If you’re trying to build a word-of-mouth-based referral practice (is anyone doing that anymore?), you may be frustrated with two things about some of your referral sources: they don’t appear to know what it is you do, and they don’t make a real effort to get you the case/client.

Let’s talk about the bad referrals first.

We’ve all been there. The call comes in, the client was referred by a familiar name, and he wants to hire you to do something you don’t do or don’t want to do. Maybe you’re a divorce lawyer but don’t want to handle child custody modifications, or you’re a commercial litigator who has said many times that you don’t do collections work.

If you’re getting the wrong referrals, it’s your fault…

You’re getting bad referrals because you haven’t spent enough time educating your referral sources. The first time you get the wrong type of matter referred to you, the next call is to set up a meeting with the referral source. As you’re buying them lunch or coffee to say thank you, along with the gift you’re bringing them for thinking about you, make it clear why the referral didn’t work. Don’t be a wimp, don’t think that you’re going to hurt someone’s feelings. Be honest. Do you really think the referral source wants to keep referring people to you that you can’t help? It makes them look clueless.

Another thing to tell your referral sources is to call you first before just telling the client to call you. This way you avoid the wasted call from the client, and the referral source can look better to the client as you give them the right lawyer to call.

Now let’s talk about the lack of effort by the referral source in getting you the case.

I’ve previously talked about the “three referrals” garbage. The pin the tail on the donkey “I don’t care who you call” crap. For the referral sources that are intelligent enough to give one name, and that name is you, encourage them to tell the client why they should hire you.

Often the client is referred, the referral source lets you know, and the client never calls or doesn’t hire you. When this has happened to me, I’ll call the referral source and ask about the conversation. “What did you tell him about me?” “Nothing, I just gave him your name, told him I knew you, and you did this work.”

That’s why the client never called. He called another referral source that gave him more details about the other lawyer. The client was sold before even calling that lawyer.

So encourage your referral sources to be more vocal about why they are referring you. If they don’t know much about you, educate them. If you’re going to build a referral-based practice, you will learn sooner or later that the direction of your practice is mostly based on the people that are referring you cases.


Brian Tannebaum will never “get on board” at the advice of failed lawyers who were never a part of the past but claim to know “the future of law.” He represents clients, every day, in criminal and lawyer discipline cases without the assistance of an Apple device, and usually gets to work (in an office, not a coffee shop) by 9 a.m. No client has ever asked if he’s on Twitter. He can be reached at [email protected].


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