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Building a Network of Referrals

Every Saturday morning, five baby boomers including myself join together for a 4- to 5-mile run. We’re not fast, but we are committed and make it whenever we can. Four of us work in legal: one is a solo practitioner, two work in different mid-size firms and me (the token business development consultant). Bob, the fifth, is a very successful business executive. He is our sales guru.

referralTwo months ago, while on one of our runs, the topic of discounts arose. “Clients are constantly asking me for discounts,” moaned one of the lawyers.

The other lawyers quickly joined in the collective commiseration. Clients want discounts, they all agreed. Whether to impress the boss, protect the budget or simply because they can—clients expect discounts.

“What do you get in return?” Bob asked. Those of us in the law biz shared knowing glances. “We get to do the work,” the solo responded.

“That’s it?” responded Bob. “Aren’t you lawyers supposed to be good at negotiations? How is it that you can’t negotiate a decent fee arrangement with your clients?”

“What would you suggest we do, Bob?” I asked. “I would ask for referrals,” Bob responded. “It costs your client nothing. Presumably, since they’re your client, they would be comfortable making a referral. What do you have to lose?”

Silence ensued as we took in Bob’s suggestion. We told Bob that it didn’t really work that way. Competition for legal work is intense, and clients know they have the leverage to demand better prices. We explained how more and more matters are priced on fixed fees, capped fees and risk-sharing arrangements.

“Are you guys familiar with the rule of ‘gives and gets’?” Bob asked. “If your client wants a concession, he should be receptive to giving something in return. Simple negotiation, no?”

We had to admit the idea was intriguing, and we vowed to test it out when the right situations arose.

Most of us are flattered when asked to make an introduction, connecting individuals we admire. Indeed, for many firms, referrals can be responsible for upwards of 90% of all new work. And as our firms struggle with the pace of change in the legal industry, Bob’s remark reminded me that professional and personal relationships remain an important factor in many of the most important buying decisions our clients make. Leveraging those relationships by offering to make introductions as well as asking for introductions in return—the give and get—can be a positive experience for all concerned.

Of course, in order for the experience to be positive and worthwhile, lawyers need to understand when and how to ask for referrals as well as when and how to make referrals for their clients. The skill of making and asking for referrals can and should be incorporated into your business development training. So ask around and learn if your lawyers understand and utilize “give and get.” When employed successfully, this approach to referrals not only offers your lawyers the potential to receive something of real value in return for a discount but also serves to strengthen connections with clients and build what clients will view as true partnerships.

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