New Jersey family lawyer and founder of the Law Firm Mentor, Allison Williams, offers ideas on how a law firm can increase referral business using social media and both online and offline networking.
How to Increase Referrals by Creating Online Networking Opportunities
Dan Couvrette: My name is Dan Couvrette. I’m the publisher of Family Law Magazine and the CEO of Divorce Marketing Group. Today I have the pleasure of speaking with Allison Williams. Allison is a New Jersey family lawyer and she also has another business called “Law Firm Mentor”. This interview is part of a series I’m doing for a Family Lawyer Magazine article about how to ramp up your business during COVID-19 and post COVID-19. Allison and I will focus our conversation on the subject of referral development and provide valuable insights on what you can do right now to develop and grow your family law business. First, let me just tell you a little bit about Allison. Allison Williams is the owner of not one but two successful companies. She is the founder of Williams Law Group, a full-service family law firm in New Jersey. She is a fellow of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, certified by the New York Jersey Supreme Court as a matrimonial law attorney, certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy and family law, and she is an international speaker in the field of child abuse and neglect evidence and trial practice.
Allison has appeared on the Katie Couric Show and has published articles on the Huffington Post addressing issues of child maltreatment. She has been selected among her peers as one of the top 100 Super Lawyers in New Jersey, and has been voted by her clients as one of New Jersey’s Best Family Lawyers. After taking Williams Law Group from the start to being a multi-million dollar law firm in 3.5 years, she created a second business called Law Firm Mentor, where she provides coaching services for solo and small law firms, helping them grow their revenues. This business was born out of success in the business including winning the Law Firm 500 Award, ranking 14th of the fastest-growing law firms in the nation being named a Stevie Award finalist for female entrepreneur of the year in 2017 and again in 2018 and being voted as NJBiz Top 50 Women in business and designated one of the top 25 leading women entrepreneurs and business owners. The motto of her firm Law Firm Mentor is #NeverStopGrowing. I invited Allison to talk about building your referral network and we’re going to learn a bit about her mentor business and what she’s recommending to her clients at this time of COVID-19. I know Allison would be recommending to charge ahead. Now is not the time to sit back and wait for business to come to you. It’s time to move forward and crush it, as Allison would say. So thank you for joining me Allison.
Allison Williams: Well, thank you for having me, Dan. It’s always fun to talk to you and I always love what you bring to your audience at Family Lawyer Magazine. So thank you for having me on.
Let’s first talk about the power of referrals. Why are referrals important to a family law practice?
As lawyers we know referrals have a higher likelihood of converting to clients than advertising so they’re very important to the success of our practices. There are several components I think we should talk about regarding developing referrals now.
The first thing to know is that most lawyers have a way of thinking about business based on how we were raised as young lawyers to the present, which involves networking and generating referrals as our primary source of business. Most lawyers think it’s through relationships with others that we develop referrals, and that’s true, but today, a lot of our business activity and networking opportunity has moved online, and for lawyers who want to create relationships and connect with people as a means of generating referrals they need to be very active online particularly during and post-COVID-19. The second part is that there is definitely an art to making powerful connections with people and actually staying in front of them online because there are so many messages online, there are so many people vying for the attention that you really have to cut through that with a genuineness about what your goals are, in terms of creating those relationships.
So where should a family lawyer start? Let’s say they have never really worked very hard at developing their referral sources, the business was just coming in and now with COVID-19 – by the way, I should mention that the date of this interview is May 5, 2020, so we’re having this conversation, most of us are working from home except for essential workers and we expect the effects of COVID-19 will last for a good while, but we don’t know how long. So starting from this point, if a lawyer hasn’t been working at developing their referrals, what do you think they should be doing? They have to develop a mindset first, or they have to get into action. What’s the process?
Everything starts with our mindset, of course. So the first thing to realize is that whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, creating a relationship with somebody is a one-on-one experience. So for those of you that have that thought of, “oh my God it’s so overwhelming to go out into a room full of people that I don’t know and try to drum up business,” this really does not have to be a condition to develop referrals.
