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referral source development

Inside Job: Turning Clients into Referral Sources

A simple three-step habit can propel the growth of your law practice and elevate the quality of your client base

This article was written for the Winter 2013 issue of the ABA "Family Advocate," but the lessons it contains are applicable to all attorneys whose practice growth would be enhanced by referrals from existing clients.

Related article: "Finding Time to Market"

The star performer in a traveling circus broke his leg. The owner of the circus, desperate to replace him with an act that could draw a crowd, placed an ad in the local newspapers inviting would-be performers to an audition.

The try-out attracted the usual assortment of sword swallowers, acrobats, fire eaters, lion tamers, trapeze artists and human cannonballs. Some of them were talented enough but sought more compensation than the tight-fisted owner was willing to pay.

After the rejected applicants left the Big Top, an unremarkable-looking young man approached the owner.

“What can I do for you?” the owner asked.

“I’m here to audition,” the young man said.

When the owner asked, “What do you do?” the young man walked to the edge of the tent, began running across the ring while flapping his arms, and, to everyone’s amazement, took flight. For more than 20 minutes he soared around the inside of the tent, performing a variety of loops and rolls and occasionally buzzing the growing crowd of spectators. After a smooth landing, he walked over to the owner.

“That’s pretty good,” said the owner. “What do you charge?”

“Ten thousand dollars a show.”

“Ten grand!” exclaimed the owner. “For a bird imitation!?”

* * * * * * *

Okay, maybe you had to be there.

But wait: You have been there – at least metaphorically – if you have ever had a client who failed to grasp the value of what you accomplished on their behalf or the legal brilliance that was required to achieve that outcome.

For divorce attorneys, this scenario may be painfully familiar. You are leaving the courthouse, minutes after posterizing the opposing counsel and persuading the judge to give your client (let’s call her “Jennifer”) sole custody of the kids, spousal maintenance for life, both houses, no debt, all the good furniture, an inflated value of the family business – the whole truckload. As the two of you walk down the steps, you murmur, “I think that went pretty well,” and, instead of a thank-you, Jennifer comes back with, “I didn’t get the smoothie maker.”

You knew that you had soared, but at that moment Jennifer could see little more than bird imitations.

Fortunately for your practice growth, client satisfaction and adoration are not the primary stimuli for your clients in referring their friends to you. When a client gives your name to someone, they are not doing it primarily for your benefit; rather, they are doing it to help the person they are referring to you.

Back to Jennifer: A year or two have passed since her divorce was final. One afternoon, while she and her friend Camille are watching their sons’ baseball practice, Camille confides to Jennifer that she is thinking about filing for divorce. Without hesitating, and even though she is still working through the loss of the smoothie maker, Jennifer tells Camille to call you.

But why, you ask, would Jennifer recommend me when she seemed so unappreciative of my genius?

I can answer with this political axiom: In a race for public office, the candidate with the best name ID usually wins, unless he or she has high negatives.

In this case, Camille had a need, and Jennifer wanted to help Camille satisfy that need. In Jennifer’s mind you were the candidate with the highest name ID, and you didn’t have high negatives, so you earned Jennifer’s recommendation.

Referral DNA

The Jennifer scenario helps explain referrals from clients who you thought didn’t like you. But how do you explain clients who absolutely love you, who should be founts of new business, but never send you a soul?

To some degree, that phenomenon is explained by the “Law of the Few.” Malcolm Gladwell introduced it in his best-seller, The Tipping Point, which is about social epidemics and what causes them to spread. The term “social epidemic” refers to the process by which a thing – a company, product, rock band, figure of speech, etc. – gains widespread familiarity, seemingly overnight. Yesterday you heard of it for the first time, and today you heard about it 32 times.

The Law of the Few provides that social epidemics are spread by three types of people: Connectors (people who know and keep in touch with lots of people), Mavens (people who know a lot about something and use that knowledge to influence others) and Salesmen (people who are just plain persuasive).

You can apply the Law of the Few to your favorite would-be social epidemic: the growth of your practice. A client or other acquaintance who (a) is a Connector, Maven or Salesman and (b) thinks of you in net positive terms tends to be a high-efficacy candidate for recommending you to others. They are serial endorsers – of attorneys, doctors, bars, grills, grocery stores, clothing stores, movies, songs, sayings, websites, camp sites – simply because their wiring makes them do it. To send you a client, they don’t have to love you; they just need to think of you when someone in their sphere of influence needs what you do.

Conversely, the Law of the Few holds that even a client who truly appreciates what you have done for them and has promised to sing your praises to all of their matrimonially challenged friends – but does not possess the traits of a Connector, Maven or Salesman – is less likely to be a source of new business. Their noble intentions and sincere oaths aside, the ability to send you clients is simply not part of their DNA.

