When it comes to legal marketing, there are many things that can work, like blogging, teaching CLEs, or using Twitter, but there is only one thing I can think of that definitely works: word of mouth. In other words, building a referral network of people who know who you are and respect the work you do.

My best and strongest source of business has always been word of mouth. I am not a marketing guru, so my approach to earning referrals is simple and straightforward: do good work, share knowledge, and be social.

Doing good work

Everybody wants a good lawyer, and everybody wants to refer to good lawyers. Nobody wants a bad lawyer, and nobody wants to refer to bad lawyers.

So be a good lawyer.

This starts with the kinds of matters you take. It pays to focus on one or two areas of law. Clients like knowing you have experience with similar matters, and it is fairly impossible to be competent in more than a few practice areas, anyway. Turn down or refer everything else. If you are straight with a potential client or referral source — even if that means turning them down — you will usually create a referral source for the cases you do handle. Pretty much everyone appreciates honesty.

When you do agree to represent a client, do a really good job. Put in the time necessary, whether you are being paid your full rate, working at a discount, or handling a matter pro bono. Clients like lawyers who do a really good job, even if you lose, and happy clients often make enthusiastic (and talkative) referral sources.

New lawyers, or lawyers working on a new practice area, may need to find a mentor willing to help out. Otherwise, the best you can do is get lucky and waste a lot of time — if you don’t miss anything.

While you are doing a really good job on the legal work, do a really good job keeping in touch with the client. Set yourself a reminder to check in with the client at least every month, even if nothing is happening at the moment. Clients really like lawyers who don’t leave them in the dark, and bad communication seems to be a frequent source of ethics complaints.

In other words, be competent, do a good job, and communicate.

Sharing knowledge

If you are a good lawyer, you are going to gain a lot of really valuable knowledge through experience. Give it away.

This is not intuitive for many people, but giving away your hard-earned knowledge is really important — and good marketing. I’m not talking about the teaser white papers lots of people try to give away as if they were worth something. I am talking about giving away your hard-earned knowledge. For free. Without any explicit quid pro quo.

For example, while I was practicing consumer rights law, I did a fair amount of CLE seminars for other lawyers, some non-lawyers, and even one for a large group of district court judges. I didn’t hold anything back, either. I taught strategies for defending consumers sued by debt collectors, and for suing debt collectors — the same work I did to pay the bills. Some of the lawyers who attended those seminars concluded that learning handle those cases competently themselves was too much work, and just referred potential clients to me. Others went ahead and handled those cases, and when they called with questions, I did my best to answer. Some of these eventually became colleagues I relied on for strategy discussions.

Mentor younger lawyers. Be a resource for colleagues. Publish articles in bar journals and law reviews. Write a blog and fill it with free information. In other words: earn respect for the knowledge you have acquired through your hard work.

Whatever you do, don’t ask for anything in return. That means you have been paid, and the person you helped won’t owe you anything else, including referrals. (It’s okay to accept lunch or coffee or beer, though, if offered.)

Being social

It doesn’t do much good to be a great lawyer if nobody knows who you are. (Then again, if nobody knows who you are, you probably won’t get any clients, which means you won’t get to be a great lawyer.)

So be social. Call it networking, if you like, (only don’t mistake it for Networking). Whatever you call it, find people you like, then get out and do things with them.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that you should approach networking like a transaction, where the only reason to meet people is to find out whether they can do something for you. That is false, and worse, it is boring.

Instead, I just try to get out and meet interesting people. Or just likable people. Which I would do anyway, but it’s nice to be able to justify using the firm credit card. Besides, if you need to rationalize it, interesting and likable people are highly likely to know other people who also find them interesting and likable, which makes them likely to be a source of referrals. Although that sort of thinking just cheapens the whole thing. Stick to the basics: find people you like, then get out and do things with them.

What kind of things? It is hard to go wrong with food and drink. Most of my fondest memories involve food and drink. If you need more motivation to get out and socialize, cultivate a minor obsession with coffee or croissants or tequila and use it as an excuse to invite people along and introduce them to your interest.

If you are a wallflower — as many people are — suck it up and get out. There is nothing about being an introvert that means you can’t also be social. Socially awkward? I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that the best cure for social awkwardness is practice.

No social media necessary

If you noticed, I barely mentioned social media. That is because you don’t need it. There are plenty of businesses, including many law firms, that generate business solely by word of mouth.

When you subtract the hype about social media, you will find that while social media can be an effective way to market your law practice, there is no guarantee it will work. Besides, even if you focus on social media, you will need to do good work, share your knowledge, and be superficially social. If you can do it offline, you will have a better chance of doing it online.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/felpa_boy/2098655554/)