February 1, 2023

It’s been at least a decade since Australian law firm Wooton + Kearney has held a golf day for its clients.

“We don’t do that anymore because it just doesn’t fit with our gender-diverse clients,” said David Kearney, chief executive partner of the Australian specialist insurance law firm.

In-person client entertainment has returned in Australia after two years of severe COVID-19 lockdowns. But the days of schmoozing with clients on the golf course or at a sporting event are gone. 

Wooton + Kearney’s clients are more likely to be invited to a cooking class, a visit to the theater or a game of lawn bowls, where clients enjoy a day in the sunshine and compete to roll unevenly weighted balls closest to a smaller ball known as a “jack.”

Wooton + Kearney’s shift away from what Kearney terms “blokey” pursuits to activities that appeal to all genders is being mirrored at law firms across the country as the legal profession becomes less male-dominated. In fact, corporate counsel and government lawyers—the buyers of legal services—are more likely to be nonmale.

“We make sure that we find activities which appeal to the broader array of clients we deal with,” Kearney said.

Firms typically engage with clients in a couple of different ways. They hold lunches and seminars around legal or business topics of interest to their clients. And for many firms, this is the most important part of client engagement.

But firms also hold more social and informal events.

“It’s all about building relationships and bringing people together. We find it is a much more enjoyable working experience for everyone when we know our clients and they know us, and often a social setting provides a better opportunity to get to know each other at a more personal level,” said Amber Matthews, the Australian managing partner of global firm DLA Piper.

Matthews said client entertainment has changed over the years and the firm aims to host events that are both inclusive and enjoyable. “Not all clients are the same and people naturally have different interests, so we try to offer a range of different entertainment depending on the client,” she said.

In Melbourne, the firm recently hosted more than 40 clients at a “Hamilton”-themed cocktail party and took them to a performance of the hit musical, while in Sydney the firm takes clients to private viewings of the popular Archibald Prize for portraiture, arguably the most prestigious portrait prize in Australia.

This isn’t to say the firm doesn’t host sporting-themed events, but even then they reflect its more diverse client base. In Western Australia, it takes clients to watch soccer matches featuring the Perth Glory Women’s A-League team, which the firm sponsors.

After two years of COVID-19 lockdowns, including some of the world’s longest in Melbourne, Matthews said clients are keen to reconnect in person, usually in smaller groups than previously.

In-person client entertainment is also back at Clyde & Co, but there has been a change since COVID, the firm says.

The structural shift to working part of the week from home means partners have to be more mindful of when clients will be at the office and able to accept invitations, said Clyde & Co Australian managing partner Michael Tooma, adding that many are at home on Mondays or Fridays. 

“Clients really have to want to do something in order to come out for it. And we regard that as a privilege that they come out and spend time with us,” he said.

In the decade the firm has been in Australia, Clyde & Co has made a point of ensuring that its client hospitality offerings are not centered around sporting events that appeal more to men, Tooma says, noting that this reflects a shift across the profession.

“You see greater engagement with our clients as to what they want, what they prefer, rather than putting on a cricket day or a rugby day or a golf day and assuming our clients are going to love that because some element of our partnership enjoys that,” he said.

The firm usually presents options to clients after chatting with them and lets the clients choose. One client enjoyed making gingerbread houses around Christmas time, which the firm combined with a barbecue. The firm also holds an annual art show and cocktail party featuring works for sale from Sydney’s leading art schools. 

Clifford Chance put on a showing of a documentary called “Past Continuous,” which tells the story of Sydney couple Oscar Shub and Ilan Buchman, who in 2018 became Australia’s first same-sex couple to be legally married in a religious ceremony. Shub is a consultant to the firm. It was the firm’s most well-attended event.

Arts-themed events play a prominent role in many firms’ client entertainment programs.

Australia’s Corrs Chambers Westgarth’s most recent event was a 250-person dinner at the National Gallery of Victoria and a private viewing of this year’s Winter Masterpieces exhibition, “The Picasso Century,” which charts the career of Pablo Picasso.

The Australian corporate firm Gilbert + Tobin bases its client hospitality around grand slam tennis, Opera Australia, Bell Shakespeare, open-air cinema and art gallery exhibitions. It aims to partner with organizations that have strong grassroots, Indigenous and educational programs, chief operating officer Sam Nickless said.

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