In terms of getting referrals now that we are all online, you have a lot more opportunities to create relationships with people from all over the country. So once upon a time, law was local – and if you were a family lawyer, you would be looking to create relationships with other lawyers in your area as well as business owners and other people in your surrounding area. But now you can get referrals from anywhere because we are all so interconnected. What I have found to be one of the most effective strategies is actually getting online and getting into social media and into groups in social media where you can be the family lawyer from, say, your part of Texas or your part of Arizona or your part of Florida, as opposed to being one of dozens – if not hundreds – of family lawyers in a particular area. You now have a much broader reach.
A lot of new networking opportunities are springing up that don’t involve the same level of potential stress, time, and financial commitment that they used to. So, you now see opportunities popping up like the Virtual Happy Hour which has become a thing. Lots of organizations, whether it be legal, technology companies, marketing companies, business development companies like BSI, a lot of those organizations are sponsoring Virtual Happy Hour so that they can draw in business. This is an opportunity for you to go and meet people. And don’t worry, everybody is having that same kind of awkward looking at the Brady Bunch screen of humans in front of them experience so you can kind of leverage that to really get to know people where you don’t have to get dressed up, you don’t have to drive anywhere, and you often don’t have to pay a cost of admission, as many are free.
These types of networking opportunities are really about just showing up and getting to know people. When you start to do that it becomes quite easy to develop a relationship with people who can become genuine referral sources. Some of these groups have a limit in terms of the number of insurance agents or real estate people – or, they are wide open. So it depends. Some groups may have a limit on each type of attorney. They may want to have one custody attorney and maybe one adoption attorney, even though there’s some overlap in the practice areas, but you’re not going to get a glut of family law attorneys. But for a lot of organizations like Clio, which is a practice management software company, they’re starting to have Happy Hours where they bring together lawyers from all over the country.
You can create your own Happy Hour, and invite professionals, business owners, or personal contacts who are close to you regionally. As a family law attorney, we know we have an opportunity to generate business really from anyone because everybody knows somebody who has a family. So there are opportunities in connecting with your local dry cleaner owner, your local hardware store owner, your local car wash owner, etc. All of those businesses that are close to you are easy to put together because all that’s really required is a Zoom account, which now most of us have. If you’re not using Zoom, you might be using another form of platform like GoToMeeting or GoToWebinar.
You can invite people by simply sending them an email invitation with a link. So it’s very easy to set the group up, it’s inexpensive and it’s a way you can start to create deeper connections with people, and as the group expands you connect with people you don’t already know.
So without getting into too much detail, if I want to start a group, how would I go about starting a group? What’s the first step to starting a group like you’re talking about?
When you’re starting a group, the first thing I would suggest is to always begin with the end in mind. In other words, who is it that you want to connect with? Is it going to be a group of professionals meaning every person that would help a family law attorney like forensic accountants, mental health professionals, vocational experts, or is it going to be broader-based and maybe people in your neighborhood or in your sphere of influence? Thus I’m going to reach out a little bit more.
First you have to think about who you want to reach. After you’ve decided that, it’s pretty easy to get things set up. For most of us, we have a business page on the various social media platforms. For most adults between the ages of late 30s to early 50s, I’m talking about Facebook as your primary driver or possibly LinkedIn.
In either one of those platforms you’re going to set up an event. The event is going to be connected with your business page online. And I’m going to just talk about Facebook. Generally, you create the event, you share it on your business page, and then every person who follows your business page will be aware of the event, but then you’re going to send either a personal message to every person that you’re connected with on social media. Even if you’re not connected with them on social media, you can create a link to your event, and then send an invitation out to people on your email list. If you don’t have them on your email list, you can simply call their office or call their business, and most businesses now have some form of contact where you can get a hold of them, even if they don’t have traditional hours, nine to five, Monday through Friday. So that’s how you get them invited. You can also create an account on Eventbrite.com which is a great resource that will allow you to create tickets. Even if it’s for a free event, you can create a ticket so that you can start to capture people’s email accounts. The great thing about that is if you create an event on Eventbrite, local businesses that are local to your event, wherever your event is held, are going to get notified of similar types of events to what you are offering, so if they ever attended your event, in the future, even without an invitation, they can be told about your event because it’s something that might be of interest to them, so it’s very easy to get noticed and to get the word out.
