into your practice needs to be balanced against the need to do client work and marketing. With technology, it is easy to go overboard reinventing yourself. So I always appreciate it when I get a good technology recommendation from someone I trust. Rather than trying everything out and getting nothing else done, I rely on my network to point me in the right direction when it comes to technology.
One of my latest additions to my technology bag of tricks is called Formstack (www.formstack.com). Formstack is a very inexpensive web-based service that enables you to create an endless variety of form documents. These are forms you can use to collect data from your clients, your employees, or just about anyone on just about any topic. You can use it as a client intake tool. Using Formstack, you can create a client satisfaction survey. You can set up a form to screen potential cases.
Formstack is simple to use, easy to learn and very flexible. It also integrates well with Constant Contact, PayPal and a number of other online tools which you may already be using.
One of the nice things about Formstack is that you can create the form and then “embed” the page on your website so that it has the same look and feel of your website and it uses your website’s domain name.
There are many marketing applications for Formstack. With little effort, you can create your own audit tool to get your foot in the door and begin a conversation with a prospective client.
Of course like any technology, there will be a learning curve. Do not expect to be able to use the tool without investing some time and effort. But Formstack is one of the easier tools to learn and a tool that I hope to use for at least six months or until the next great form creation tool is invented (whichever comes first).
Posted by Stephen Seckler
Offering free consultations is a good way to get a conversation started with potential clients. This is particularly true early in your career when you do not have a long track record of trusted relationships who can refer work to you. When you are a young professional, you need to find ways to build trust and one way to do that is to show potential clients in some limited way what it would be like to work with you.
But free consultations work best when you set limits on your time. If you get in the habit of spending too much time giving free consultations, you may find that you are giving to way too much of your time, and you may also discover that the individuals who are most eager to use your time without paying for it are least likely to become paying clients.
The paradox is that by giving away too much of your time, you devalue your own worth. Setting some limit on the amount of time that you give in your free consultations is a way to send a signal that your time is valuable. So tell a prospect that you are happy to give a free 30 to 60 minute consultation (depending on the nature of your practice-closer to 30 minutes if you do high volume legal work).
You will use up valuable time that could be spent cultivating relationships with referral sources. In other words the opportunity cost is that you may be missing the chance to get a better mix of referrals of the types of clients that you really want to serve (and who are actually willing to pay for your services).
The ability to set these kinds of limits comes with experience. As your confidence as an attorney grows, you will value your own time in a way that you might not when you’re just starting out. But by being aware of any tendency you might have to give away too much free time early in your career, will keep you on the lookout for people who really have no intention of paying you for your services; i.e. individuals who are really just looking for free advice.
Posted by Stephen Seckler
For over 15 years, I have been coaching individual lawyers and other professionals on how to be more successful in generating business. Now, for the first time, I am offering Group Coaching with SLC Jumpstart to small interdisciplinary groups of up to 5 professionals.
One of the key things that you do as a lawyer is to help your clients sleep better at night. You identify legal risks and work with your clients to manage these risks. In doing so, you enable your clients to focus more of their mental energy on their businesses and less on worrying about what might go wrong.
Lawyers also need help in running their law practices. But unlike people who run other types of businesses, lawyers are not very good at asking for help. (“I’m smart. I should be able to figure this out myself.”)
In the complex world that we now live in, failing to get help can be a crucial mistake. As a lawyer, all you have to sell is your time. Do you want to spend your time doing client work and cultivating relationships that can lead to higher value client work? Or would you like to spend hours solving your computer problems, doing your own bookkeeping and preparing your own tax returns.
If you are just starting in practice, paying for help may not be feasible. Until you have generated some cash flow and until you are busy with client work, it may make sense to try a “do-it-yourself” approach for a while. But if that is the case, you can still tap into some of resources that are available to you at little or no cost. In doing so, you won’t spend hours reinventing the wheel.
One source of free help is other lawyers who have been in practice for a while. There are many attorneys who remember what it was like to be starting out. Find someone who is willing to meet with you to discuss how to organize your practice. Find out what technology they use and how they do their billing.
A great resource is Massachusetts LOMAP (Law Office Management Assistance Program), an agency supported by your bar dues. LOMAP provides free technical support to lawyers in the areas of law office management and technology. They will work with any lawyer in Massachusetts and they do a great job.