So where, you might wonder, does that leave you? Is getting referrals from clients so serendipitous, so much a function of who they are and how they interact with people, that you are largely powerless to influence the process? Not at all.

The Law of the Few is not absolute or all-encompassing, and in its gaps resides a huge opportunity for practice growth. While it is true that some of your clients are going to send you prospects no matter what, and other clients will never send you a prospect no matter what, that leaves a large group in the middle – clients who are “on the bubble” and will recommend you if certain conditions are met. Fulfilling those conditions is largely within your power.

“Bubble” clients can become referral sources if any of the following apply:

  • You do a good job for them (as they define it).

  • You earn their trust.

  • You keep in touch with them in a way that adds value to them.

  • They understand that your practice grows via personal referral.

  • They can visualize themselves recommending you to someone.

  • You are intentional about cultivating them as referral sources.

While each of the above conditions merits a minor treatise, the balance of this article will focus on the last one.

In preparing clients to become referral sources, be alert to at least three critical steps in your client interaction: two that occur during the initial consultation, and the third that occurs at some later point, after you have decided whether you really want that client to send you a prospect. After becoming part of your routine, the right words spoken at each step can radically reshape (for the better) the makeup of your client base, your profitability, and your enjoyment in practicing law.

Step One: Acknowledge the Referral Source

Anecdotal evidence stemming from some of my marketing consultations with divorce attorneys over the years might lead one to assume that the first meeting with a prospective client goes something like this:

You sit down with the prospective client and ask them what you can do for them. This triggers an extended and animated telling of their tales of woe, accompanied by their rubbing gravel in their hair, tearing their clothing and emptying your Kleenex box. When you think you have a grip on their situation, you respond with a salvo of applicable legal theories, statutes, dicta, and potential strategies. Then you sign them up, thank them for coming in, and head for the coffee machine.

Getting right to the heart of the matter might seem like the logical thing to do, but it leaves out at least one critical step in the process of turning a new client into a referral source: talking about the person who referred them to you. Neglecting that step is one of the costliest marketing errors that many attorneys routinely commit, and the sooner you strengthen that part of your routine, the sooner you will achieve an upward spike in your practice growth.

At this stage of your relationship with the prospect, the connection between the two of you might be pretty tenuous. Strengthening that connection should be a priority, and making use of the one thing that you and the prospect might have in common (i.e., the referral source) is a good way to start. At the same time, you will start planting Referral Seeds in the mind of your prospect.

Here is how I would script and choreograph your initial meeting with a prospective client (“Dale”), starting immediately after you greet him and ask him to have a seat:

You: “Dale, before we start talking about your legal issues, let me ask you this: Who do I need to thank for recommending me to you?” (This is Referral Seed #1. Ask this question even if you know who referred them. You’re not just seeking information; you’re also looking for common ground.)

Dale: “I was given your name by Skip Becker.” (Skip is a former client, and Dale is the second person he has referred to you.)

You (smiling): “Oh, Skip is really a good guy. How do you know him?”

Dale: “We play poker a couple of times a month.”

You: “How long have you known him?”

Dale: “We’ve been friends since college.” (Here you have the option of asking him where he went to college, but that could be a rabbit trail. Let’s stay focused on Skip.)

You: “What do you like about him?”

Dale: “Well, he’s just a really good guy. When I need advice on something, he’s usually one of the people I talk to.”

You: “I can see why you would do that. Tell me, how did Skip describe me to you?” (This is an important question. You want to know what your referral sources are saying about you, for at least two reasons: First, you want to be sure that Dale has the right idea about who you are and what you do; second, if Skip is describing you or your practice in ways that aren’t quite on target, knowing that gives you the opportunity to gently straighten him out.)

Dale: “Well, he told me that you were his attorney when he got divorced and that you treated him right and got a pretty decent result.”

You: “That’s good to hear. I’ve enjoyed knowing Skip, and I’m glad he was pleased with what we did for him. I found him to be a high-integrity guy, he kept his cool, and he let me do what I needed to do to represent him properly. He’s also been a real supporter of our practice … I think you’re the second person he’s referred to us.” (This is Referral Seed #2. It’s also a subtle message to Dale that you expect him, like Skip, to have integrity, keep his cool, and let you do your job.)

You: “I’m glad we made the connection about Skip. You definitely associate with good people. Now, what brought you here today?” (If Dale doesn’t hire you, something is very wrong.)

Step Two: Describe Your Practice

Another way to help your clients become referral sources is to ensure that they know and can remember your practice areas. If all you do is family law, and the client came to you for a divorce, remembering that shouldn’t be much of a challenge. But most family lawyers with whom I am familiar have a broader array of practice areas, and your clients should be able to recite them to their friends.

