Lawyer Advertising, Small Law Firms

The Practice: The Most Important Referral You’ll Ever Receive

One of the good moments in the practice is when you see the result of a networking event, online introduction, “hit” on that marketing blog that you’ve never written a post on, or God forbid, a happy former client.

The result being a referral.

A real referral. A real case, a paying client who wants to meet with you “as soon as possible.” This person calls and says they got your name from someone you know. They read your canned post on the latest fatal accident, they think your automated Twitter feed with links to your website is awesome, or they heard you did a great job for their good friend and now they need you (but I hear that never happens anymore and that lawyers that rely on doing a good job and getting referrals as a result of that are part of the past and are going to go out of business very, very, very soon).

So this is all very nice. It shows that something you are doing is working. It may for a while take your mind off suing your law school for lying about getting you a job.

But then there’s the call that goes something like this….

“Hi, I was referred to you by [someone you’ve never heard of]. He speaks highly of you and said you are the best lawyer for my issue.”

Now, when someone calls my office, there’s a protocol. One of the questions asked is “who referred you?” It’s the most important question. I know, you’re thinking: isn’t the most important question “can you pay?” No. That answer comes from “who referred you?” (More on that in another post). Sometimes the caller can’t remember who referred them, or the person who referred them has asked to remain anonymous. Nothing I can do about that.

When the potential client mentions a name I don’t recognize, I used to say, “Who?” Now I just brush it off and say something like, “That’s great, glad to hear.” I’m happy that there’s someone I don’t know who apparently knows me and is willing to tell someone to hire me as their lawyer, but I don’t want to embarrass them by letting them know I haven’t got a clue who they are. They’re not part of my — what do those idiots call it? — “target audience.”

As far as an “audience,” lawyers have several. We may have our courthouse audience, our bar association audience, our networking group audience, our blogging audience, or our pay-per-click audience. So let’s talk about blogging as an example. I know in that audience I have lawyers, law students, unemployed-bitter-basement-dwelling “I blame everyone else for my lot in life” lawyers and law students, professors, Biglaw haters and apologists (both in and out of Biglaw), and non-lawyers who are trying desperately to peddle their marketing and tech wares to lawyers and who email to tell me that they are “different,” and please stop saying bad things about marketers because some lawyers actually believe this crap.

But there are others in the audience — others that I don’t know. Every so often I hear from someone I would never think would read the writings of a lawyer. They are in businesses having nothing to do with lawyers, or they do things I didn’t know people did for a living.

And that’s just blogging.

No matter whether your marketing is mostly on- or off-line, or a combination, there is no way to ever know your complete “audience.” You realize this when that call comes in and someone is about to give you money based on the referral of someone you don’t know. It happened to me today (I don’t just get inspired to write posts by the dumb things lawyers do). I received a call from a potential client, referred by someone I don’t know, never heard of, and have no idea how they know me.

I not only want — and need — to know who this person is, and how they know of me, but what it was that caused this person to refer me a client. This “outlier” type of referral is something I need to explore. It may be that an article I wrote came up on an email listserv for a group of lawyers I’ve never heard of, or that some business owner was talking to a customer about me. I have no idea. I do know that I am more interested in the source of this referral than those that come in from people I know or are part of my expected “audience.”

The question becomes: “What’s your reach?”

The problem is that I don’t spend the time exploring these types of referrals. I blow it off, and it’s wrong. If I don’t know the person, I don’t take the time to figure out who it is. Often I’ll ask and the client says they “don’t remember the last name,” and I let it go at that. I need to do a better job learning about these unknown people who are comfortable enough to send along my name.

This is how you learn about your real “audience.” It’s a continuing effort.

You can listen to your marketer talk about your “target audience” all you want. If you’re a good lawyer and other lawyers and current and former clients are spreading the word, and you’re getting some play with your online marketing, that’s great — that’s expected.

I’m more interested in those that aren’t “targeted.” You know who those people are? Neither do I. But I’m going to spend more time trying to find out.

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

(hidden for your protection)

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