How to Get Referrals Without Referring Back

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When another professional refers business to you, it feels like you should refer business back to them. It’s reciprocity in action.

But in reality, you can’t refer to everyone. You don’t have that many referrals to make. That’s especially true if:

  1. You’re just starting up and have only a few clients so far, and/or
  2. You’re building numerous relationships with referral sources, all of whom do the same type of work.

Countless lawyers have explained to me that they’re not building their referral network because they don’t want to end up in the bind of receiving referrals and then being unable to reciprocate.

I understand the sentiment. Most of my family law referrals came from other lawyers, as well as mental health professionals. I always felt a lingering concern about whether I should be doing more to send them clients and patients. But realistically, I didn’t have that many referrals to make. Most folks calling me didn’t have a legal problem other than the one I was solving. And, since so many referrals were already the patients of mental health professionals, I didn’t have many clients in need of another doctor.

I worried that my referral sources would quit referring if I didn’t send referrals back. I worried that resentment was building because I wasn’t fulfilling my end of the implied bargain.

Other lawyers tell me they have the exact same fears. They feel fortunate to be getting referrals. They don’t want to damage these important relationships with their referral sources. They don’t want the resentment to grow.

We make unfounded assumptions

The resentment we’re anticipating is largely in our heads. It’s not real. Most professionals aren’t keeping score.

Let’s focus on referrals from other lawyers. Lawyers tend to be the largest and most valuable source of referrals in many practice areas. I’ll use them as an example because most of us spend significant time developing referral relationships with other lawyers.

Most of us have a deeply-rooted belief that referrals can only be made in exchange for reciprocal referrals back to our referral source. We think of it as an exchange of value that carries with it an obligation to return the favor; we fear we’ll be expected to send back business of equal or greater value.

Those of us who work hard to generate referrals have a tendency to see referrals through our own lens. We’re doing the math and calculating a return on that investment we made, that time we spent taking people to lunch and coffee. We’re counting the referrals as we buy lunch after lunch.

We’re like the carnival-ride attendant, the one who holds the clicker, making sure that exactly the right number of people are getting on.

It’s easy to assume that our way of thinking about referrals is also the way others are thinking. It’s easy fall into the trap of believing that everyone sees referrals as a form of currency, and that if you give one to me, then I must owe one to you.

But not everyone is thinking what we we’re thinking. We’re often far less insightful than we believe when it comes to anticipating what goes on in other people’s heads. More often than not, we have no idea what our referral source is thinking, what motivates them, or why they’re sending business our way. They’re very likely not doing the math. They’re probably just enjoying a nice conversation over a free lunch.

Here’s what other lawyers are thinking when they send you a case

Of course, each lawyer thinks of referrals in their own special way.

Some lawyers send prospective clients your way because they are generous. You asked for help and they want to do what they can to be of assistance. These lawyers are kind, giving folks who do what they can for others. This type represents a huge share of the legal community. They’re not looking for anything from you, except maybe a thank-you note.

Some lawyers send prospective clients your way because they don’t want the client. There might be a conflict of interest. The client may be unable to afford the lawyer’s fee. The lawyer might find the client annoying. There are lots of reasons that a busy lawyer might decline the engagement, and send the client your way.

Some clients are referred to you by others due to geographic issues–they live in a different county or state. Some prospective clients have a problem that falls outside of the referring lawyer’s area of expertise. Some clients simply want something the referring lawyer is unable or unwilling to provide.

Most referrals are not sent your way with a transactional motivation. The lawyer is not thinking “I’ll send her a client and then she’ll owe me a client.” That’s just not what most lawyers are thinking.

In fact, by giving your legal peers a professional relationship with someone to whom they can send these overflow folks, you’re providing a lot of value–perhaps even doing them a favor. Most lawyers want to appear competent and well-connected, with immediate solutions. It’s important to be able to say, “I can’t solve your problem, but I know someone who can.” The referral relationship that you have nurtured is useful to both of you.

