How to strengthen the CPA/attorney relationship

By Brett Owens

There’s nothing better than a warm referral – and most CPAs are always on the hunt for new sources. One great potential lead source that is often overlooked is the attorney who practices in areas that are complementary to your expertise.
 
 “I find that networking with attorneys is one of those few win-win opportunities for both of us,” said Steven J. Elliott, tax director at Schwartz & Co, LLP. “There are often many referral opportunities for work that the other professional provides.”
 
Elliott believes the attorney benefits in two ways. First, he benefits by making a known referral; second, by receiving referrals regarding a need for an attorney related to his area of practice.
 
Sound’s like a great win-win, so I interviewed a number of CPAs who have been successful in working with attorneys in order to learn about their best practices for developing meaningful, productive, mutually beneficial relationships.
 
How to build, cultivate relationships with attorneys
 
Howard Grobstein, a partner and leader of Forensic Services group in Crowe Horwath’s Audit and Financial Advisory practice, believes that best practices to build relationships with attorneys for business development involves two main components.
 
“First and foremost is providing high-quality work and exceptional service,” said Grobstein. “Attorneys have different styles and expectations, so CPAs should listen to what the attorney needs. They need to make sure they can present their expertise in a style that will be acceptable to the attorney and only take on those engagements where they can meet expectations, and perform with high quality and efficiency. My practice has developed because I make sure that I can do the project based on how that specific attorney works.
 
“The second component is to develop relationships with attorneys that transcend the time and effort spent on a particular engagement," said Grobstein. “My experience has proven that the likelihood of being retained again is higher if the relationship evolves into something stronger than a mere working relationship. I believe that the best referral sources are your friends since they are more likely to call you when opportunities present themselves.”
 
Importance of building strong, genuine relationship
 
Many CPAs agree that strong relationships are the real key – it’s better to have a smaller number of close relationships, than a larger network that is loosely tied together.
 
Jacob Renick, chair of the New York State Society of CPAs Litigation Services Committee, elaborated: “You can’t expect attorneys to send you business unless you have a very strong relationship with them. It has to be a one-to-one relationship. You’re better off having relationships with five attorneys rather than 30, if you have deep and solid relationships with those five.”
 
Mark Eiger, CPA, a New Jersey-based accountant, agreed: "The best way to strengthen the relationship between accountants and attorneys is to actually build a relationship. It takes time to develop quality referral partners. You'll have more of an appreciation for the person's work and capabilities if you get to know that person personally."
 
What attorneys want
 
Renick emphasizes that attorneys are looking for someone to be honest with them, and to share their expertise and knowledge.
 
“If you don’t have the expertise, refer them to someone who has it,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to refer somebody – if you’re good, they’re going to use you. In addition, keep them up to date with respect to your expertise. For example, share recent changes you’ve become aware of, and give them a heads-up of what’s coming down the pike.”
 
Connect with attorneys who share similar interests, beliefs
 
Most CPAs I spoke with agreed that you’ll do best by connecting with like-minded attorneys. Michael D. Greaney, CPA, MBA, got a referral to a client by being in the same choir with an attorney. He talked to the attorney about law topics he had expertise in and figured out the two of them had a similar orientation toward the law.
 
“What clinched the referral is that it turned out that we share a natural law orientation from the Aristotelian perspective,” Greaney said. “An attorney will not feel comfortable referring a client to someone whom he or she thinks will not have the client's best interests at heart, which means thinking along the same general lines as the attorney in ethical matters.”
 
Focus on serving the attorney’s best interest
 
Rob Siddoway with Cambridge Financial believes the No. 1 must-ask question to an attorney is: “What are the characteristics of your ideal client?” He then advises that CPAs do their best to find an ideal client for the attorney and make the introduction.  
 
“After you have had a few lunches and sent a client or two to the attorney, set an appointment to explain what you do, the relationships you are seeking, and let them know what your ideal client looks like,” Siddoway said. “The focus is to give, give, and give some more without the expectation of anything coming back to you. The results of doing this are not mere referrals, but strong recommendations that generally lead to very good clients. There are those who understand giving first. You will quickly learn who the givers are, but always make it a point to give first and you will be successful.”
 
Good ways to initially strike up relationships with attorneys
 
Gail Rosen, CPA, recommended you do their taxes!
 
“The best way to get referrals from attorneys is to do be the CPA who does the attorney's tax return – then they do not forget you,” she said. “Attorneys have unique tax returns that include the tax treatment of costs recovered. If you learn about these tax laws, you will be in a better position to get attorneys as clients.
 
Howard M. Rosen, a CPA with Conner Ash P.C., holds internal marketing events, where his firm invites a law firm to come to its office.
 
“We put together three or four 4-minute presentations on subjects the attorneys would not necessarily think of when they think about CPA firms,” he said. “If the attorneys are estate and probate specialists, we talk about how we can assist to ensure trusts are funded and that the plans make sense after time due to asset growth. If they are litigators, we talk about how we can help them build damage claims from business interruption, breach of contract, and so on. It's unique, it’s fun, and it gets us business.”
 
