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March 2012 Bar Bulletin

Advance Your Referral Development Program

By Irene Leonard

Referral Cycle Graphic

Developing referral sources is a major part of any successful attorney's business development plan. To make progress expanding the number of people who refer new, quality clients to you, you need a referral development plan or program.

Your referral program should focus on "Referral Cycle" actions, with steps that support each of the actions

Referral Cycle

There are five actions in the Referral Cycle that lawyers and other professionals need to continually, but not necessarily consecutively, take to cultivate or develop their referral sources. You need to:


Networking events are a great place to meet people but not necessarily connect. Make a point of meeting people to give you the opportunity to do the other Referral Cycle actions.


Before people will refer someone to you they need to connect with you at a receptive level. This means they need to "know, like and trust you." These three qualities, "know, like and trust," are essential in garnering referrals and are the foundation of a connection between you and your referral source.

The need to connect applies equally to your clients as they are the best source of referrals. Even though your clients may trust you and your excellent work, that may not be enough to have them refer work to you. It's only part of the equation.

Plan to get to know and connect with your clients and potential referral sources by engaging in personal conversations. Connection occurs when you learn what you have in common.

This personal knowledge will also help you carry out other Referral Cycle actions. You'll be able to stay in touch, ask, and appreciate your clients and referral sources in ways that are meaningful and will advance your referral program.

Identify people in your network who are connected to people in the industries or areas you are interested in doing more work for. The theory of six degrees of separation supports the hypothesis that you are connected to someone you want to be connected with through people you already know. Research who you want to know - who is in a position to refer the kind of work you want?

Malcolm Gladwell describes connectors in his book The Tipping Point as people who know everyone. These are the kind people you want to cultivate relationships with to advance your referral program. In order to meet connectors, you'll have to ask others for help, advice, information and introductions.

Stay in Touch

Staying in touch is an important Referral Cycle action. Being consistently visible or staying in touch with your relationships or referral sources so you stay top-of-mind when the opportunity for them to refer to you is imperative.

This is how making your own luck comes in to your business development plan. "Wasn't it lucky you had lunch with Ms. Jones yesterday and today she refers this amazing matter?"


Ask for what you want. My experience as a business coach for lawyers is that asking is the action that most lawyers avoid. Come up with scripts and plan your approach to help you practice asking.

Example of a soft ask: "I've really enjoyed working with you. I hope you'll refer me to the other members of your company (family)."

Once you meet connectors and connect with them at some point you'll have to ask them to refer work to you. If you don't ask, you won't be certain of getting any work.


Thanking referral sources is usually the easiest action of the Referral Cycle. Thank anyone who helps you in your referral development program. Thank them in writing by note and by email, by invitation to fun events, or with gifts that don't breach the rules of professional responsibility.

Developing referral sources is a cycle because you need to keep repeating the Referral Cycle actions. Not necessarily consecutively, but all of the actions on some consistent basis need to be taken.

I can't emphasize enough the need to keep doing these things over and over again. Be patient and give your referral program time to advance.