Referrals are a currency, but not the only currency

Nonetheless, some lawyers do think of referrals as a currency. They’re keeping score, and they want something in return. Each of us has our own way of doing math in our heads; we have our own emotional orientation, and we each have our own perspective on the obligation implied by a referral.

Some lawyers are looking for payback. Some lawyers are literally looking for cash.

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge the existence of referral fees in some practice areas in some jurisdictions. These commercial transactions aren’t subtle. When referral fees are the motivation for referrals, it’s all open, honest, above-board, as well as discussed, understood, and usually documented. This kind of referral-for-payment arrangement, while it happens in many jurisdictions, is beyond the scope of this discussion.

Most referrals do not involve the payment of a referral fee. That’s why we’re mostly talking here about the many referrals made for reasons other than the exchange of hard currency.

While the lawyer making the referral to you may expect some form of reciprocation, it’s valuable to recognize that payback comes in many forms.

Payback doesn’t always have to come in the form of referrals. There are currencies other than reciprocal referrals and often they more than fulfill the obligation.

Payback comes in forms other than referrals or cash

You can make a difference in the lives of your referring lawyers without sending them cases.

Some examples:

  • The lawyer who knows the right person makes the introduction
  • The lawyer who has experience offers advice and assistance
  • The lawyer who’s needed quickly provides instant access via a direct communication channel
  • The lawyer assigning the speaking engagements offers a speaking spot
  • The lawyer editing the journal sends an invitation to publish
  • The lawyer with years in the bar association guides the way to inclusion, belonging, and engagement
  • The lawyer who has law practice management success offers advice
  • The lawyer who has been down the same path shows the way
  • The lawyer with a few minutes of free time calls to check on progress
  • The lawyer who has dealt with the same personal problem offers solutions
  • The lawyer who is a good listener listens
  • The lawyer who is a good friend offers friendship

The last of these examples–friendship–is the most important form of payback.

Referrals build friendships. We don’t pretend to be friendly because someone refers to us. No, it’s our demonstration of competence and our comfortable personality which invited the referral. It’s the trust implicit in the making of the referral that cements the relationship. Our referrals build on our personal connection. Our business relationship strengthens our personal relationship–bonds are built.

The “resentment” is mostly in your head

Don’t worry about making reciprocal referrals. It’s not necessary. It’s something you’re thinking about, but others generally aren’t. Don’t assume that you’re required to make a referral back in response to every referral you get. That’s simply not the way this works, because it’s not the way most lawyers think.

Nobody is keeping score. And if someone is, then let it go and move on to other lawyers who don’t come to every relationship with a mercenary attitude. Most lawyers are good people who help others for their own reasons, some of which are mentioned above.

For most of us, the referral interactions become a small piece of a much more complex relationship. The exchange of value, if it even continues to look like value, is eventually obscured under years of back-and-forth interactions about a range of topics. The referrals are not the most important part of the relationship. They’re just a tiny part of the much bigger picture.

But, even if the referrals aren’t the centerpiece of your relationships with your primary referral sources, it’s important to remember the importance of the steady flow of business to your law firm. Maintain an awareness of the referrals so that you’re always reminded to be grateful.

Always be grateful for the help

Be certain, regardless of why someone sends you a new client, to be grateful.

The person making the referral is demonstrating trust. A bad referral damages the lawyer making the referral. There is risk involved. Demonstrate your gratitude as the recipient of that trust.

Send a thank-you note. Send a gift, if appropriate and permissible. Invite your referral source to firm parties and events. Most importantly, look for opportunities to be helpful and generous, and take action on these ideas, even when doing so is challenging for you. Continue to build and value the relationship.

Your referral source is stepping up for you. A return referral isn’t required in response. But rising to the occasion–stepping up for them in whatever way you can–is required, it’s essential, it’s your obligation.

When another professional sends a referral your way, it’s not your obligation to refer back to them. But it is your obligation to express the gratitude warranted by the expression of trust.

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