Nurturing Referral Relationships: Write Your Thank-You Notes!

According to Martindale-Hubbell’s latest Canadian research, at least 20% of law firms’ total revenue comes from referrals ( One in ten of the 70 firms surveyed earned 50% of their revenue from referrals. With this order of magnitude, you would think that nurturing referral relationships would be pretty high on any firm’s marketing agenda. However, 14% of respondents don’t even track their referral sources.

I found this particularly interesting, having just completed some research on referrals myself. I found, as did Martindale-Hubbell, that the key quality referring professionals are looking for is a mixture of competence, expertise, and experience. I also found considerable nervousness about whether the referral would be successful, because as one lawyer commented: “If the client is not served well, it reflects on the party referring.”

So what else are these professionals looking for, after competence, expertise, and experience? Here’s a sample of the comments: “Lawyers want to refer to lawyers that they know.” “I want to send my clients to cost-effective problem-solvers.” More bluntly, “I want someone who’s not going to piss off my clients.” Perhaps the most honest response: “I want to refer to someone who reminds me of me.”

As can be seen from these comments, to have someone refer work to you is a great compliment. To be deserving of continued referrals demands not only excellent legal work, but also good manners and good communication. I was interested in knowing what kind of communication referring professionals want to have with the lawyers to whom they send clients. They weren’t asking much—just to know that the client had been contacted. If the progress of the matter would affect the advice they are giving the clients, they’d appreciate being kept in the loop, but otherwise, it’s the client’s business, not theirs.

What completely bowled me over, however, was that 25% of my interviewees said wistfully that a note of thanks would be nice. WHAAAAT? You get 20-50% of your revenue from referrals and you don’t thank the people referring work to you???!!! What are you, crazy?

Thanking people who send you work is not only good manners, it’s also one of the most productive marketing opportunities ever. You get the chance to describe the kind of client you want, ask for referrals from their colleagues, send details of your successes—the list goes on. While confidentiality is always an issue, a quick note at the end of a matter closes the loop and can be especially beneficial if you were successful: “I just wanted to let you know that we’ve been able to resolve Client X’s matter to her satisfaction. Thanks again for referring this client to us; I hope you will keep us in mind when you have other clients who may benefit from our services.” And since the best thank-you for a referral is a reciprocal referral, don’t be surprised to get a reply saying something like: “I’m glad things turned out so well: I knew I could rely on you to take care of my client/friend/colleague. Keep us in mind if we can do the same for one of your clients/friends/colleagues.”

If you decide to market to your referral sources, target the right ones. Check that they have the clients or contacts that you want, in sufficient volume, that they practice in your price range, and that they are influencers in your target market. This will prevent unpleasant surprises like finding out that your referral source thought your rates were much lower, or that the referral source isn’t well regarded among other advisors in the field.

Let’s wrap up with some do’s and don’ts for nurturing the referral relationship:


  • Acknowledge and thank referral sources
  • Keep them appropriately informed
  • Respect their relationship with the client
  • Refer work to them whenever possible
  • Quote your referral sources in articles you write
  • Invite them to join you in speaking engagements
  • Notify them of upcoming legislative change and how it can impact their clients
  • Tell them what kind of client you’re seeking
  • Ask them to pass on your name to other referral sources


  • Gossip about the client
  • Promise something you can’t deliver
  • Say ‘yes’ to work you don’t want
  • Forget to return the favour
  • Forget that colleagues in your own firm are also referral sources
  • Complain about how busy you are

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