Can you boost your event on Facebook and get it out to a community of people who you don’t know?
Yes, I guess it depends on how far-reaching you want your event to be. If you want your event to have an auditorium type feel where you’re going into a room full of people you don’t know you, can absolutely boost it or you can run a sponsored ad, which includes a link to your event so that people get notice of it. But that type of event will likely only attract people who are more extroverted. If you want it to be more intimate, then you want to make sure that you’re doing some extra steps to make sure that the people who say yes, don’t just say yes and put it on their list of things to think about later. You need to go the extra step to get them to the event. That usually would include things like setting notices and reminders once they get their event ticket. You can create an email drip campaign whereby, after you have given them the first invitation, they get a series of emails that remind them of what to do. First, put this on your calendar. Second, send a second email confirming they are going to attend. Third, invite them to bring a person to the event. The idea is to get them involved in the process before the event actually happens so that they have some skin in the game and will actually show up.
That sounds great. So let’s just talk about the event for a moment, what are we going to talk about at the event?
So there are lots of different structures for Virtual Happy Hours and I’ve attended several of them with different organizations, including one that I hold at Law Firm Mentor. We hold one every Thursday. One of the things that I love is that they’re very loosely structured. So you can have one that has a light agenda, for example, we’re going to go around and introduce ourselves, say what our businesses are, and maybe throw out a description of what would be a great referral for you and then kick off a conversation on any topic. Right now COVID-19 is on every news channel, every podcast, and every radio station, so you probably want to veer away from that subject so that people can get a little bit of a reprieve from that and find things that people can talk about that have some symbiosis among the people that are at the group. Other Happy Hours are very casual and they are treated like a Happy Hour. So you show up, you’ve got your cocktail, or your coffee if you’re like me and you don’t drink, you’ve got something in your hand and we just start a conversation which can be as simple as to what everybody is drinking, to what shows they are watching on Netflix, to the latest music they are listening to. We keep it light.
One of the things that I really love about Zoom is the fact that you can create meeting rooms in your Zoom account. You have to set that up before the meeting. So before the Happy Hour, you have to have your meeting set and turned on in Zoom. You can create an unlimited number of rooms. So if at the start of your event, you have 30 people show up and you really want to have more of a Happy Hour feel you can break people into rooms of five. You would just set up six rooms and name the rooms, and the software is going to randomly assort people. If you don’t like the random assortment, you can move them where you’d like them to go but then you create a community so people have a feel of being in a small group and have a more intimate conversation.
If you have five people, there are always one or two people who are going to be more outgoing and talkative, and even if you are more of a wallflower there’ll be other people who will carry the conversation. Is that what naturally happens in these groups as well?
Yes, absolutely, and there are ways to facilitate conversation. In a Zoom meeting, you do have the ability to chat with individuals and you can always designate one person in a room to start the conversation around a particular topic like, Let’s talk about the last place that we traveled on vacation. Or What’s the next place you’re going to go on vacation to when we’re out of quarantine? Or How many pounds have we gained while we’re housebound? Who has a great online exercise program they’re now using given we’re all stuck at home and can’t get to the club?
These meetings allow you to create friendships, natural connections, natural associations, and that’s really where relationship building happens. That generates leads for you.
And for a family lawyer you don’t need too many people giving you leads to keep your business going, if you’re not counting on hundreds of referrals, you’re talking about three to five new clients coming in a month for most family lawyers and that’s relatively easy to generate perhaps just even from one referral. So you don’t have to shoot for the sky and think you need to get 100 new people sending you business, right?
Yes, that’s a great point, Dan, because I think a lot of times we put so big of an obligation on ourselves, and we put so much pressure on ourselves that we forget that a little piece here or there can result in something. So there are some things that you can do to increase the likelihood of getting more referrals so that you can spend your time on what are the high-value referral sources as opposed to just a blitz of everyone.
When you’re going to create the event yourself, you want to be looking for networking and marketing-minded people, people you have in some way encountered or have connected with before, people who have an online presence, people whose businesses are growing, because if you bring someone in who doesn’t have an interest in generating business they likely won’t be an active participant in the group.
