Referrals

Conventional wisdom says that solos and smalls should join a bar association — either the American Bar Association, a state or local bar, or a practice-specific bar (such as an association of telecommunications or criminal defense or real estate lawyers) — as a way to generate clients. Here’s but one recent article that recommends pounding the pavement at bar events to find clients.

I disagree.

I’m not suggesting that solos and smalls steer clear of bar membership entirely; after all, bar associations provide a myriad of practice benefits, including substantive information on practice trends, affordable continuing legal education (CLE), and advice on starting and running a law practice. But if lawyers think that they’ll find business through bar membership, most are sure to be disappointed….

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As we have discussed the past two weeks, Biglaw business development is not easy. The available flavors at the Biglaw business development ice cream stand are hardest (cold calls), harder (intra-firm networking and beauty contests), and plain old hard. As in turning referrals and unsolicited contacts from prospective clients into engagements. That is hard to do, but nowhere near as difficult as trying to land the matter when the prospective client has not invested in contacting you beforehand, or at least heard about you from a source that they trust. There is a reason rainmakers take the largest share of the Biglaw pie, even at white-shoe lockstep firms.

Getting other lawyers to refer you matters, even from within your own firm, is hard. The foundation one needs to generate referrals is the exact same one that is required to have success generating business through other methods. But there is an extra ingredient, or at least a greater emphasis on a particular ingredient, that needs to be there if you hope to get referrals. That ingredient? Let’s call it likability. No matter how skilled a lawyer you are, or how hallowed your reputation, you simply must be likable in order to generate referrals. Of course, the definition of likability becomes quite a bit more expansive when applied to lawyers considered at the top of their fields. Simply put, the person referring you has to feel good about making the referral, and they are much more likely to feel good if they consider you an agreeable person, at least to do business with.

Unsurprisingly, the definition of likability in the Biglaw context is quite different from the standards we normally apply when talking about the real world. For those who like analogies, consider that Biglaw likability is to indisputable real-world likability as Biglaw “hot” is to indisputable real-world hotness….

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Tom Wallerstein

Next week my firm will celebrate its fourth anniversary. I can’t believe it has been that long. It seems like yesterday that I was sitting at my desk at Quinn Emanuel, thinking about cases worth millions of dollars but still too small to be economically handled by traditional Biglaw firms. I wondered if I might try to serve a growing market hungry for less expensive but still high-quality litigation. Not long thereafter I was conspiring with my partner over the details, drafting business plans, and conducting informal marketing surveys.

As my firm approaches its fourth anniversary, it’s interesting for me to think back to my early plans and consider what worked, and what did not. What happened as I predicted or hoped, and what was unexpected…

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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….

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For those ignoring the unemployed “future of law” idiots typing away from their kitchen table in some crap city with a regional airport and instead still living in the universe where you believe practices can be built and survive on the referrals of others, I have some advice on maintaining your referral base. Some good stuff here, so keep reading if you actually practice law and have to bring in business instead of living off the originations of lawyers who people actually hire.

A referral base is sometimes, but not always, a two-way street. This is where honesty comes into the equation. There may be a lawyer who refers you business, to whom you would never refer business. There may be those lawyers who refer you business, but you have never had the opportunity to send them any. On the other hand, there are those lawyers to whom you send business, who haven’t sent you anything.

Referrals from other lawyers happen for two reasons, either the lawyer is your BFF, or because they know your reputation in the practice area. Sad news for some of you, your reputation, as I’ve said before, is not based on how many people have accepted your begging them invitation to write online testimonials about you….

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This past week, I was in Chicago for a national conference of professional responsibility lawyers. We usually meet in the same city and at the same time as the ABA, as we have many dual members (no, not at the same time as ABA toy tech show — I’m talking about the ABA meetings where real lawyers discuss law and policy). So although I don’t attend the ABA meetings, those that do come over to our conference and vice versa.

One of the benefits of attending national (real) lawyer conferences as a small-firm lawyer with a real practice (not the social media conferences where broke and unemployed non-practicing lawyers hang out in the vendor hall), is that besides learning something, you have the ability to network and develop relationships that may turn into referrals. I hear lawyers talk about not going to conferences because of the cost. The cost, including transportation, hotel, and conference tuition should usually be no more than $1,000-$1,500. If investing that amount of money in your firm is not worth it, then you are doomed to be nothing. Stop reading now and go work on your internet presence….

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I rarely follow up on potential clients anymore. You want to hire me — you’ll let me know. I’m not playing your game of calling you back after the initial interview so you can tell me you’re “thinking about it,” but “the fee is really big.” Yeah, the fee is really big; so is your problem. You want to take your big problem to a bargain basement lawyer — knock yourself out. I don’t run a booth at the Straw Market in the Bahamas. If I’m going to negotiate, it’s going to be with opposing counsel, not you.

It’s killing you, though. You spoke with the client, they seemed interested, they asked all the right questions, and you gave all the right answers. They told you “money is no issue” (first clue they have no money.) It’s been a day or two, and nothing. No call, no email, and no questions about the retainer agreement you gave them.

What to do?

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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…

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This week, I was introduced to an IP lawyer. Yawn. Another IP lawyer churning out trademark and copyright applications. Meeting one of them these days is no different than going to a lawyer cocktail hour and meeting yet another “commercial litigator.” (Translated: “I do general irrelevant crap. Where’s the guy with those little spinach things?”)

But I quickly saw in his email that this wasn’t just another IP lawyer:

“My area of practice is intellectual property, but with a twist: I represent technology companies in transactions involving the licensure, commercial exploitation and/or research & development of technologies — that is about 50% of my practice. The other 50% is representing digital marketing agencies, digital production companies, and related businesses in all of their IP and corporate needs. I handle a great deal of work in the area of data privacy rules & regulations, compliance with FTC rules for digital advertising, and matters involving outsourced technology transactions.”

Interesting. Next step is meeting this guy face to face, mainly so I can understand what that email just said. I realize he doesn’t want referrals from every guy in his garage with the next great invention, but although I think I know, I want to learn how and from where he gets his referrals, and how he built his practice.

There’s been a lot written about niche practices. A lot of it has been written by non-practicing lawyers, or those with a niche that they’ve had for five minutes. Although today’s kids would rather hear from those idiots than someone who’s been doing it themselves for a while, I’ll do what I do every week, and offer some advice that may make you less miserable, and cause you to think differently about your practice….

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In preparation for this article, I did a Google search for “lawyers getting involved in community.” The first result was some article about pro bono. Let’s be honest: in 2012, why would a lawyer trying to build a practice spend time doing free legal work for the needy instead of trying to figure out whether Pinterest can be monetized to bring in clients?

Being a lawyer who is involved in the community, I used to be frequently asked, “Hey, I want to get involved in the community, can you tell me how?” I don’t get asked that much anymore. “Community” is considered “the Twitter community,” or “the blawgosphere.” While the tech hacks haven’t yet declared community involvement “dead,” the fact that the result of becoming involved in the community is often organically-developed, real relationships with other like-minded people that may lead to business, is unattractive to those that have bought in to the notion that a collection of followers and friends online is a quicker path to lots of phone calls.

So if there are any lawyers left out there that are still contemplating community involvement, I offer the following….

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