Many CPAs agree that client introductions are excellent sources of referrals. Renick adds that you also can follow up after meeting with your clients’ attorney – but he recommends that you connect and take them out to lunch only after the clients’ matter is closed.
 
John Sensiba, managing partner at Sensiba San Filippo LLP, believes the first thing you should do is find out who your clients are working with in order to get on the same page, and make sure the advice your client is receiving is consistent. This, incidentally, provides a good opportunity to meet and connect with their attorney.
 
Sensiba’s firm also has had great success hosting events for law firms at his office. These typically consist of 10-minute presentations from 5 to 7 p.m. about what the firm does and why it is different. He’s found that law firms generally are eager to attend; in the current economy, law firms also are very open to events that could potentially generate new business.
 
Rob Siddoway has had success inviting attorneys to activities such as lunch, golf, and networking events. “Invite them to something that adds value to their day and gives you an extended period of time to get to know them.”
 
Howard Grobstein has had success getting involved in organizations that include attorneys with similar practices. For example, he became a member of the California Receivers Forum, and soon after became an officer and ultimately the co-chair. He followed the same track with the Los Angeles Bankruptcy Forum, and is positioned to take on additional roles within the organization.
 
“These types of organizations provide me with opportunities to attend educational, social, and networking events with attorneys who may need CPA consultants for their work. The goal is to develop a genuine relationship that runs beyond work.”
 
Kelley Long, CPA, got most of her referrals from attorneys, and specifically recommends attending and sponsoring joint continuing education events. “I’m also a big fan of event planning. Not only would we sponsor joint CLE/CPE events, but we would also create networking events to strike up new relationships with attorneys.”
 
American Association of Attorney-Certified Public Accountants
 
The AAA-CPA is an organization of dually licensed attorney-CPAs, highly recommended by Tom Simeone, a partner at Simeone & Miller LLP. Simeone, a practicing trial lawyer and a dually licensed professional in his own right, has found this organization to be a great resource for connecting with new colleagues on the other side of the fence. The AAA-CPA offers a number of networking and referral opportunities for its members, and Simeone considers this to be his top source for generating new referrals.
 
Consider focusing on your niche practice
 
Andrew Schwartz, CPA, of Schwartz & Schwartz P.C., networks specifically with attorneys who practice in the health care field where 90 percent of his client base is located.
 
“We have the most success dealing with attorneys who also have a niche practice within health care,” said Schwartz. “We feel comfortable referring our clients to an attorney with a health care niche, knowing they will get timely advice and information.
 
“These attorneys know that they can refer their health care clients to us, and feel confident that we have dealt with other clients in a similar situation,” said Schwartz. “Our clients are happy that neither my firm nor the attorney is learning on their dime, so the common niche is the basis for the most productive relationships my firm has with a handful of the lawyers in the Boston area.”
 
Pay attention to estate attorneys (Hint: most Americans don’t have a will)
 
Long recommends connecting with estate attorneys, in particular, because they have more ongoing relationships with their clients.
 
“I’ve found estate attorneys to be easier to get to know – and easier to refer my clients to as well,” Long said. “Most of them do not have a will in place, and they are usually eager to speak with an estate planning attorney.”
 
Estate planning attorney Brian Raftery, a partner with Herrick, Feinstein LLP, works closely with several CPAs himself and concurs that the majority of Americans do not have a will in place. He tries to refer his clients to CPAs if he sees a need for professional tax assistance.
 
“I always look for issues my clients face that can potentially be resolved if the proper professional is brought into place,” said Raftery, who often spots obvious opportunities when his high net-worth clients are filing their own tax returns via TurboTax. Also a CPA himself, Raftery is eager to bring in the appropriate accounting expertise when needed.
 
“When I see an opportunity, I try to match up my clients not only with the appropriate skill need, but also I do my best to ensure a proper personality fit.” As a result, Raftery concurs with his fellow CPAs in the need to not only align professional goals, but also personal beliefs and philosophies.
 
What to do when you get a referral
 
This is another area where everyone we spoke with agreed emphatically – go above and beyond the call of duty when you receive a referral.
 
Joe Epps, of Epps CPA Consulting, cited this as his top piece of advice: “You’ve got to give top quality service. It’s extremely important to do a very professional job when you do get a referral.”
 
Renick agreed – and adds that if you don’t have the expertise, or are conflicted out of the engagement, you should refer someone. “Don’t be afraid to refer somebody. If you’re good, they’re going to use you.”
 
About the author:
Brett Owens is CEO and co-founder of Chrometa, a Sacramento, CA-based provider of time-tracking software that records activity in real time. Previously marketed to only the legal community, Chrometa is branching out to accounting prospects. Gains include the ability to discover previously undocumented billable time, saving time on billing reconciliation and improving personal productivity. Owens also is a blogger and founder at ContraryInvesting.com, as well as a regular contributor to two leading financial media sites, SeekingAlpha.com and Minyanville.

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