How to build your firm’s net worth with a strong referral network

For every service sector enterprise, maintaining a robust business network is key to success. Law firms are no exception. It’s not just whom you know; it’s who knows you. Relationships in the legal profession can make or break your solo or small law firm. Networking is a fundamental part of business development for lawyers, and nurturing networks is key to generating relationships that yield revenue.

But networking is hard work, and traditional networking—handing out business cards at events and hoping you get lucky—usually fails. You need to build relationships before transacting business. People buy products or services from people they feel connected to, and creating connections takes time.

Although networking a long-game business strategy, when effectively done, the payoff can be enormous. Since networking relies on a reciprocity mindset, it not only attracts more business but also enables you to become a better client resource. It helps clients remember you as a trusted source of legal help.

Networking done right is rewarding

What does it take to make networking worthwhile? Besides hard work and an intense focus on building mutually beneficial relationships that could turn into business opportunities, networking requires proficiency. It’s a skill you can learn, and you’ll get better at it by committing time and effort. First, however, you must overcome rejection fears and other worries.

Because traditional networking tactics don’t often work, here are several practical suggestions for building your skills and creating a flourishing network.

Lawyering is local—go deep where you live and work

Since your law license limits your practice to particular states, your clients will come from those states and, more specifically, your local community. One way to build your network is by attending targeted social events.

Perhaps an even better way to network locally is through cause marketing, where for-profit business owners volunteer for—or even just sponsor the activities of—community nonprofits, publicizing their efforts or contributions. Truly fruitful cause marketing requires volunteering because it involves face-to-face interactions that build genuine relationships. Cause marketing also allows you to show your commitment to the place where you live and work and better the community at large.

Assist community organizations whose members represent your target clients, or volunteer for organizations your target clients might support. Serve on nonprofit boards and committees and participate in hands-on projects that directly affect agency constituents. Give back through pro bono legal work, too.

When sincerely done for the right nonprofits or pro bono clients, volunteer work humanizes you and pairs you with prospective clients who are looking for just that—connection. Some contacts may become clients, and once you’ve done good legal work for them, they might provide positive client reviews for you on Avvo, boosting your rating.

Go wide with those you already know

This strategy is most helpful in securing cases through attorney referrals. Develop connections to other lawyers through participation in your local bar association. Volunteer on committees, join practice group activities, write for publications, or take and give CLE courses. You’ll meet local attorneys who might collaborate with you or refer you to clients outside their practice area or target market.

Connect with attorneys in other states through alumni associations, conferences, and social media. You may become local counsel for them or get direct referrals for cases. By doing so, you’ll also develop relationships with judges and opposing counsel and be in a better position to request Avvo peer endorsements—and, of course, reciprocate the favor for other attorneys.

Build constantly by networking your way to the right people

Your network can never be too large. That said, be selective; not everyone you meet belongs in your professional network. You’ll also want to avoid building an “all lawyers” network. Derek Coburn, author of Networking Is Not Working: Stop Collecting Business Cards and Start Making Meaningful Connections, calls creating such exclusive ties “being a subject matter expert, not building a network.” Coburn wrote this book after spending thousands of unprofitable hours on traditional networking.

A chief objective of your networking efforts should be adding value to the lives of clients and colleagues, not just getting referrals. To reach that goal, you’ll need to become a primary source of recommendations to different professionals.

Coburn tells readers to get themselves known by the best area professionals and develop relationships with them. Although he outlines a complete networking strategy, he says the best way approach is to start networking groups and events that include people whose services would add value to your existing or prospective clients.

This expanded network should share your perspective on reciprocity and have needs that might require you to refer their services to a client or someone else in your network. Of course, you should do all this while ensuring that your networking efforts are consistent with local bar association rules.

It might be difficult to gain access to the best professionals in your area, especially if they’re high profile. However, Keith Ferrazzi’s book Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets of Success, One Relationship at a Time provides masterful strategies for overcoming this obstacle.

Both books include expert tips on using social media to build your network.

Know “NetWeaving” is the most profitable form of networking

If you understand that gainful networking involves building mutually beneficial relationships, becoming a resource for others, and making the right connections, you’ll apply this concept easily. Its foundation is “the law of reciprocity,” or helping others without concern for how you’ll benefit.

Robert S. Littell, concept creator and author of The Heart and Art of NetWeaving: Building Meaningful Relationships One Connection at a Time, says this approach is precise. “NetWeaving represents a specific set of skills which focus on ‘connecting’ people and supplying them with ‘resources’ which they or others in their Trusted Resource Network are willing to provide—all with ‘no-strings-attached,’” he explains on his website.

In networking as in life, what goes around comes around. By connecting and referring others using one or more of the tactics and tools identified here, you’ll start receiving referrals in return.