Client Development

Marvin’s Fish Theory of Legal Marketing

I once had a law partner named Marvin who taught me what he called the “fish theory” of marketing.  According to Marvin, marketing was simply a matter of throwing a fish back to every referral source who threw a fish to you.  If you were referred a file from someone, you owed that person a file, and so it went. 

There are some elements of the fish theory of marketing with which I agree.  Certainly, having a strong network of like-minded professionals with whom referrals can be exchanged can form an important component of a lawyer’s marketing plan. 

However, as a stand-alone theory, the fish theory is much too simple.  I learned that the hard way, when Marvin had me refer a client to a lawyer in Montreal to whom he owed a fish.  In fairness to Marvin, he did not know that the lawyer was incompetent, but perhaps he was blinded by the entire school of fish that Marvin had thrown his way. In any event, Marvin did not do enough research to determine that the Montreal lawyer was competent.  The Montreal lawyer gave us incorrect advice which our client relied upon and suffered a loss. 

The client was not at all impressed when we told him that his complaint was with the Montreal lawyer and not with us.  While that may have been technically correct, we nonetheless did not get paid, we lost a client, and we had to worry about a potential negligence claim.

I had another experience early in my career when we hired a lawyer in a new area of practice named John, and I quickly introduced John to one of my best clients and recommended that the client retain John to do some work.  John did not impress my client. Ultimately John did not impress any of my partners either and left the firm.  My client told me exactly what he thought of me for introducing him to John before I had worked with John long enough to know whether it was a good referral.

Both experiences reinforced something that I should have already known; you must always put client’s interests first, whether or not there is a fish in it for you.

Each time that a client asks for your help, if you are not able to provide that help yourself, you must be ready to provide the client with a referral, whether that be to another member of your firm or to someone outside of your firm, and the only criteria must be what is best for the client.  If your relationship with your client is strong, they will know that you will do that, and you will always be the first call that they make when they have an issue.  If they do not know that, they will seek out other sources to resolve their issues, which could lead to one or more of the following: 

  1. your client may not get the best person for the job; 
  2. work that you or your firm could have done may go to other lawyers;
  3. work that you could have referred to a friendly source may go to someone who will try to obtain all the client’s work, including the work that you would normally do; and
  4. you may have lost an opportunity to refer work to a source who will refer work back to you at some point.

As a corollary, you must develop a network of strong referral sources who can be trusted to treat your clients with the same respect, skill, and service with which you treat them. There are three reasons for this:

  1. It is necessary if you are to always put the interests of the client first;
  2. You will be blamed by the client if they do not like the person who you referred them to; and
  3. Referral sources who treat your clients with the same respect, skill, and service that you treat them are likely to have attracted the type of clients who you want to have referred to you.  

Another conclusion that I have come to is that to get referrals from other professionals, you must be prepared to play the long game.

I was once invited to participate in a breakfast networking group consisting of a lawyer (me), an accountant, an insurance advisor, and a business broker.  The idea was to meet once a month for breakfast and get to know each other with a view toward future referrals.  After the second breakfast, the business broker dropped out because he had not received a referral yet.  

Contrast that story with the following.  I was consulted by an entrepreneur with a limited budget who was establishing a new company.  I referred the entrepreneur to an accountant.  He hired the accountant, but he did not hire me.  Instead, he decided to go with a smaller law firm who he thought would be more cost effective.   My relationship with the accountant was still in place 15 years later when the entrepreneur was selling his business for many millions of dollars and the accountant advised him that he needed more sophisticated legal counsel to handle the transaction and referred the client right back to me for one of my largest retainers ever.

Getting back to the fish theory, I learned during the recession in the 1990’s that the fatal flaw with the fish theory is that when things slow down, you may run out of fish, and if your only relationships are based on you having fish to throw, you are in trouble.  If, on the other hand, your relationships are based on mutual trust and respect within a network of great professionals, the referrals are more likely to continue.

Finally, here are a few more thoughts about the fish theory:

  1. There are several referral networks out there which professionals join, where they meet regularly to exchange referrals.  In some of these networks, there is substantial pressure applied on the members to make referrals to other members of the group.  I understand that these networks work for some people, but they never appealed to me because it always seemed to me that the pressure to refer to group members was inconsistent with my own rule that every referral must be in the best interests of the client; and
  2. You must do everything in your power to take care of clients who are referred to you.  I once referred a securities matter to a U.S. law firm based in Buffalo.  The Buffalo firm assigned a senior securities lawyer to the file who for some reason my client did not like.  My client asked me to find him another U.S. securities lawyer.  With my client’s permission, I called my contact at the U.S. firm to tell him what was going on.  With no hesitation, my contact said: “Tell your client that we have another securities lawyer who will make him happy.  That securities lawyer and I will drive from Buffalo to Markham tomorrow morning at no cost to introduce ourselves and assure your client that he will be well taken care of.”  I did that.  They came and impressed my client.  The new securities lawyer took over the file. The deal proceeded and closed and that U.S firm continued to get my referrals for another 20 years. 

I have met a few professionals over the years who referred clients to me and told me not to worry about whether or not I could ever refer anything back to them.  However, those are the exceptions.  Their only concern was getting the best lawyer for their client and I was honoured that they believed that to be me.   

I also received referrals from a few professionals over the years and never referred anything back to them, despite their complaints, because I knew that they would not treat my clients well.  Of course, they eventually stopped referring work to me and I was okay with that.   

Referral marketing proved to be the best possible type of marketing for me over my career, as long as I remembered to put my clients first.  Having said that, there is no need to be stupid about it.  Although putting the client first may sometimes require you to keep throwing fish at someone who is throwing his or her fish elsewhere, more often than not you can find a referral source who will do a great job for your client and also throw you some fish from time to time.

Finally, if you are wondering why this is called the “fish” theory, I have no idea. Marvin never told me.

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