Let’s return to our initial consultation with Dale. You have had a good meeting, he has decided to hire you, and you’re wrapping things up. He is about to turn toward the door, when you say, “Dale, do you have two more minutes? There’s something else I want to tell you.”

Dale: “Sure. What’s that?” (You now have his permission to tell him anything you want.)

You: “First of all, I’m very pleased that you chose me to represent you in your divorce, and I look forward to helping you. The other thing I want to tell you is that my practice isn’t limited to family law. I also represent clients in (fill in the blank: bankruptcy, DUI, personal injury, criminal defense, etc.). I’m telling you this because one of these days someone who trusts you is going to mention a need for legal help in one of those areas, and I want you to know that it’s okay for you to recommend me for that kind of work, too.” (Referral Seed #3.)

Dale: “Oh. Okay.”

Fast forward to next Wednesday’s poker game with Dale, Skip and their buddies. During a break in the action, Kenny starts grousing about a legal problem that is in your sweet spot.

Dale, fresh from his orientation to your total practice package, leaps to his friend’s aid. “Hey, talk to my guy/gal (your name); he/she does that kind of work.” Dale texts your name and number to Kenny while they’re at the poker table, and you’re on your way to opening the Kenny file.

Step Three: Clone Your Best Clients

To appreciate the elegance of the final step in our saga, consider the Pareto Principle. Named for an obscure Italian economist, the principle holds that, in a given situation, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Thus, the Pareto Principle is commonly known as the “80-20 rule.”

For a vivid application of the 80-20 rule, look no further than your client base, where you will quickly find that 80% of your collection problems, complaints and other headaches come from the least desirable 20% of your clients.

It’s hard to build a good family law practice on bad clients. They make life miserable for you and your staff. They whine about everything, especially your bills. They suck time and energy from you that you could be devoting to your good clients. If a bad client makes a referral, the client they send you will be bad, too. And as other family lawyers increasingly associate you with unhinged, incoherent ne’er-do-wells, they will assume that is your target market and oblige you by sending you more just like them.

In contrast, a good client displays some combination of these desirable qualities: honesty, relative emotional stability, obedience, responsiveness, appreciation of good legal work, financial responsibility, and the ability to resist making shrill, unearthly noises when things don’t go their way.

Fantasize for a few moments about what a delight the practice of law would be if you could give a lot more of your attention to good clients. That is what Step 3 is intended to do, by opening a wider door for referrals from the clients you like best.

One morning you look at the afternoon calendar and see that Dale has an appointment. In the six weeks since you opened Dale’s file, he has impressed you with having many of the qualities that you attributed to his friend and referral source, Skip. In fact, he’s a Skip clone. So you decide to create a Dale clone.

As your meeting with Dale is drawing to a close, you initiate Step 3.

You: “Dale, before you go, do you have one more minute? There’s something I’ve been wanting to tell you.”

Dale: “Sure. Whatta you got?” (Good grammar is not a “good client” prerequisite.)

You: “I just wanted to tell you how glad I am to be your lawyer.” (Now tell him why.) “You’re a solid, level-headed guy, you’re good to work with, and I wish I had more clients like you. (Pause for the Aw, shucks.)

“As I think back on my years of practice and the hundreds of clients who have recommended me to their friends and family (Referral Seed #4), it’s been my experience that my best clients come from my best clients (Referral Seed #5). One of these days someone you know is going to tell you about a legal need they have, and they’re going to count on you for some direction (Referral Seed #6). I’m a pretty busy lawyer, but I want you to know that I will never be too busy to help someone you care about (Referral Seed #7).

“I try to do my best for all of my clients, but I just can’t resist giving a little extra for the clients I appreciate the most. When you tell one of your friends to call me, be sure that they let me know that you’re the one who referred them, so I’ll know to give them the ‘Dale treatment’” (Referral Seed #8).


One of the reasons that attorneys don’t talk to their clients about referring their friends is the fear that they will be perceived as needy, unsuccessful or desperate, or that clients will feel uncomfortable in being asked.

The three steps described above are structured to let you bypass that whole “sales” thing, replacing it with brief, positive, posture-preserving conversations that gently condition your clients to see their role in the referral process:

  • First, at the beginning of your initial meeting, you strengthen your budding relationship by edifying the person who referred them and using that exchange to create common ground and plant a seed of referral awareness.

  • Second, at the end of that meeting, you help them understand all of the services you offer and equip them to communicate that message to people who need you.

  • Third and finally, after you have found them to be a good client whom you would like to clone, you tell them why they are a good client, and you commit to going the extra mile for anyone who identifies them as their friend.

In case you hadn’t noticed, not once in this process do you ask for a referral. You simply give them permission to recommend you, and then tell them how to do it properly. Put together, you have a three-step habit that can propel the growth of your family law practice and elevate the quality of your client base.

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