As your law practice (and your cash flow) continues to grow, make sure that you hire professionals who can help YOU sleep better at night. Hire an accountant and bookkeeper to worry about the books. Get a technology consultant who can work on your firm’s network while you spend time on legal work and marketing.
If you are spinning your wheels about where to focus your marketing energies, consider hiring a marketing coach. A good coach is a sounding board and provides guidance and encouragement to ensure that over time, you are doing the “right” things to help you elevate your reputation and build your referral relationships (and ultimately generate the work you want).
Initially, bringing in help may cause your cash flow to decrease. But hiring consultants is an investment in yourself and in your business. Getting help means giving yourself the time to produce higher quality work and to focus on building your business. You also get the benefit of learning how to run a more efficient and professional practice.
The great American myth is that people who are successful are self made. In truth, behind every successful politician, entrepreneur, athlete, performer or professional services provider is an army of support. So don’t be afraid to get help yourself. It will do wonders for your practice.
Posted by Stephen Seckler
The foundation of a strong law practice is a strong referral network. Even your best clients probably don’t need you all the time. This is particularly true for litigators. But what is a strong referral network and how do you build it?
Fundamentally, a good referral network starts with a focused marketing message. It is difficult to generate referrals if you do not have a clear idea of who you want to serve and what services you want to provide. (Who are you, who do you do, who do you serve, what have you done and how do you differentiate yourself from other lawyers?)
Having a well defined niche is important because it helps you communicate what you do in a way that is memorable (so that it is easy for happy clients and other professionals to pass your name along at the right moment). Having a niche also helps you think more strategically about who you might want to cultivate (e.g. other service providers who serve the same clients).
Beyond this, understand that not all referral sources are created equal. Some individuals are more apt to make referrals by nature. Look for the people in your network who are always trying to be helpful and have the ability to think outwardly (and don’t forget to be someone who is always on the lookout to make your own referrals).
The other day, I was playing squash with a retired doctor who happens to be the “helping type”. We play pretty regularly and have lots to talk about. But on this particular day, he started asking me questions about what I do. I told him that I consult with lawyers and other professionals on marketing and he immediately began telling me about some of his family members who he thought could use my services. He volunteered to introduce me and I graciously accepted. While this has not yet turned into an engagement, I did end up speaking to one of his relatives who may hire me to coach his daughter. The key here is that my squash partner wanted to help and was able to introduce me to a potential client.
It helps to identify happy clients who are willing to make referrals. When I conduct client interviews for law firms that have institutional clients, I ask the question, “What is the likelihood that you would refer Smith and Smith’s services to someone else?” If the answer is a 9 or 10, then I know this is an individual that the firm should further cultivate.
If a lot of your clients are individuals (or unlikely to use your services more than once), send them a survey at the end of your engagement. Ask them how happy they were with the services you provided and on a scale of one to ten, how likely are they to refer your services to someone else. If anyone gives you a 9 or a 10, see if they would be willing to write a testimonial for your website or mention your name to others.
Blizzard of 2013 is a good reminder of the importance of being prepared. Things would have been much worse here in Massachusetts, if the Governor had not queued up all the necessary road clearing resources and banned all cars from the road so that the cleanup work could be done.
While a networking meeting is not a blizzard, going unprepared to meet a potential client or referral source is a missed opportunity. The best rainmakers know this. It doesn’t have to take long; but it is not a step you should skip. Click here to read more.
Storytelling is key to selling professional services. And you don’t have to be a great story teller. If you take the time to come up with a few anecdotes that illustrate what you do, you are more likely to be memorable. Our brains are wired for stories. If a story is “good”, it will illustrate to the potential client or referral source, that you can handle the kind of problem they have or are likely to encounter.
In deciding how to market your services, remember that less is more. Understand that having a niche will make you more memorable. It will help you differentiate yourself from other lawyers. If you are known for doing a certain kind of work, you are much more likely to get referrals.
Being known for something does not preclude you from taking other kinds of work if it happens to come your way. But take the time to define your ideal client and build all of your messaging around that niche.
The diagram below illustrates the concept of focused marketing. Talk about the clients you serve in the red circle. Accept matters that are in the brown circle; but do not invest marketing time and energy into trying to get that work. Finally, make sure to reject or refer out work that falls into the green circle.