Take a moment to imagine a common scenario. You attend a conference and meet a great prospect, but in the process of following up you discover that your firm is conflicted out, or that your expertise doesn’t match up with their current needs. Such experiences can be very disappointing; but don’t give up entirely. Although you may not get the new client you anticipated, it is still possible to benefit indirectly by using the opportunity to refer others. At minimum, recommending a client to someone else creates goodwill and increases the likelihood of getting referrals or other forms of assistance from that person in the future. It is also quite possible that down the line, as the client’s needs evolve, the other attorney may find an opportunity to send the client back to you.
Although participation in formal referral groups isn’t the best fit for many lawyers, the fundamental principles behind such groups are still applicable for attorneys. Networking groups, such as Business Networking International (BNI), create formal structures for passing referrals among members and recruiting professionals to join the group. Typically, the members of such groups are from smaller, consumer facing businesses, and thus, are not ideal for attorneys who target larger companies. (It should be noted that some states, including Virginia, have indicated that participation in such groups may violate ethics rules if recommending fellow members to clients is mandatory.) So, while BNI and the like don’t meet the needs of many lawyers, the underlying idea of creating a team of related professionals who deliberately try to help one another is relevant for any kind of attorney, or any kind of professional. The BNI motto is, “givers gain,” and it is the basic tenant of effective networking. Those who help others through providing opportunities, information or referrals are almost always assisted in return. This isn’t just good manners; it has also been established as a scientific principle governing human relations. “Reciprocity” is a term in social psychology meaning that human beings feel an obligation to return favors. When someone extends an invitation or offers a gift we generally want to pay them back in some way; and the same principle applies in business relationships.
Rather than joining a formal referral group, most lawyers may find it more valuable and effective to create their own network organically over time. Of course, this takes more effort than walking into a preset structure. On the plus side, however, choosing your own referral partners provides the opportunity to seek out and create relationships with people whom you genuinely like and who are ideally suited to complement your practice area and niche.
As much as you might agree with the concept, actually making the time to help other people may feel like a stretch when you are busy with your own client work and your own business development activities. Here are a few reasons that it is a sensible use of your time.
(1) It increases your credibility. Anything you say to promote yourself will be taken with a grain of salt by prospects. Whereas, another professional telling them that you are a brilliant, caring, and conscientious will carry a great deal of weight. Remarkably, this is true even if the person espousing your virtues is a stranger to the potential client. The increased credibility you gain by promoting other people rather than yourself means that you can save a lot of time on business development by focusing on helping others while they do the same for you.
(2) It improves your well-being. As human beings, connection with others is critically important to our mental and physical health; and the more high-quality relationships we have, the healthier and happier we become. Yet, as we get older, it can become more challenging to make friends. A nice side benefit of referral partnerships is that they offer a foundation for personal as well as professional bonds. Unfortunately, many lawyers find themselves in firms where they feel disconnected or estranged from others. Exchanging referrals provides an additional avenue for building the type of collegial, supportive work friendships that many lawyers wish they had in their own firms. (For anyone in this situation, for the sake of your sanity, as well as for business development purposes, I would also strongly recommend also working on improving your internal relationships. However, that is a topic for another day.)
(3) It makes networking more enjoyable and effective. It’s not much fun to attend an event with the single-minded goal of selling oneself to potential clients. To many of us, it may feel “icky,” not to mention we would lose out on the enjoyment of developing friendships and learning from others’ wisdom. When you talk to someone and you are thinking about how you can help them, to whom you can introduce them, or if they might want to hire one of your referral partners, you have dozens of reasons to create a relationship with them. When you interact with people in this way, those who might not otherwise be interested in meeting for lunch or connecting on LinkedIn now see you as a potentially valuable part of their network.
Although the legal market is changing, the fundamentals of bringing in clients remain the same: It is all about relationships. Promoting other lawyers or professionals whom you like and trust is a win for everyone involved. The client benefits being directed to a quality resource who could help them. The referral partner profits by getting more clients; and you win by creating goodwill and developing a stronger connection with both parties. There are many methods for developing business, but I have seen time and time again that this is not only one of the most enjoyable and satisfying for most people, but it is also one of the most effective.