Regarding reaching out to other lawyers, family law is local, so unless you have a statewide presence you probably don’t want to be hitting people all the way at the other end of the state because yes, they can refer, but are they going to refer business to you when the economy is down. You’re probably going to have a little bit more difficulty with someone who is really struggling and looking to keep every business opportunity that they can, especially if they’re in the same practice area.
You want to look for practice areas that will naturally feed family law, so while a securities lawyer can have a friend who’s getting a divorce or can know someone who has a custody dispute, you are much more likely to encounter people who can make referrals if they are mental health professionals who are seeing people in distressed relationships. This can include professionals such as marriage and family therapists and family psychologists. You’re more likely to get leads from that type of professional than from someone who just happens to know human beings and thus may or may not encounter someone you need to be able to give you referrals. And then finally, you want somebody who has an established funnel online. This is someone who has an established online presence, but is also generating leads through their online presence. They either have a funnel where they have advertised online and a person can click on an advertisement to go over to the website, download a free opt-in, and then ultimately get sent to a channel to get on the phone with them so they can schedule a consultation, or they can schedule a consultation right on the website. This would be a person who has that type of sophistication in their marketing – someone who is going to encounter far more people.
For instance, I know in my law firm, we refer out seven or eight people a week, on average, for people that call and think that family law means eldercare, which is not our practice area. But we have lawyers in that practice area in every county in the state now because we get those referrals.
Criminal defense is another one. Oftentimes if someone is accused of a crime and the resources of the family are diverted to that defense, that can cause a lot of distress. What’s going to happen with custody and parenting time if someone is incarcerated? Why is this person taking the family’s resources because they’ve now been accused of doing something heinous that could involve child abuse or child sexual abuse? All of those areas overlap naturally with family law, so if they already have a lot of people that they’re talking to, even if they can’t help those people, that’s the best opportunity that you’re going to reach in terms of getting a marketing-minded person. You can see people who can refer those people over to you if you create that strong relationship.
Then would you also be referring people out to mental health professionals and financial professionals through your family law practice?
Absolutely. As family lawyers we counsel people about life, because we are helping them to re-orchestrate their life when we help move them through the process of their family law dispute. So that naturally includes referring them to mental health, physical health, financial, and other professionals. It includes restructuring of mortgages, acquiring or selling real estate, relocating in or out of the state, or any number of services that are just naturally attended to people dissolving their marriages. I don’t know too many Family Lawyers that don’t at some point refer their client out for therapy or some type of psychological evaluation.
We’ve talked up to this point about generating new referral sources, but I also want to talk about staying connected to your referral sources and how important it is to stay connected to them.
In terms of staying connected with people, there are lots of different ways to do that. For the busy professional, a lot of us are using technology and technical tools that can assist us. So the first thing that I highly recommend is that any person that you have had any form of professional contact with – if you meet them at a group or you encounter them as an adversary in court, etc. that person goes into a bucket, if you will, in your CRM, which stands for Customer Relationship Management software.
In that software, you sort people based on how you know them and what their area of interest is. So all of the family lawyers, mental health professionals, realtors, and so forth that you know, you’re going to create ongoing email contact with them – but in a generic type of form letter.
The reason to use email is that on average, you’re going to get anywhere from 18% to 22% of your emails open. So you’re not going to necessarily get the broadest reach by using email alone, but email is a great way to just remind people. If they see nothing other than your email address it reminds them that you are staying in contact with them. Secondly, I would schedule a check-in call on your calendar, just to say hi, or just an FYI, I’m still here. I still help people with this problem. I want to make sure that if I encounter a person with the type of problem that you solve, that I can make that referral to you.
Then third, a lot of family lawyers use social media, so even though getting referrals from your fellow colleagues who want to be getting that business themselves might not be the best place to start, that is certainly a group of people you should have on your list.
So, family lawyers that you are in contact with stay connected with them on social media, you ping them every once in a while, get a funny article, share it in a group. A lot of us already have groups by our state and by our practice area, you should stay in those groups, because doing so will generate referrals if you participate. In fact, last year, my law firm generated well over six figures just from my associations with people in Facebook groups. They get to know you, for example, somebody in Texas has a friend that’s moving to New Jersey and he’s a family law attorney.
