The Proper Care and Feeding of Referral Sources

Lessons From The Lawyer-Coach

Debra L. Bruce is president of Lawyer-Coach LLC , a law practice management coaching and training firm, and author of the Raising the Bar blog. She practiced law for 18 years before becoming the first Texas lawyer credentialed by the International Coach Federation (ICF). She has served as Vice-Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas and as leader of the Houston chapter of ICF. You can follow her at or at You can also e-mail her at

The Proper Care and Feeding of Referral Sources

By Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC

Because I work with a lot of different lawyers, people often contact me when they need
to engage one. Sometimes a friend needs legal services, and I hear from them later
about their satisfaction level with the services received. Often, however, a friend calls
on behalf of the potential client. I give them contact info for a couple of appropriate
lawyers, which they forward to the client. Usually I give the lawyers I recommend a
heads up by email or voicemail…and that’s the last I hear of it.

Over the course of a couple of years, I referred 5 or 6 potential clients to one lawyer. I
never even heard whether she got hired. When a new referral request came in, I had
a little conversation in my head: “I wonder whether the previous referrals were good
matches for her. In any event, she didn’t seem to particularly appreciate them. She
never let me know what happened. Did she even say ‘thank you’? I think I’ll send this
referral to someone else who will appreciate it.”

Not long after that, I ran into a coach friend. She said to me, “Did that lawyer I referred
to you ever call you?” I told her that I had not heard from him. I realized, however,
that she might be having a similar conversation in her head. What was I doing to keep
my referral source in the loop and to convey my appreciation even for failed referral

Referrals are the lifeblood of a professional service. So we should have a strategy for
making sure that they keep coming our way. Here are some of my thoughts on things
you can do to nurture your referral relationships.

1. Promptly acknowledge and express appreciation for any referral attempts.

If you hear first from the person making the referral, send a thank you email or
make a phone call promptly. Let them know that you’ll get back to them if you
hear from the client. At least then they can assume that you didn’t hear anything,
if you don’t follow up later.

2. Send hand-written thank you notes.

When you get hired, promptly send a handwritten thank you note. It will convey
more appreciation than an email, because it takes a bit more effort. Handwritten
correspondence is so rare today. Have you noticed that you usually open the
hand addressed letters first? If your note contains a sincere compliment to the
recipient, they may hate to throw it away. Not knowing what to do with it, they will
keep it on their desk a few days. Each time they see it, they will be reminded of
you, reinforcing your top-of-mind status for future referrals.

3. Send multiple communications.

Strengthen those neural pathways to your name in your referral source’s brain.
Communicate with them (i) when they let you know the referral has been made,
(ii) when the client calls to hire you, and (iii) when the engagement completes.
Most will like being kept in the loop, and they will know that you value them and
their referrals.

4. Make referrals to them.

Nothing will make someone happier to continue sending you referrals for your
excellent service than the prospect of reciprocation. Ask them about their ideal
clients, and keep your eyes and ears open for an opportunity to return the favor.
When the referral comes from a client, lawyers sometimes forget that their clients
may appreciate business referrals or introductions, too.

5. Keep in touch.

If someone has attempted a referral to you, they are your advocate. Try to
reconnect in some way with them at least every 30 days or so. Social media
makes that so much easier today. Connect with them on LinkedIn, Facebook or
Twitter. Comment on their postings there or on their blog. Share or retweet to
your followers something valuable or interesting that they say. Don’t forget to use
more traditional technology to keep in touch. Drop them an email or give them
a call just to check in. If you get a number of referrals from people in the same
organization, attend the organization’s meetings regularly so you can see them
there. Call now and then to invite your referral source to lunch or something fun.
If you send out holiday cards, make sure they are on your list.

6. Write a testimonial for them.

If you have familiarity with the good quality of their work, there are a number
of online opportunities to acknowledge them. Consider whether it would be
appropriate to write a recommendation on AVVO, LinkedIn, Angie’s List or some
other forum.

7. Send them useful information.

If you come across an article or blog post that they would be interested in,
send them a copy or a link. That tells them you are thinking of them and know
what they care about. It also brings you back to top-of-mind for any referral
opportunities in the near future.

8. Send appreciation gifts.

You may want to send a thank you gift when you receive a referral. It is ok to
have a few stand-by favorites like a book, a bottle of wine or dinner for two at a
trendy restaurant. It is even better if you can tailor the gift to the interests of the
referral source. One of my clients gave a leather jacket to the motorcycle-riding
lawyer who sent him several matters. If you usually send gifts to clients during
the holidays, don’t forget to include your referral sources and attempted referral
sources on your gift list.

Have these thoughts gotten you to brainstorm ideas? How has someone else
expressed gratitude to you for a referral? What was the impact on you? What impact
did “radio silence” have on you, if you never heard from someone after making a

All opinions, advice, and experiences of guest bloggers/columnists are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions, practices or experiences of Solo Practice University®.

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5 comments on “The Proper Care and Feeding of Referral Sources

  • I wholeheartedly agree with everything you’ve said in your post. I send hand-written thank you notes to referral sources and new clients upon engagement and have added these items to my client intake checklist.

    Having been born and grown up in the analog age, thank you notes (especially hand-written ones) from recipients mean a lot to me. If people don’t acknowledge the referrals I send them, I stop referring. Simple gratitude, or lack thereof, speaks volumes to me.

  • Seems so simple, but often forgotten. In our mad entrepreneurial dash, a quick thanks is often all we offer. I’m certainly guilty of this negligence. Thanks for the reminder, Debra. Great post! Like Brenda, this is going in my client intake checklist.

  • Great idea to have a thank you note on your client intake check list!

    For those who may now be realizing that they have neglected a few thank-you’s…consider using special occasions to extend your appreciation. Thanksgiving is a natural time to express gratitude, of course. December is a common time to send a gift of appreciation. January is when you look back and forward, and acknowledge how valuable someone was to your results in the past year and how you hope to continue the connection in the future. February is relationship month. And so on.

  • Great article! I have a standard email template I use to make joint introductions and referrals, and often get copied in initial communication until a call or meeting occurs. I agree that closing the loop both as a referrer and in getting referrals is a key need to manage those relationships. Thanks for the practical ideas.

  • Thanks for your comment, Carey. Having an email template is a good way to make it an efficient process. Do you usually only make one recommendation? Many lawyers like to give the potential client 2 or 3 lawyers to choose from. I’m wondering how you handle that.

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