The Importance of In-Person Networking and Referrals

Jared CorreiaIn his 2003 book, “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis recounted how the Oakland Athletics baseball team found players that were undervalued by the market, and won with them.  There’s a marketing lesson here for attorneys, said Jared Correia in his recent ElderLawAnswers webinar on “The Importance of In-Person Networking and Referrals.” 

Correia, who is the Assistant Director and Senior Law Practice Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program, said that with most of the world moving to online marketing, there is less competition for old-fashioned offline marketing.  This doesn’t mean that lawyers should abandon online marketing, but it does mean that there are opportunities to be had in pursuing the traditional offline marketing goals of networking and building referrals.  Correia noted that TV, radio, and newspaper ads are cheaper than they’ve ever been, and that word of mouth – the mainstay of firms for years – is still crucial for any firm. Online marketing should not be ignored, but it is “most valuable when it works in conjunction with your offline marketing platform,” Correia said.

Several Different Referral Pipelines

The most successful firms are 70 to 90 percent referral-based, Correia contended.  Referral marketing means that you’re getting someone to say “use this lawyer.”  If you can get someone else to recommend a client to you, he said, “that’s tremendously valuable. You’re sitting in the office, billing clients while this is happening.”    

To get referrals, you need to develop relationships with people who are in a position to recommend you.  There are several different possible referral pipelines, and you need more than one in case one dries up.  Referrals may come from fellow attorneys who work in a complementary practice area, from attorneys who work in the same practice area as you, or from non-lawyer professionals – financial advisors, real estate agents, social workers, etc.

For referrals from attorneys in complementary practice, think about practice areas that are going to generate referrals for a firm like yours, and try to affiliate with those attorneys.  Correia said one obvious example for an estate planning attorney is to know some divorce attorneys because if somebody is going to get divorced, they should redo their estate plan.

Even if you’re in the same practice area, maybe you have a different niche, or work with clients in a different income bracket or in a different county or city.  Maybe you have a flat-fee practice in an area where people charge an hourly rate. Just make sure you don’t overstep direct solicitation rules, he cautioned, and don't forget to refer back when appropriate as well. 

The problem with relying on lawyers to provide referrals is that they can always resort to the “nuclear option” -- they can take that referral for themselves.  Non-lawyer professionals can’t do this -- they don’t have a legal degree.  So one of the best reasons to focus on non-lawyer referrals is that those non-lawyers can never take the case back from you.  They’ve got to give it to somebody.  Why shouldn’t it be you?  

Where to Meet Potential Referral Sources

Correia said lawyers are good at meeting lawyers – they know where they hang out.  Less so non-lawyers.   He offered a number of suggestions: civic groups like a Rotary Club or Chamber of Commerce, or a networking group like BNI.  He suggested as a way to search your locality for niche groups you otherwise might not discover. 

Once you’re in a group and meeting people, you need to have something distinctive to sell.  Correia said the key is to create a legal niche and market it successfully.  “If you’re a general practitioner, you can’t claim to know what you’re doing in any particular practice area,” he observed.  Think about categories that aren’t being covered by the general population of lawyers, niches within practice areas.  You could have two or three niche areas.  He gave some examples: student loan lawyers, fashion lawyers, and medical marijuana practices (depending on your state’s laws).  There are even lawyers for live action role players, called “larpers,” people who dress as medieval knights and hit each other with tinfoil swords.  What you need is to create what are called “unique selling propositions.”

When you have the niche, you need to hone an effective 30-second elevator pitch about what you do.  No one really decides to hire a lawyer in half a minute, but an effective pitch will lead to further conversations with that person.  “It’s a big icebreaker,” he said.  Correia recalled that the pithiest and most effective elevator speech he ever heard came from a divorce attorney: “I render asunder.”  In addition to the pitch, you should be able to anticipate responses and objections that people will have to the pitch and think about how you might respond to or overcome them.  

Correia stressed that every elevator pitch should include a call to action – a way to take the next step and have that person take that step with you.  You want to be able to say, ‘Let’s do X from here. I’ll send you an email.  Can I have your business card?  I’ll give you a call sometime.  Hey, let’s do lunch.’ 

Measure Your Results

A key component of networking is measuring your results, something most attorneys don’t do, Correia said.  If you’re billing out at $250 an hour and you spend two hours in the middle of day networking, that’s two hours you could have spent billing, so you’re paying $500 for the privilege of networking.  Are you getting a return on your investment?  You can only find out by keeping track of what you do and how it is paying off.

Correia said lawyers love to write, but you don’t need to author “War and Peace” to set yourself a few clear networking goals.  You could set a goal, for example, of attending four marketing events at a local bar association by the end of the quarter.  Did you achieve that goal?  How much time did you spend on it, and how many clients did it generate?  But don’t give up too early; Correia said it can take three to five years before you know whether or not a marketing plan is taking off.   

Toward the end of the webinar, a participant asked Correia how attorneys can deal with the growing phenomenon of do-it-yourself documents from companies like LegalZoom and RocketLawyer. Correia said that in response, lawyers are starting to work with branded networks that pass clients along to them.  The networks settle on a fee, of which the lawyer will get a portion.  He also suggested charging less in your practice area, figuring out things you can do that non-lawyers can’t, or shifting practice areas. 

Correia’s webinar is part of an ongoing series of webinars titled “The Elder Law Marketing Funnel.”  For more information about the funnel and upcoming and past webinars, click here

To view Correia’s hour-long webinar, click here.  To read his “Attorney at Work” blog, click here.