Taking a ‘for now’ approach
Even once most bars can hold in-person events again, some say, expectations for attendance may have to change. "I think it's going to be a long time before lawyers feel comfortable going to programming, whether it be a CLE seminar or a social program at a bar association," says Terry Murphy, executive director of the Chicago Bar Association. "I think it's going to be at least until the end of this year, or maybe even longer. The pandemic is defining for us, in many ways, how associations are likely to survive in the future."
The success of providing virtual programming combined with its lower costs and the reluctance of lawyers to mingle socially when they don't have to, means that the CBA will have a "much more vigorous and larger online presence than before,” Murphy believes. “In many ways, there's no turning back.”
Zoe Linza, executive director of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, hopes to see members at the bar’s headquarters in the not-too-distant future. Linza expects that while a large percentage of CLE programming will remain virtual, BAMSL will be able to stage some in-person association events in the coming months.
"I think the networking in person is important," Linza says. She hopes the bar can start with smaller events with about 50 members, so social distancing can be easily maintained. BAMSL has created a pandemic task force that is advised by a physician, she notes, and will carefully monitor safety guidelines.
Another question bars and other professional associations will face when restrictions are lifted is how many of the members who are newly attending events online will continue to attend, either online or in person, when their lives return to something closer to what they were before the pandemic. The answer—and its implications for nondues revenue—could affect decisions on physical space, staff size and budgeting.
"The thing that we don't know,” says consultant Mary Byers, “is what people's level of online meeting fatigue is." Also unknown, she adds, is how comfortable people will be with returning to physical meetings and workspaces, and how soon.
In general, Byers says, people may be realizing the "extreme time savings in commuting to and from meetings," and savings in parking and other expenses, by attending virtually. For bars and other organizations, holding events online means not having to spend money on lodging and food. "Savings could run into the thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Byers says, “depending on the size of the organization."
Trying to make long-term decisions now is "difficult and overwhelming," Byers says; the good news, she adds, is that it's also unnecessary.
With so much still uncertain, she explains, it's better to focus on incremental plans regarding anything involving the bar headquarters and where and how staff will work, and members will meet.
"Take a 'for now' approach, rather than a forever approach,” Byers advises. “Consider three-month, six-month and nine-month plans, and recognize that they may need to be adjusted as more information becomes available."