A little swing, a little schmooze, the occasional mulligan...

  • November 13, 2014
  • Kim Covert

It may be a cliché, but in a smart lawyer’s hands a golf club can be a powerful networking tool – particularly for those in small or solo practices. Taking part in charity golf tournaments, meeting people in the clubhouse and hitting the links with clients and fellow lawyers are much more than random acts of golf, they’re a strategy targeted at building the practice by creating relationships with prospective clients and colleagues.

Joe McCallum, who was a partner in a small firm before starting his solo practice, Joseph McCallum Barrister and Solicitor, in St. Catharines,Ont., has been playing golf since he was a kid. While he enjoys the game for its own sake, he also recognizes its professional benefits.

“Golfing is a really good opportunity to spend time with other lawyers, because solicitor work doesn’t get us down to the courthouse,” says McCallum, a former executive member of the Ontario Bar Association. “This afternoon, for example, I’m supposed to be golfing with two lawyers that I’d never see face-to-face, so it’s an opportunity to network and keep those connections that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

He sees golfing as a way to build relationships with lawyers and clients while “talking outside of the files.”

“You tend to get so immersed in the file that you don’t talk about important stuff, so to speak: kids, family, that sort of thing. It lets you get to people outside of the file and that’s important.”

Like McCallum, Michael Good started playing golf at a young age and has been able to leverage his love of the game into a practice-building tool by taking time to socialize around the clubhouse.

“I’ve done a lot of legal work for club members over the years,” says Good, who specializes in real estate law and collaborative divorce in his two-lawyer firm, Michael C. Good and Associates, in St. Albert, Alta.

“My one rule is that I don’t talk about anybody’s file or give legal advice at the club. I say, ‘If you want to come to the office, that’s great. ’ If they retain me to do anything, I ask that we don’t talk about it at the golf course.” He says it’s a fairly easy rule to enforce, because clients don’t necessarily want to be overheard talking about their business or private matters.

McCallum and Good are of two minds when it comes to judging whether it’s worth it to pay membership fees at a private club. While Good has found clients in the clubhouse, McCallum says it hasn’t really paid off for him. He tends to play a game, maybe grab a bite to eat and leave, so he admits he hasn’t taken full advantage of the networking possibilities.

Virginia Engel, a partner with the boutique firm Virginia Engel Q.C. and a partner at Peacock, Linder & Halt LLP in Calgary, says there are many public or semi-private golf courses available, so if you’re just golfing for marketing purposes it might not be worth it to lay out the cash for a membership.

Engel took up golfing in the late 1990s after her husband convinced her she’d enjoy the game. She doesn’t just enjoy it – she’s good at it too: in 2004 she and her partner were the only all-female team at the Audi Quattro Cup Amateur Golf Tournament in South Africa, a competition featuring the best amateur golfers from 40 countries.

Engel says it’s becoming more accepted for female lawyers to join their male colleagues and clients on the course, and that’s a good thing for several reasons. “Golf as a networking tool is very valuable. You meet people, you get to know them better and they may know somebody who knows somebody,” says Engel.

“But I think the biggest part of the marketing tool for a woman, especially young women, is that it’s a comfortable environment to be marketing male clients. It’s not a situation where you’re taking them out for drinks or dinner … and you can often bring somebody else along.”

It also works as a team marketing approach, she says. For example, a senior and a junior lawyer from a firm golf with a senior executive and a junior executive from a company. It introduces the junior lawyer to the senior executive, a connection they otherwise would not have made, and it gives the junior a contact at his or her level and moving up the chain of command.

“It’s very good for mentoring too. You can talk business when you’re out there. I can be a senior woman and have three young women with me and we can golf and talk about what’s happening in their lives, what issues have come up from practice and personal and whatever.”

Engel, who is past chair of the Canadian Bar Insurance Association, is on the road a lot these days and hasn’t had much time to work on her golf game, though she fits it in when she can. She says time is one of the biggest obstacles for women who want to play the game.

“The downside of golf is it takes a lot of time. When you’re out on the golf course it’s four, five or six hours out of your day, which is significant. (For) women who have young families and are multi-tasking and working and doing a whole bunch of stuff, it’s just tough to find that time,” says Engel. “But I think that more and more women are recognizing that it’s a good way to market themselves it’s also very enjoyable. It’s a nice way to get outside, exercise and spend some time with people.”

Charity on the Green

Taking part in charity tournaments can be bread and butter for the small-firm lawyer, but depending on the size of your firm and the kind of clients you have, organizing your own tournament can also create important networking opportunities, says Ben Hanuka, one of eight lawyers in the boutique firm Davis Moldaver LLP in downtown Toronto.

Hanuka started playing the game after he became a lawyer, encouraged to do so at his previous firm, where the lawyers were all “golf nuts.” That firm held its own annual tournament, and he took a page out of that book when he decided to organize his first firm tournament last year. He hopes to make it a yearly event, but says it’s not for everyone.

“It’s really expensive,” Hanuka warns. “If you do this as a sole practice, it’s a big investment.” He notes that while medium and large firms can divide the costs among the number of lawyers involved, lawyers in smaller firms have to bear more of the burden, which Hanuka puts “somewhere in the range of $10,000” for a small tournament of five foursomes.

You don’t set up your own event strictly to win new clients, said Hanuka. “By definition you’re inviting good clients,” he says. “What you’re doing is building a lot of loyalty: they’re there all day, your law firm name is slathered all over, it’s really good will.”

What happens is, depending on how the foursomes are structured, people start developing their own contacts within them. “If you match up the clients right, from different industries and different professionals, so that they’re not competing with each other business-wise in the same foursome, so that they’re all complementary, the good will that you’re building just solidifies the relations and peoples’ impression of you in the business community.”

Kim Covert is an E-Publications Editor at the CBA in Ottawa.