Family lawyers know a referral comes with a higher level of trust because the person in the state who’s gotten the referral from the lawyer out of the state doesn’t know you but they know you were recommended by a person they trust – it’s called the “Know, Like, and Trust Factor”.
It’s quite easy to stay active in groups if you make it a habit of checking in with the group once every day or two and post something. It could be anything – it could be a joke, it doesn’t have to be law-related, just stay visible to people right now.
Tell me about Law Firm Mentor.
Law Firm Mentor is a business coaching service for solo and small law firm attorneys. We help lawyers grow their revenues, crush chaos in their business, and make more money.
The crush chaos is all about systems. What we help people do at Law Firm Mentor is to really focus on creating systematized activities for every aspect of the business, be it marketing, sales, hiring or terminating people, communications, money management – everything should be done based on a system so that less time, energy and effort is taken away from the owner of the business, the partners in the firm, or even the associates. More of that time can be devoted to making the system better so that there is less stress and the business is more profitable.
The goal is to manage activity so you make more money without spending more time. You have time to think about the business and not just do the stuff of the business. You can instead strategically plan the business. That’s one of the greatest deficits that we see in the business of law: lawyers don’t take time to actually work on the business because they’re so busy working in the business.
Most of us lawyers say ‘I don’t have the time to work on the business. I need to get to court. I’ve got a meeting with my associate, I need to meet with my partner, I’ve got a client emergency.’ Those things happen around us because we are reacting to what’s happening as opposed to responding to things that would normally come up in the course of business because we have time. So we maximize your time. We get you more time and we get you more money because you’re more efficient and we help you do that in the course of various different programs, including live retreats – now virtual retreats – and we also help you with ongoing private and group coaching annually
What type of lawyers do you work with?
We work with all types of lawyers. We help lawyers in every practice area except firms that are primarily personal injury firms. Everything else that is either an hourly or a flat fee service, including family, criminal, estate planning, real estate, business litigation, and probate – all of the areas that really touch upon either B2C or even B2B.
I want to talk about the difference between the value of developing referrals as a way to generate business as compared to advertising as a way to generate business because I know you do both at your family law firm – and you also coach lawyers about both at Law Firm Mentor.
Both of them are necessary in business, but one of the things you have to understand is the topic of conversion rates. A conversion rate is the rate at which someone is going to hire you. If I meet with ten people and five hire me, I have a 50% conversion rate. Look at conversion rates of people who have been personally referred to you versus people who are what we refer to as cold traffic, – people who don’t know you who just read something online for instance. You are much more likely to get a high conversion rate from a referral source from someone who is personally referred by someone who already knows, likes, and trusts you than from someone who is cold traffic.
Having said that, you might need to do both and you need to be creating a dossier of information about how to increase that know, like, and trust factor, whether someone is personally referred or not. One of the things that we help you do at Law Firm Mentor is to help you decide where to start creating a content marketing strategy, where you are going to use services like Divorce Marketing Group and Family Lawyer Magazine to get your name and face out there and also get yourself some level of esteem.
Then you have a portfolio, if you will, where people can see that you know what you’re talking about and see what your experience has been. They get to have a higher level of regard for you before they come in to see you, and having that referral base is really helpful, especially in times like right now, because so many people are in economic distress.
A lot of people have been laid off and are not likely to be spending money. So if there is a person who is going to be spending money, they’re going to be more cautious about who they spend that money with. They want to make sure they get the right lawyer. Then second, they’re going to want to not just choose a lawyer, but choose a lawyer who has a higher likelihood of giving them that extra care. So the perception of getting extra care just by virtue of a handoff from a referral is so much greater that you already start out a little bit ahead of the game when you have that initial conversation with the person. So I can’t say enough about the importance of making sure that you are keeping yourself in the mix of always generating positive referral relationships, whether you are advertising or not.
Dan Couvrette: Allison, thank you very much for the time you’ve given us. If you’re interested in learning more about Law Firm Mentor, I highly recommend Allison and her program. I’ve heard great things about it. I suggest you visit her website, www.LawFirmMentor.net. If you want to learn more about Allison’s family law firm. go to www.FamilyLawyersNewJersey.com.