Pepper Hamilton partner Ray Miller has a new approach to developing client relationships. There’s just one catch: You need your own private island.

Plenty of lawyers treat their clients and prospects to steak dinners, professional sports games and golf rounds. But several years ago Miller, an intellectual property lawyer in Pepper Hamilton’s health sciences department, came up with something more ambitious. He invited a group of his contacts up to Black Bass Island, his three-acre property on the Georgian Bay in Canada, for a four-day stay. They came to call it “Ray’s Retreat.”

“But it’s not a luxury retreat,” Miller cautioned.

Nearly two dozen founders, executives, partners and in-house counsel of various technology, health and financial businesses gathered at Black Bass Island in August for the fourth annual Ray’s Retreat. A little more than half were existing clients of Miller and his firm. The rest were prospective clients or industry leaders, he said, and several other Pepper Hamilton partners attended too.

They donned T-shirts and shorts, shared four-person cottages and spent the bulk of each day in discussion and presentation sessions where they shared information and ideas about their work. Those sessions, of course, were punctuated by hiking, fishing trips and barbecued meals.

“Think of it like camp for adults,” said Will Edwin, associate general counsel at Rodan & Fields, who has attended twice.

It may seem risky, putting a group of high-powered individuals, most of whom have never met, in close quarters with one another in a remote location. And add in the fact that you rely on these people for business.

The results of the event have been “almost directly measurable,” Miller said, in terms of business gained.

“There is a lot of cross-fertilization between the people who go. There are deals made, there’s work that comes out of that,” Miller said. “Our primary point isn’t ‘we’re Pepper Hamilton, here’s our legal services.’ Our point is making connections you can draw upon.”

‘EXTREME’ NETWORKING

The island, located about 350 miles due north of Pittsburgh, is only accessible by boat or flight.

That makes a difference in the experience, Pepper Hamilton partner Nicole Stakleff said. Sure, she’s been on partner retreats before, she said. But not like this.

“This, I think, was more extreme. You’re kind of out there in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “It allows you to be a little bit freer in your thoughts … a little bit more open to ideas.”

Bill Mitchell, general counsel of NOVA Chemicals Inc., has been to three of the four retreats.  He works with a number of law firms, including Pepper Hamilton. And many of them hold events for clients, like legal update seminars and educational sessions, he said.

“What is different about this is the coming together of lawyers and business executives primarily from technology enterprises,” Mitchell said.

Miller said the retreat costs about the same as it would to take each of the attendees out for a nice dinner—the traditional wining and dining approach. The firm picks up the tab for the final leg of transportation, but the attendees have to get themselves to either Pittsburgh, where Miller is based, or Toronto. Accommodations on the island are essentially free since Miller owns the property, he said, and any other costs, like food supplies, are nominal.

But the return, compared to the more traditional client development activities, is far greater, he said. The attendees build lasting personal and business relationships. And each year, he can point to legal work that came directly out of the retreat.

“At a football game, you’re sitting there watching the football … at a dinner, you spend time talking about personal things,” Miller said. “At the end of this, I’m intellectually exhausted.”

NO MORE ‘SCHMOOZY STUFF?’

Jessica Gibson, CEO of Ariel Precision Medicine, said the retreat was “incredibly refreshing,” compared to the typical client development activities, or as she called it, the “old-school schmoozy stuff.” Her company turns to a handful of outside lawyers for certain legal work, like IP and regulatory matters.

“You can always go to an expensive dinner,” Gibson said. “Those are still nice to have, but it doesn’t create the type of environment that you get in a unique setting, with unique experiences and communal experiences. The total value of that goes beyond a one-on-one conversation with the lawyer.”

Gibson and Stakleff were the only two women on this year’s retreat. Others have been invited, Stakleff said, but few have accepted the invitation. Despite the demographics of the retreat, Gibson said, it did not feel like a boys’ club.

“I’ve been in many environments where I felt unwelcome or not included,” she said, but the retreat had a “progressive” feel. “Being in a gorgeous setting and being outdoors on a lake in this exclusive island environment, I don’t see that being traditionally only for men … versus, ‘Let’s go to a football game or a baseball game.’”

The lack of distractions allowed for “organic conversation flow” she hadn’t experienced in other networking settings, Gibson said. The whole experience made her more inclined to work with Pepper Hamilton, she said.

Traditionally, Miller said, lawyers have wanted to be the point of contact between clients. But by allowing them to build their own relationships, he suggested, they find more opportunities for collaboration, and build trust between lawyer and client.

“It validates for them that we have other clients who come to us for counsel,” he said.

Mitchell said the retreat hasn’t changed his relationship with Pepper Hamilton, which dates back to long before the first retreat, but it shows that the firm is willing to help with more than just day-to-day legal issues.

But Edwin, of Rodan & Fields, said that lawyer-client relationship has become stronger after he attended the retreat. It makes him feel like the firm values him, he said.

Before the retreat, “I didn’t know Ray had clients like this, and we could actually partner with each other,” Edwin said. “I think if other firms did that, it’s just going to strengthen the client base. And it’s going to give clients the opportunity to network with each other.”

Not every firm has a partner with a private island. But, Edwin suggested, they could replicate the remote location and close quarters, perhaps at a resort or on a cruise ship, “someplace where people are forced to interact together.”

Lizzy McLellan can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or lmclellan@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @LizzyMcLellTLI.