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March 01, 2020 The Marketing Issue

Relationship Marketing

Cultivate Referrals with Legal Technology

Ryan M. Anderson

When we talk about the radical changes ahead for the legal industry, it’s often with a note of worry in our voices. Will AI replace junior lawyers? Will apps replace in-person legal service? And do I have to learn how blockchain works?

But whatever new tech upheavals come our way, we can feel confident about one fact: The core of legal services will always be relationships. 

The best legal tech companies already know this. “Legal service automation” might sound robotic, as though it’s replacing warm human relationships with a factory assembly line. But quality automation technologies have an opposite objective. They streamline workflows to help lawyers communicate and connect more effectively with their clients. They boost transparency and collaboration. And they improve the value of legal service to clients.

This emphasis isn’t unique to the legal field. It’s affecting all industries. Innovation expert Greg Satell has written that this moment of transformational change will increasingly reward networks. Success will be the “sum of all connections,” he explains, not simply the sum of all efficiencies.

Analogously, we sometimes fall into the habit of discussing legal marketing as though the goal is purely Google rankings. But true marketing success will always be measured in relationships of trust. How much do potential clients trust your expertise, commitment and dedication? Maximizing trust should be your ultimate marketing goal.

The need for relationship-centered marketing is particularly important for lawyers, who have never fully recovered from the recession-era tumble. The Georgetown Law 2019 Report on the State of the Legal Market shows we remain in a buyer’s market. This carries the imperative to please clients and quickly respond to their needs and demands.

The future belongs to the lawyers who focus both their marketing and their technology on the goal of building and strengthening relationships.

One of the best ways to do this is building referrals. 

Referrals remain the most underrated marketing tool for firm sustainability and growth. Even with all the dramatic changes the legal market has seen, many clients still rely on this very old technique to find their lawyers. According to a recent Moses & Rooth survey, 34.6 percent of clients find their attorneys through personal relationships. This is more than any other method—and double the second-place response (the internet).

And clients who come from referrals bring additional value. Looking at the standard client acquisition funnel, which depicts the journey from leads to clients, referrals enter “deeper down” the funnel. They often already hold some measure of familiarity with and trust of your work because lawyers have already been vetted, which shortens the time and effort required to bring them on board. And research has found that referrals generate higher profits, are more loyal and have a higher customer lifetime value.

Five Steps to More Referrals

1. Measure Current Rates of Client Satisfaction

Look at any law firm web page, and you’ll find a promise of stellar client service. When asked what makes them special, almost all attorneys include top-notch client service in their answers. But unless client satisfaction is measured, those are only empty words.

In 2015, the LexisNexis Bellwether Report found that 80 percent of lawyers said they were good at client service. But only 40 percent of clients said they received good service from their lawyers. Clearly there’s a disconnect somewhere.

There is one simple metric for client satisfaction: a Net Promoter Score, or NPS. Instead of making clients answer several questions about their experience, it only asks for one number: On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend this lawyer to a friend?

You divide responses into three groups: 9-10 are your Active Promoters, 7-8 are the Passives and 1-6 are your Detractors. When you find the percentage of respondents who fall in each of these groups, you subtract the Detractor percentage from the Active Promoter percentage. This number is your NPS.

The most recent research by ClearlyRated puts the average attorney NPS score at 29. While this number has improved over the past few years, it’s still about half the score of a company like Amazon. With your own numbers, you can see how you measure up to this benchmark—and whether your metrics back up the claims you make on your website. By watching how your NPS shifts over time, you’ll see the direct results of your efforts to improve client satisfaction.

2. Be Proactive with Communication

Once you know your NPS, what’s the best way to improve your score? Sometimes lawyers can become hyperfocused on results, assuming successfully resolving matters will best please their clients. But some research behind client dissatisfaction tells a different story. In one survey, over half of respondents said poor lawyer communication was the source of their dissatisfaction. At its extreme, poor communication is the most common error leading to malpractice claims.

Process and results aren’t an either/or choice: A good communication process is more likely to lead to results that satisfy clients. After all, you can’t assume you already know the result your client wants. That only comes from regular check-ins.

Where can you begin? An easy first step could be client portals. They’re offered by many case management systems, and they bring a sense of collaboration and transparency for many clients.

To take the next step, build an automated workflow that prioritizes communication. Created through your practice management software, automated workflows efficiently guide lawyers and staff through routine tasks. When one step is completed, the next is automatically assigned. More advanced platforms automatically pull information from the files to fill out all the details needed, so team members know exactly which phone numbers or addresses to use. Automation speeds up the legal process, reducing the amount of time clients have to wait.

