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Referrals and the Doctrine of Reciprocity

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This is an excerpt from Chapter Six of Ken Hardison’s new book, “Under Promise, Over Deliver — How to Build the Preeminent Law Firm in Your Market.”

Most lawyers love referrals because they cost little if nothing to acquire. We all know most of our best cases come from referrals. People usually don’t refer bad cases. The key is that most lawyers don’t know:

  • Where to go to ask for referrals.
  • How to ask for referrals without really asking for them.

Think about where your ideal client will be going immediately before they would need your services. For example, somebody in a car wreck is going to need a wrecker service. They’re going to use a body shop. They’re going to be seeing an ER doctor. These are the key people who you want to know you, like you, and trust you. If you want to concentrate on dog-bite cases, who would you rather get to know than the local dog catcher, or animal control officer? Do you get the idea?

For a Social Security case, where would people be going if they were disabled? Vocational rehab. Or how about a pain management clinic? Divorce lawyers should get to know marriage counselors. Marriage counselors are there to try to make things better, but after a while, some couples say, “Hey, you need to get a divorce.” Motorcycles? I want to get to know the leaders of the hog chapters, the motorcycle dealership owners, and the associations. I think you get my gist. Of course, you also want to meet other lawyers who don’t practice your type of law.

Creating referral relationships

For another excerpt of Ken's book, see 6 Pointers to Build Client Loyalty.

But here’s the key to all of this: creating referral relationships. When you go to these key people, don’t say, “I want referrals.” That is rude, crass, and ineffective. Here’s a saying I got from Zig Ziglar: “You can get what you want if you help people get what they want.”

So I go to them and say, “What can I do to help you?”

For body shops, I might go in and say, “Hey, have you ever had problems with insurance companies? I’m here to help you pro bono, and I’ve created this book on how to handle your property damage claims in North Carolina. I’m going to put it out here free for all of your customers, and if they have any problems, even if I’m not representing them, give me a call. I’ll help. Because I like you and I want to help your business.”

What does that do? That creates a feeling of indebtedness, which creates the doctrine of reciprocity. People are going to want to help you. Now, 50 percent of the time it’s not going to work. You’ve got takers and you’ve got givers, and some people are only takers. But 50 percent or more of people will be appreciative, and the next thing they’re going to say is, “What can I do for you?”

Of course, what you can do for me is refer me my ideal client.

But you’ve got to go in there and offer help, sincerely, and you’ve got to go in there knowing that they might not do anything for you for a year or two. But if you set it up that way, instead of just going to people and being a taker, you’re setting yourself up for potential success. Don’t just take. And don’t expect to get referrals without giving something first. If you follow this advice, I think you’ll be a lot more successful with your referral systems. It’s all about getting people to know you, like you, and trust you.

I don’t refer clients to other lawyers unless I know they’re going to do an excellent job and give those clients the same level of client service that we have given them. I say, “My only caveat is, you’ve got to give them good client service because that’s what my people expect. If you don’t do that, I’ll quit sending people to you.” I had a lawyer who was doing stock fraud cases back around 2003. He was a great lawyer. It was back when everything went to hell—Enron and all that stuff —and a lot of people got taken.

He was rude

This lawyer was great. But I had a couple of clients call me after I referred them to him. They said he wasn’t calling them back, and he was rude. I had one client who called me in tears about how rude he was to her. She told me exactly what he had said. I just picked up the phone and called him.

I called. “Is this true what Lilia said?”

He said, “I’m just busy. I’ve got more than I can do.”

I said, “Remember what I told you?”

He said, “No.”

“I told you that I can send you all the business you can handle, but that you have to give my referrals great client service.”

And, of course, he was stressed. “I’m doing the best I can.”

I said, “Well, listen. I’m going to have to quit sending you cases, buddy. And I hate it.” And I did, but I didn’t send him one more case.

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