Driving Business Development

Using Referrals, or, the Power of the Indirect Approach

IDENTIFYING KEY CLIENT targets and developing strategies to actively pursue them tends to form a part of every lawyer’s business development plan, and many lawyers spend all of their marketing time and resources focusing on potential clients.

The pursuit of specific targets is a good approach when it’s possible to determine who offers high potential in sending you new work. Although many lawyers have a tendency to focus on targeting potential clients and then pursuing them directly, the reality is that acquiring work through referrals is the most powerful and effective way to build a practice.

The Power of Referrals

It isn’t always easy to determine who is going to need what you provide and who your direct targets are or should be. In fact, it is more often the case that you won’t be able to identify your potential clients in advance, and you won’t be able to predict with any degree of certainty where your next client might come from.

Although times are changing and the use of various forms of advertising and online media are on the rise in the profession, it still holds true that generating clients through referrals will continue to be the best way to develop business.

Those who come to you by way of a referral knock on your door because they have been given a positive recommendation from someone who they know and respect. Given that they already know you do good work and likely have a sense of the fees you charge, potential clients who come in as referrals will be easier to develop a relationship with and more inclined to retain you than those who haven’t been referred to you. And, they will be less likely to try to negotiate your fee.

Not only that, but when it comes to maximizing your returns in terms of new clients obtained and new matters opened, the successful cultivation of a good referral source will often provide higher returns than the successful cultivation of a good new client. That’s because a referral source can supply a steady stream of new work through referring many new clients, whereas one direct target who becomes one new client is exactly that: just one new client.

Given the above, it is easy to understand why many of the most successful practices are ones built entirely on referrals.

Categories of Referral Sources

Referral sources won’t be those for whom you are opening new files, and they won’t be those who will be paying your fees, but they can provide access to those who will. The three main categories of referral sources are past clients, high power influencers, and other professionals working in the same markets as you.

Past Clients

If you have done good work for past clients, generating new work through them should be an easy matter. Satisfied clients already know you and have had direct experience working with you, which makes them highly credible sources of information; and, they are already positively disposed toward you and your firm. This means that they are ideally positioned to act as referral sources. Past clients are your very best referral sources.


Although the word of someone who hasn’t worked directly with you won’t ever carry as much weight as the word of someone who has, people in the business community who are powerful, visible and highly respected are, of course, excellent referral sources. Like your past clients, they are putting themselves on the line when they make a referral, and in order to maintain their power, their reputation and the respect of those around them, they will be very careful about who they recommend. And everyone knows that which is why they are your second best referral source.

Those Who Share Your Target Markets

In this category are all of those professionals who are interested in the same clients that you are. That includes those in other professions; depending on your area of practice, that might include accountants, investors, bankers, insurers or engineers. It also includes people who practice law at other firms, who might not be willing or able to take on the client in question because they don’t have the expertise, they don’t have the capacity, or they have a conflict of interest.

The Bottom Line

Relative to other approaches to marketing, generating new work through referrals is low-cost and high-return: simply put, it is the best way to develop business.

Donna Wannop, LLB, MBA, is a practice development coach who has worked exclusively with the legal profession for more than 30 years. Reach her at www.donnawannop.com.