In addition, you can build client communication directly into your automated workflow. One successful attorney created a workflow where staff members inform clients every time they touch the case. The staff member who completes the task is also instructed to text the client to update them (with the client phone number automatically included). With this frequent, proactive outreach, they’ve not only increased their client satisfaction—they’ve also seen a marked decrease in incoming calls from clients, which means fewer interruptions.

Other workflow communication-boosters include running regular reports for matters that haven’t progressed in the past month. Moving those forward where possible and checking in with those clients will ensure they aren’t feeling neglected.

Another way to ensure good communication with clients is to follow their communication preferences. If they like texting, make sure you have the ability to text to and from the case file. This allows rapid communication that’s both accessible and automatically archived.

You also want to make sure that any staff member speaking to the client is fully informed of the latest notes and developments. Centralized, comprehensive, cloud-based case files make this possible.

3. Provide the Best Value to Clients

Evolving client expectations are a major driver of law firm innovation. And right now those expectations often focus on speed and affordability. In a culture where clients can watch anything on demand and have any product delivered to their doorsteps in a day, they’re increasingly impatient with the extended timelines and large price tags of traditional legal services.

Legal technology holds the best promise of improving the value your clients receive from your work. Lawyers benefit from improved legal research and e-discovery, as well as from automatic document generation that creates personalized letters, emails and other documents with the click of a button.

At its most basic, case management software reduces the time wasted on duplicating data entry. More advanced options also offer tools like optical character recognition, which can populate fields with information from scanned documents like insurance cards or contracts. Efficient billing software ensures you’re spending time on billable work—not on recording and documenting your billable work.

And throughout, deadline chains and automated workflows can help you efficiently move through matters, instead of spending extra time determining priorities and next steps.

4. Ask for Referrals

After you’ve pleased clients with your transparent and efficient service, and a matter closes, ask them for referrals. Express how much you value working with clients like them, and ask if they know others who might also benefit from your service. You might emphasize your interest by offering free 30-minute consultations for anyone they refer to you. Though free consultations take time, the higher value of referred clients could make this a highly cost-effective marketing strategy.

Whatever you do, remember that when your clients refer others to you, they’re putting their own reputation on the line. You want to prove to them that they can continue referring their friends and colleagues your way. Go the extra mile for referred clients, and you can create a self-generating flow of high-quality incoming clients.

Again, technology can help. When a matter concludes, your case management software can move into another deadline chain to trigger follow-up steps. This can include requests for feedback and referrals, and sending thank you messages and tokens of appreciation. Automatic document generation can make this process both personable and effortless.

Running reports on your case files and using contract resource management software can also help you track where your referrals are coming from. Reports can also show you the revenue generated from referral sources. When you find your top referrers in terms of both number of referrals and the most profitable referrals, you can better focus your efforts on strengthening key relationships and reassuring them they’re doing the right thing by sending clients your way.

5. Build a Strong Public Reputation

A 2016 marketing survey found that 81.5 percent of professionals receive referrals from people who have never been clients. Referrals can come from a number of sources when you’ve built a strong public reputation and established your area of expertise.

Treat your reputation like your most precious source of revenue. A 2017 survey of general counsel found that 3 out of 4 choose corporate law firms based on the individual reputation of an attorney. That’s more than the 60.8 percent who care about the reputation of the law firm itself! Reputation was even considered more important than price by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Invest in creating social capital for yourself. This could be through pro bono legal work that supports a community you care about, volunteering on the board of a charity or nonprofit, or providing another public service. Another source of social capital grows from giving referrals to the colleagues you trust, as you nurture your networks of mentors and peers.

Think about your public story. Instead of repeating the same clichés about client care that you can find on any law firm web page, be specific about your story. What are the niches where you have particular expertise? What is the subcategory of clients you want to target? The specifics of your story will resonate much better than generic platitudes.

Finally, let your voice be heard. Find an outlet that fits your communication strengths and connects with potential clients or referrers. This could be teaching CLE classes for attorneys who might send business your way or providing a service for other professionals who commonly engage with your potential clients. Establish a blog or podcast, write articles or books, or connect with journalists who report on issues relevant to your area of expertise.


It may be too overwhelming to follow through on all these suggestions. But to increase referrals, every attorney could create one goal around each of these five categories. They could find one way to measure client satisfaction; one technique for better communication; one tool for improved efficiency; one way to follow up with former clients; and one method to improve and expand their public profile.

Ryan M. Anderson

Ryan M. Anderson is the founder and CEO of Filevine, a case management system for attorneys. Before starting Filevine, Ryan was a founding partner at Bighorn Law, a Western-states law firm focusing on personal injury, mass torts and employment class action. [email protected]