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Will Bar Associations Help Solos and Smalls Find Clients?

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Over at my weekly perch at Above the Law, I took the position in a recent column that bar associations are useless for networking and generating referrals. My column wasn’t meant to diss the bars; I noted that even if they’re not effective for networking, they a wealth of resources such as low-cost CLE, free research tools (like Fastcase  or Casemaker and quality practice management support.

Still, I argued that the nature of the bar structure plays against solos and smalls. Most committees are dominated by large firm lawyers, who pass along leadership positions to their associates. And even if a solo or small could get a foot in the door, leadership on bar committees can consume hours of time on questions like “should we have chairs or no chairs at the next event” or shepherding a panel idea through layers of bureaucracy. I typically complain enough to get myself appointed to a committee where I’ll do my share – but eventually grow impatient with immovable policies (for example, after 2 years and organizing 3 successful, 90+ person brown bag events, I left the DC Practice Management Committee after waiting for the launch of a DC Bar list serve, which to this day still hasn’t taken place).

Still, it’s possible that I extrapolated my own specific lack of success with bar events into a generalization applicable to all lawyers. Indeed, in the days since my column, a couple of colleagues have tweeted their disagreement with my premise, noting that they’ve found success and referrals through bar participation.  In short, it does happen, even though it hasn’t happened for me or the colleagues with whom I’ve commiserated.

So here’s my question. For those of you who have been successful in generating referrals from bar association participation, how has it happened? Have you gotten to know lawyers through committees who sent work your way? Gained exposure such that other lawyers in the community learned your name and referred you cases? And how much time did it take to reach that point?  In short, I’m interested in specific how to’s rather than regurgitation of conventional wisdom like “attend bar networking events.” So please share your experiences with bar associations as a source of referrals —  positive or negative — in the comment section below – or let me know if you’d like to write a guest post on this topic.

  • Paul Spitz

    I’m interested in hearing feedback on this, since I just started my solo practice and am trying to be active in the local bar association. I read your column at ATL (bunch of whiners there, by the way), and thought you made some excellent points. I am definitely doing the lion’s share of my networking in non-lawyer settings — namely, where my potential clients are. Heck, I can’t even get a quality referral from the Lawyer Referral Service, which doesn’t seem to understand the difference between a transactional lawyer and a litigator.

  • Fully agree with you Paul. I had conversation recently with Five bar associations and the topic was to create venues, services to help attorneys finding clients and non-lawyer settings. With a few exceptions most of the conversation comes down to ” We traditionally don’t do that” or “We don’t market our Members” or blank stares.

    Very frustrating to see that, with a few exceptions, the bars have a laissez-faire approach to marketing topics.

  • Paul Spitz

    I don’t really expect my bar association to help me find clients, other than by providing the referral service and perhaps some good educational programs. You can’t put the bar association in a situation where it might be playing favorites with members (more than it does already).

    What I do expect from the bar association are (1) educational programs so I can meet my CLE requirements, and (2) advocacy on behalf of the legal profession. So, for example, I think every local, state, and national bar association should be filing complaints against the DIY document services, claiming they are engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.

  • good points. The advocacy piece is something that seems to be missing on a large scale. Why isn’t there a coordinated effort from Bars to “Market” the need for Lawyers more openly. You see all these boiler plate services making a heck of an effort to “Market” the websites that tell clients that they do not need a Lawyer. “Just fill in these forms for $19.00 and you are done” I see no response from Bars – which should be promoting why clients need a Lawyer.

