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James Buchan, firm managing partner of Gowling WLG Canada (centre) and Carlos Sayao, a partner at Tyr LLP (right) prepare for a surfing lesson with an instructor from Surf the Greats (left) on Toronto's Cherry Beach, in September, 2020. They were guests of Paul Rand, chief investment officer of Omni Bridgeway Canada.Paul Rand/Handout

Leafs tickets don’t exist, spa days are tricky, and standing lunch reservations at swish restaurants are out, so how do lawyers network during a pandemic?

Informational webinars on COVID-19-related topics are ubiquitous and well attended but a bit boring. So law firms – from boutique practices to Bay Street giants – are getting more creative in their approach to wooing new or existing clients.

To supplement the serious stuff, some are holding virtual beer and wine tastings, trivia nights, escape room challenges, movie viewings – even magic shows with mind readers. For a break from all that Zooming, others have turned to hikes in ravines or have asked underemployed chefs to cater small backyard dinners.

Paul Rand, the chief investment officer of third-party litigation financing company Omni Bridgeway Canada, took a small group for a physically distanced surfing lesson in Lake Ontario in September. The waves at Toronto’s Cherry Beach that day were not memorable, but it was a chance to share some laughs with a handful of clients he already knew reasonably well.

“It won’t supplant golf or the cycling scene,” Mr. Rand said, pointing to more traditional avenues for business socializing. “But it shook things up from the monotony of being cooped up during the pandemic.

“Getting into a wetsuit with business contacts – that establishes a whole level of comfort and relationship that doesn’t exist when you’re in a boardroom.”

Ultimately, whether the platform is Zoom, a telephone call or a surfboard, the goal is to connect with clients as people.

“It’s important not just to have the activity but to have some interaction where you’re engaged in doing something together,” said Joyce Bernasek, a partner in the financial services group at Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, who shifted her client outreach online in the summer with virtual sessions on chocolate making, cocktails and crafts with children, in several cases replacing dinners to celebrate deal closings with the virtual events.

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Lawyer Joyce Bernasek of the firm Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, is photographed outside her home in Toronto on Oct. 23, 2020.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Globe and Mail

“I know there’s Zoom fatigue, but I do think for new relationships or even just to check in with people you haven’t seen in a while, actually seeing them is so important,” Ms. Bernasek said.

Getting a glimpse into people’s homes can spark discussion, and with the business attire shoved to the back of closets, she finds contacts are getting more personal, with talk often turning to caring for aging parents and the stress of sending children back to school during a pandemic. “I don’t get all made up, I’m comfortable in T-shirts. And people are having deeper conversations. They ask how you’re doing and open up more.”

As in-house counsel at a major pension fund that invests in dozens of countries around the world, Jeff Davis, the chief legal and corporate affairs officer at Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, is often on the receiving end of business development overtures as law firms seek to win or retain his business.

He’s done the beer tastings and trivia nights over Zoom but says the medium is less important than forging a genuine connection and that going for a walk “together” over the phone can work just as well.

“You want to make sure, whether you’re on video or telephone, that you’re not presenting the perfected, edited version of yourself. You want to be your normal self, and that kind of environment will create a sense of connection.”

In the initial chaos of the pandemic, many firms developed COVID-19-related pages on their websites and e-mailed regular informational updates about the crisis to clients, which Mr. Davis found helpful, though he cautions that’s not a sustainable competitive advantage.

“To me, trust and connection are the hallmarks of an enduring relationship,” Mr. Davis said. “It takes courage to show the true version of yourself as opposed to the perfected version of yourself with the uniforms. But I can’t stress it enough. It’s the stuff that will last and people will remember.”

Heather Suttie, a legal marketing and business development consultant with her own Toronto-based company, says direct engagement is crucial and that includes the “old-fashioned technology of picking up the phone.” Eighty per cent of law firms' work tends to come from 20 per cent of their clients, she said, adding: “You better know who they are and check in to see how they are.”

Law firms previously held splashy events at their impressive downtown offices to entertain clients and build brand awareness, Ms. Suttie says. Now, “webinars and bulletins are being cranked out like sausages,” she said. “But those are only tactics. If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we’ve had to shed our professional armour and get real.”

Client attendance at webinars can be high, says Colleen Moorehead, who is the chief client officer at Osler and runs the team that helps program virtual events for lawyers at the firm. A session on back-to-work issues drew a large audience, for example, but she said Osler decided early on that it would take a measured approach to such programming. “We have to think of things like not overfilling clients' inboxes with anything that isn’t highly relevant.”

Ms. Moorehead encourages lawyers at the firm to use a combination of approaches, including the fun of whimsical Zoom events as well as taking advantage of outdoor venues.

“That walk in the ravine with your client? It’s joyful for both of you.”

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