117 – Isabella Santellan – How to Build a Referral-Based Practice

When it comes to personal injury law, the client-firm relationship can be fairly transactional. Most clients aren’t talking about their personal injury cases with their network, and lawyers hope that their clients don’t get injured again and become repeat customers.   

But when you have mostly transactional, single-case relationships with clients, how can you gain more business? If your personal injury clients aren’t telling their network about you, who will?

One of the most rewarding methods for gaining more business is referral marketing. Creating longstanding attorney referral relationships gives you a pipeline for more cases, helps you build a reputation, and keeps your firm top of mind in the industry. However, in order to succeed with referral-based marketing, you have to cultivate your relationships and think about what the other person wants. 

According to Michael Cowen and the team at Cowen Rodriguez Peacock, you have to give back in order to grow your referral-based business. Take referring attorneys out to lunch or to an event that they would enjoy. Or, give them a gift that’s personalized (and doesn’t have your firm’s name or logo on it). However you decide to show gratitude to your referral partners, it’s important that you create a system to follow up, check in every now and then, and continue nurturing that relationship.

Above all, Michael says that it’s important to create a culture of sharing and respect and keep your promises with referring attorneys. You don’t have to take every case that comes your way, and you can’t guarantee the outcome of a case. You can, however, promise to work hard, keep clients informed, and honor the deal you made. 

In episode 117, Isabella Santellan, the Marketing Assistant at Cowen Rodriguez Peacock, asks Michael Cowen all of the essential questions about building a referral-based business and tending to referral relationships. Listen to this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation to hear Michael’s advice on building a referral network and nurturing relationships, turning down referral cases, and simplifying the referral process for your firm. 


Featured Guest

Name: Isabella Santellan

About: Isabella Santellan is the Marketing Assistant at Cowen Rodriguez Peacock. She was born and raised in San Antonio, TX and recently received her B.B.A in Management from the University of Texas at San Antonio. As the Marketing Assistant, Isabella runs the firm’s social media, helps plan events, and works to ensure they provide an unforgettable experience to everyone they work with. In her free time, Isabella enjoys traveling, golfing, and spending time with her family.

Company: Cowen Rodriguez Peacock

Connect: LinkedIn


Key Points

Top takeaways from this episode 

  • Start with the people you already know (and don’t be too picky about cases). It’s difficult to come out of law school and have the reputation and network needed to create a referral-based business. Michael Cowen suggests you get your foot in the door by being hungry, humble, and persistent. Take cases from those who are already in your network and expand your business from there.   
  • Give your referring attorneys what they want. It’s important to stay top of mind when you’re building a referral-based business. How do you do this? Michael says you need to give back to your referral partners. Take your referring attorneys to lunch or to an event that they might enjoy. You could also give them a call, send a handwritten thank you note, or give them a gift (without your firm’s name or logo on it). However you show gratitude, you have to do so with the other person in mind.
  • Nurture your existing referrals. When trying to build a referral-based business, many firms make the mistake of moving on to new referrals without nurturing existing partnerships. But the key is to create longstanding relationships with attorney referrals. It’s much harder to convince someone new to send you the first case, and it’s more fruitful to put effort into the connections that are already sending business your way.   


Episode Highlights 

[02:40] The foundation of great attorney referral relationships: The key to establishing great referral relationships is nurturing your connections, setting expectations upfront, and making sure you stay top of mind.

[06:05] The three things a referring lawyer or co-counsel wants: Every referring lawyer or co-counsel wants as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, without client complaints. Michael Cowen breaks down the details of how to achieve this. 

[07:27] How to keep a referring lawyer’s attention: Michael shares Cowen Rodriguez Peacock’s strategies for keeping a referring lawyer’s attention and making sure they choose you over competitors. 

[09:07] Turning down a referral’s case: The number one step to respectfully turn down a referral’s case is to do it swiftly. It’s hard to say no, but it’s better than accepting a case that you’ll later regret. Michael also suggests directing a case to a different firm and offering a possible solution. 

[12:00] What you can and can’t guarantee to a referring lawyer: You can’t guarantee the outcome of a case, but you can promise that you’ll work hard and keep the team informed about the details of a case. 

[13:13] How a new attorney can build their referral network: Start with people you already know. From there, you can build out your network and run your business on referrals. Especially when starting out, you have to get your foot in the door — you can’t be too picky about cases until you build your reputation.

[18:30] Michael’s experience with referrals: Michael shares his advice for working with referring lawyers and developing your referral process. He also talks about the big mistakes he made early in his career and how you can avoid those same mistakes. 

[25:32] Simplifying the referral process: The key to simplifying the process for referring attorneys is to remove the bottlenecks. If you’re busy, put them in contact with someone else on your team who can give them the time and attention they need. For Michael, getting clear on criteria for automatic ‘yeses’ and ‘nos’ can help simplify the process as well.  

[26:51] Other methods to gain referrals: Michael explains how his seminar, Big Rig Boot Camp, and his podcast create a referral funnel and generate more business. 

[30:43] What to do after you win the referral: It can be tempting to constantly look for new referrals, but Michael advises you to spend more time and effort on your existing referral relationships.

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In this popular and award-winning podcast for trial lawyers, noteworthy author, sought-after speaker, and renowned trial lawyer, Michael Cowen explores critical topics distinctive to the legal profession with some of the biggest names in the industry – specifically focused on developing extremely efficient law practices, securing a competitive edge in the industry, and wildly excelling in the courtroom.

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