  • Bill

    I have found specialized bars to be very helpful in generating business. Two caveats that color my experience: I am a government contract lawyer, which is a pretty narrow specialty, and I was a large firm partner for many years before going solo, and the people I got (and still get) referrals from are people that I knew as opposing counsel, or as counsel to subcontractors to or from my clients, and who also happened to belong to the same specialized bar associations as I did. (Most of those referrals are due to conflicts at the referring firm.) While I think the pace of referrals has gone up since I went solo, I don’t know if that is causation or correlation. I think–and this might be a useful way to pitch yourself if you are in a bar group with large firm lawyers–that I am viewed as a “better” or “safer” referral, now that there is zero chance that the client will be cross-sold with all of the other specialties my former large firm had to offer. I know it is not a cost thing: my rates are not much less than when I was at the large firm, although the staffing is leaner. So I really do think it is more not having to worry about dazzling the client with all that my firm has to offer, since that is not just me. (Even though I would never try to actively cross-sell a conflict referral client, we have all heard clients say “while I am here, do you have a (fill in the blank–FCC/FDA/EPA/ITAR/etc) lawyer we can talk to?”
    So while my main use for specialize bars is the substantive knowledge, it helps to keep my name out there as a plausible place to refer clients. (I will say I think the “former large firm partner” narrative helps that, as well.)

  • Paul Spitz

    That’s certainly a referral selling point for me. I practice business law only, no litigation. So I can refer litigation out to trial lawyers, and they can refer me transactional projects.

  • Bill

    Paul, almost all the referrals I get (certainly through bar associations) are from other government contract lawyers, generally from large firms. The selling point (besides quality, etc. etc.) is that as a solo, there is no change the referring firm’s government contract client will look to me for labor and employment, or environmental, or something else that a full service firm would offer. Even when I was at large firms, I would never intentionally pitch other work to the client sent to me by another firm, but in real life, client asks a question, your partner in down the hall or in another office knows the answer…..(actually, thinking about it, I wonder if those large firm referring lawyers most worried about that type of cross-selling are those that do it themselves….)

  • Paul Spitz

    When you think about how large and far-flung some of these firms are, you have to wonder whether someone in one department even knows if any of his “partners” in another department are any good. Well, you have to wonder if one partner even knows his other “partners.”

  • Bill

    Paul, in my experience, most large firm partners have a major financial incentive to get other partners working for their clients. It is that incentive–which every large firm partner who has to refer work to another firm, due to conflicts or some other reason knows from his/her own firm experience–that makes a solo an attractive alternative place to send the referral. (Although, thinking about it, this logic probably is most applicable when the clients at issue are mid market or large companies that have significant legal needs and budgets.)

  • Bill G

    Gaining referrals from bar membership is a bonus, but shouldn’t be an expectation justifying membership. Professional associations aren’t intended to be sources of clients, though they are a great place to get to know other lawyers to whom, and from whom, you can trust referrals.

    For a steady stream of referrals, go the where the clients are. Business attorneys should be associate members of the trade organizations of their target markets. Family attorneys should be in BNI, chamber, and other small biz networking groups, etc.

    Membership in a bar association should be first and foremost an opportunity to give back to the profession and to improve the economic climate for lawyers through educational opportunities and advocacy. It should provide an opportunity to network with others in the profession for the purpose of sharing knowledge, and war stories, both up and down the experience ladder. Bar membership should not be conditioned on receiving more revenue from referrals than the cost of the dues.

    I have received referrals from other lawyers in the bar, and I’ve given referrals to attorneys I’ve gotten to know. But this is a perk, not a goal or objective.

  • Bryan S.

    The time horizon for reaping the benefits of bar association membership is longer when compared to some other organizations like BNI but still valuable. The benefits cannot always be measured in terms of direct referrals either. My former boss pushed me to join the local county bar executive board. We were a two man firm. I was 30 at the time. Within 2 years of joining, I was the president. Why? No one else wanted to do it. I was regularly speaking to the members and judges. We had 450 members then. I had access to the judiciary which gave me the opportunity to speak and meet with many of them about achieving common goals. I spearheaded our Law Day clinics, handled many issues and attended numerous social events. Every one around me got to see it. It was work, for sure. My presidency gave me the platform to introduce myself to as many people as possible. Now, I’m 40 and a solo. Looking back, I have no doubt that my active participation then has paid dividends. I believe I enjoy an excellent reputation with numerous judges even though I’m relatively young. I haven’t received the best referrals from bar association members but there have been some calls. I do have a strong network of colleagues who I can simply call or email if I need assistance which is more important to me now than ever before. I’ve returned the favor many times. My clients trust me to connect them to my network of colleagues if I cannot help them. Like anything else, bar association membership is one piece of the networking puzzle but still worthwhile. For me, it seems to get better with age.

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