Stepping It Up

Volume 38 Number 1

By

About the Author

Laura A. Calloway is Director of the Alabama State Bar’s Practice Management assistance Program, a Past Chair of ABA TECHSHOW and a member of the ABA LPM Section Council.

We’ve all been in the situation. You’re having lunch or dinner with several colleagues and as you’re talking, you notice that there’s one person who has something stuck between two teeth. It’s spinach or a peppercorn, and every time she talks or smiles it’s so obvious to everyone else at the table, yet she is just as obviously unaware of it.

So, what do you do? Do you speak up, giving her an opportunity to excuse herself to go fix the problem, while potentially causing a great deal of embarrass- ment for having pointed it out? Or do you just keep your mouth shut (literally and figuratively), hoping that the meal will end, and that you’re not experienc- ing the same problem yourself, taking the first opportunity to head to the rest room to make sure? The etiquette books make it pretty clear that you should keep your observations to yourself. But, if it were you, wouldn’t you want to be told?

This problem of the embarrassing social or other lapse—and how you would want it to be handled if you were the one in the situation—has more in common with the practice of law than you might think, particularly if your practice relies heavily on receiving client referrals from existing clients or other lawyers.

More than 10 years ago, in an article entitled “Build Your Practice by Nurturing Your Clients and Referral Sources” in the April 1999 issue of this magazine, Mark Powers, President of Atticus, a practice management education and training organization for attorneys, reported that “70% of attorneys are unhappy with their current referral sources. They have given up on referring to other attorneys or are tolerating their current referral network until some- thing better comes along.”

While Powers didn’t cite any authority for this percentage, my then-recent experience in private practice made the statement resonate with me, and nothing that I’ve seen in almost 15 years of working with lawyers as a practice management advisor has made me think that things have changed very much.

Most of us just sit back, keep our mouths shut like the diner in my example above, take no positive action to change our situations and hope that others will have cause to refer work to us, no matter how well or how poorly we handle it. I trust Powers’ intuition on this, and you probably do, too.

So, if you’re one of the 70% of lawyers who’s not satisfied with your referral sources, what can you do to improve the situation? Here are the simple steps.

So, if you’re one of the 70% of lawyers who’s not satisfied with your referral sources, what can you do to improve the situation? Here are the simple steps.

Decide What You Want
By this, I mean that you should think critically about the type of practice you have now, what unmet legal needs exist in your community and what you might be able to do to meet those needs. Set a limit on the number of practice areas your practice will cover. It’s much better to be a master of a few trades than a Jack of all. Then, establish written criteria for the cases that you will take. This will help you to easily spot cases that don’t fit within your plan and help you to stay firm in your resolve to stick with that plan. Knowing exactly what you are looking for will make the case review and intake process easier, and will also help you to streamline and automate the way you handle these new cases once you sign them up, allowing you to build practice efficiencies.

Tell Other People Who Can Help You
Once you’ve decided what types of new business you’re looking to attract, you will need to network with others to seek their help. Your friends and colleagues can’t send you referrals if they don’t know that you want them or don’t know what type of referrals you’d like to receive.

Think strategically about who you know that might be in contact with your target clients—especially those lawyers you might be able to repay by making referrals in turn—and arrange to spend time with them in a comfortable setting. Educate these potential referral sources about the type of practice you’re trying to build and how they can help, and brainstorm about how you might be able to help each other. You may often be surprised to find that your fellow lawyers, who don’t practice the same type of law you do, often have no idea where to send clients that they can’t help. Seek out other solos and small firms with different practice niches until you’ve created a network that enables you to be more of a full service legal provider. 

Say “Thank You”
Here in the South, the handwritten thank-you note, while maybe not as common as the common sparrow, is hardly an endangered species. If someone does something nice for you, the right thing is to let them know that you appreciated it—especially if you’d like for them to keep doing it! Whether the custom in your area is handwritten notes, treating at lunch every so often or sending a small gift during the holidays, take it to the next level and let those who refer good cases to you know just how thankful you are for their thoughtfulness. Expressing your true appreciation helps build personal relationships and encourages the objects of your gratitude to continue to do nice things for you. We all should have learned this as children, but in the rush of the modern law practice we sometimes forget.

Ask How You Did
Finally, you need to keep up with where your clients come from. This is important in letting you know who your good business sources are, facilitating your ability to thank them, and also helping you regularly follow up on all referred cases. Monitoring feedback from your referral sources is the best way to make sure referrals keep coming.

Few of us like to be judged, and no one ever volunteered to receive periodic report cards, but it’s important to contact your referral sources from time to time to make sure they are happy with the way referrals are being handled. Like the diners described above, referral sources will seldom risk mutual embarrassment in order to tell you something you need to know: that they were dissatisfied with the way you handled a referred matter.

When contacting your referral sources, ask specifically whether the referred client reported being happy with the referral, and whether the referring lawyer was happy with the length of time it took you to see the client, the fee charged and the frequency with which you reported on the status of the case. Take any criticism you receive with good grace, and offer ways to improve the situation. If you can build confidence in your referral sources that your goal is to continuously improve the way you handle the cases they refer, you will be the first lawyer they will think of when the time comes to refer a client.

Build personal relationships and encourages the objects of your gratitude to continue to do nice things for you. We all should have learned this as children, but in the rush of the modern law practice we sometimes forget.

No one really likes to have their flaws pointed out, but when it comes to referral sources, finding out about that unsightly peppercorn sooner rather than later can be a great thing.

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