Lawyers: What To Do When You're Offered a Referral

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[First in a four-part series by Mike O'Horo on law firm referrals.]

Successful lawyers have many contacts willing to introduce them to prospects or others who can help them. Too many introductions are squandered because the lawyer being offered the introduction doesn’t manage the proffer properly.

The result is a pleasant but vacuous meeting with no logical basis for continuity, where nothing gets accomplished, all at the cost of creating two new debts.

What are the debts? When you offer to introduce me to Jack (below), I owe you. When Jack meets with me primarily at your behest, you owe Jack. We’ve created two debts. If I do this the right way, Jack will thank you for introducing me, and he’ll owe you.

Before ever speaking to Jack, though, I will have to do a few things.

Getting Prepared

When a referral source offers to arrange a meeting with someone she knows well, thank her for the offer, and ask how she thinks you can help that person. Ask your source why she believes the referred contact will welcome the meeting and benefit from the meeting itself— not from the great work you’ll eventually do for them. The answer identifies the problem that the prospect will acknowledge having. It may bit prove to be the agenda for your meeting, but it’s definitely the foundation of any worthwhile introduction.

To illustrate, let’s say that our client, Janice Brown, wants to introduce us to a friend and colleague. Here’s how that exchange might proceed, and what we’ll have accomplished by doing it this way.

Speaker

Dialog

What You Accomplished

Janice

“I should introduce you to my friend Jack Matthews. He’s general counsel of XYZ Corp.”

 

You

“Thank you. I’m flattered by your offer. How do you know him?”

 

Janice

“We’ve been professional friends for years, and we talk pretty often about what we’re each doing.”

 

You

“XYZ Corp. is pretty active these days. Why do you think Jack would thank you for connecting us?”

You’ve set the bar high, i.e., why Janice would gain a marker instead of expending one.

Janice

“Obviously, you’ve seen the news about their spate of acquisitions. Actually, it’s the early stages of a roll-up strategy. He told me he’s got a full plate of new companies to integrate into their operations and not much time to get it right before the next round of acquisitions. I think he’d welcome your help sorting out the new structures. He’s a sharp guy, but I think he’s a little over his head with some of this.”

 

You

“Have you mentioned me to Jack?”

 

Janice

“Not specifically, but he knows I’ve had some help with this sort of thing.”

 

You

“How do you suggest I make contact?”

You engaged Janice in the “how.” Relative to you, she’s the expert.

Janice

“Just call him and tell him I suggested the call.”

 

You

“I’m happy to. However, Jack sounds really busy, and he doesn’t know me at all. Do you think he’d be more comfortable if you called or emailed him to introduce me?”

You suggested a step that makes it far more likely that you’ll reach Jack, and without having to make multiple tries.

Janice

“That’s probably a good idea. I’ll email him and encourage him to take your call.”

You got a commitment from Janice to call the referral and introduce you.

You

“I appreciate that. I’ll check with you to make sure you’ve reached him before I call. When should I get back to you?”

You set it up so Janice would set a deadline to get this done.

Janice

“I should be able to reach him by Friday. Call me then if you haven’t heard from me.”

You have a mechanism to make sure that Janice calls before you act, a deadline, and the means to test it at an agreed time.

You

“Thanks, again, for the introduction. Tell me about Jack. What kind of guy is he?”

 

Janice

“He’s pretty much a no-nonsense guy who’s always in a hurry because he’s really pressed for time on these acquisitions. Don’t waste time with a lot of chitchat. Just get to the point.”

You learned something about Jack’s personality and operating style and have learned something that saves you from an unintentional gaffe.

You

“I’m glad I asked. Without violating any confidences, what else can you tell me about his problem?”

You demonstrate discretion.

Janice

“I don’t know that he’d appreciate my calling it a problem. He just needs someone who’s experienced to help him wade through a large volume of complicated transactions and help make sense of it.”

You saved yourself from a potentially off-putting expression.

You

“Can I say that you told me about the roll-up strategy?”

More discretion.

Janice

“No, it’s better if you keep quiet about that. It’s not official, although most people have figured it out. Let him tell you himself.”

You’re clear about how much of Janice’s intel you’re allowed to use.

You

“OK. I’ll call you Friday to make sure you’ve reached Jack, and that he’s still interested in having a fresh set of eyes and ears for the structural tangle, then I’ll arrange to meet him. Thanks, again. I’ll let you know what happens.”

This referred opportunity is now under control. You won’t contact Jack until Janice has fulfilled her commitment, and Janice gave you the right to call her Friday and expect it to be done. (During that call, to make sure you’re still on the right track, you’ll explore Jack’s reaction to Janice’s suppositions.) By contrast, think how much less confident you’d be calling Jack without this discussion.

 

Introductory Call

Here’s the conversation that should take place during the introductory call to Jack.

Speaker

Dialog

What you accomplished

You

“This is Ann Smith of Johnson, Jones & Cliff. Janice Brown suggested I call you. She planned to tell you I’d be calling. Did she reach you?”

You tested your foundation.

Jack

“Yes, she did. She says good things about you.”

 

You

“That’s very nice of her. She said you were wrestling with a maze of corporate structures from recent acquisitions and that you’re really pressed for time on it. Is that right?”

You tested Janice’s perceptions, and got right to the point, as she suggested.

Jack

“Actually, I think I’ve got a little breathing space on the structural problems now. I’m less comfortable with some issues regarding special classes of voting stock held by unions as part of a negotiated labor settlement at two of the acquired companies.”

By confirming, you saved yourself from drilling a dry hole. Time to pivot smoothly.

In the traditional model, you might have launched into a presentation of your experience with corporate structure and cross-border deals. Jack would be polite, but because this issue dropped in relative importance since Jack and Janice spoke, he wouldn’t be listening. You’d have no chance of a sale. Now, Jack’s “action imperative” is the securities issue. No matter how knowledgeable or confident Janice is, she isn’t the buyer. That’s also why it’s so important to sell the in-depth meeting and arrange it as soon as possible.

You

"Is this a convenient time to get into a serious discussion about this?"

 

Jack

“Not really. I’ve got some other commitments that limit my time right now. I thought this would just be a quick introduction.”

You prevented a false start when you wouldn’t be able to make real progress.

You

“Understood. Shall we look at our calendars and schedule a time when we can focus on it properly?”

By suggesting checking calendars now, you eliminate unnecessary back-and-forth and delays to getting it scheduled.

     

 

When you speak with Jack again, don’t forget the lesson you just learned and assume the securities issue is still Jack’s action imperative. His environment is particularly dynamic right now. Always reconfirm. By the time you meet, the securities problem may have been eclipsed by something else. If so, be prepared to abandon it in favor of whatever is most pressing then.

Whatever issue commands the agenda, learn the hard deadline for a solution, and lead Jack through a dialog that results in him quantifying the economic importance of the problem. This not only reconfirms its priority, but also establishes a very high ROI for the cost:value relationship for your legal fees.

By doing so, you get Jack to do something really important for you: position your solution as a return on investment rather than a cost.

Next, we’ll focus on the actual sales investigation meeting.

*

[Mike O’Horo, known by thousands of lawyers as The Coach, is a serial innovator in the law firm business development world. His latest innovation is Dezurve, which has cracked the code on identifying investment-worthy lawyers and eliminating training budget waste.]

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