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Vol. 46, No. 5

All the tools in the toolbox: Law Day, other civic ed programs try new approaches in 2021

By Marilyn Cavicchia

In 2020, the COVID-19 shutdown hit just as many bars were finalizing their plans for Law Day, which is celebrated on or near the first of May. Many bars canceled their events, others worked to create virtual ones (using their brand-new skills with Zoom and other such platforms)—and most probably assumed that by Law Day 2021, things would be back to normal.

That’s not what happened. However, what did happen in the course of a year is that many bars formed new connections with others in their area, gained new confidence in their Zoom skills and in others’ enthusiasm for attending virtual events, and began taking steps toward the hybrid model that may be the way many events are held for years to come.

The result? Even though they’re still far from typical, many bars were genuinely excited about their plans for Law Day 2021 and for other opportunities to provide public or civic education even during the pandemic.

Texas local bars draw from their camaraderie

“So often this last year, I have felt that being apart has brought us closer together,” says Alicia Hernandez, executive director of the Dallas Bar Association.

Executive directors (and sometimes presidents and other leaders) of several metro and county bars in Texas have had regular virtual meetings starting in 2020, when Houston Bar Association Executive Director Mindy Davidson and then-President Bill Kroger reached out to their counterparts in Dallas. 

The State Bar of Texas is hosting Law Day contests for students but isn’t coordinating a statewide event this year, so—because of the bonds they have built through their frequent meetings—the group of local bar executives and leaders decided to plan one together.

It happens that DBA President Aaron Tobin is friends with Louis Freeh, former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Freeh agreed to speak at no cost and to be interviewed by Tobin during a virtual program on May 3. “We are very blessed to be able to secure such a high-profile speaker at no charge since so many of us are watching our bottom lines closely,” Hernandez says, adding that because they had the connection to the speaker, the DBA took on responsibility for all of the program details. The event also included an attorney oath renewal led by Judge Jim Ho of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Along with the DBA, the following bars participated:

“This isn’t the first time we have worked together, and it won’t be the last,” Hernandez says. In May 2020, the San Antonio bar hosted a virtual Law Day program and was joined by many other bars; the DBA had its own program already planned and ended up participating in both. In August, many of the Texas local bars participated in the DBA’s Women’s Equality Day Program. The bars are now working together on a Statewide Day of Civility, under the auspices of the state bar’s Professionalism Committee. 

“From my perspective, we are building bridges,” Hernandez says, when asked why the local bars are collaborating rather than each doing its own thing. “All of this has brought people closer together, and the virtual environment has made working together so much easier. 

“This may sound silly, but it’s been fun.  Camaraderie, togetherness, fun—all good things.”

Trying in-person events

In much of the country, the Law Day timeframe can have some iffy weather but is often warm enough to consider holding outdoor events again—which many bars found to be a saving grace until fall or winter temperatures became prohibitive.

After mixed results with a virtual Law Day event last year, the Bar Association of Erie County (N.Y.) has planned an in-person awards ceremony for September, to be attended by 200 members (chosen via lottery) outdoors at Bills Stadium. 

The DuPage County (Ill.) Bar Association held its Law Day luncheon on April 30, outdoors at a nearby park known for its gardens. The event included an award presentation and a keynote address, “Advancing the Rule of Law in Challenging Times,” by Judge Liam Brennan of the 2nd District Appellate Court. To accommodate more people without violating space restrictions, the full program was also shown online.

Also planning a hybrid event—though not outdoors—was the Lafayette (La.) Bar Association Young Lawyers Section. Last year’s Law Day offerings (a video with lawyers answering common questions, and a writing contest) saw limited participation because schools were closed and not fully transitioned to remote learning, says Katelyn Guidry, the bar’s director of marketing and membership.

“In the years prior,” Guidry says, “our committee hosted a live panel of judges and attorneys and invited college students to ask questions about pursuing a legal career over lunch.” This year, the committee resumed that event but in hybrid form, offered both virtually and in person (with safety protocols), with a box lunch for those attending in person.

Defying a stereotype about age

Even though the event that she chairs—Boulder County (Colo.) Senior Law Day—occurs in fall rather than as part as ABA Law Day, an observation that Brett Landis shared with fellow attendees at the 2021 ABA Bar Leadership Institute was relevant for anyone planning civic education events for older adults. While there’s a stereotype that seniors dislike technology, Landis—who is president-elect of the Boulder County (Colo.) Bar Association—said Boulder's Senior Law Day programs in September 2020 saw more attendance, not less, with a virtual format.

The focus of Senior Law Day, which is overseen by the Colorado Bar Association and executed by committees in each county, is to get legal information out to older people throughout the state. During a typical year, Boulder’s event occurs on one day in late September at the convention center, with a keynote speaker and breakouts. There’s also an optional “Ask a Lawyer” 15-minute consultation/clinic and information tables. The Boulder bar makes available a printed legal resources handbook. Usually, about 300 people attend, though bad weather can bring that number down, Landis said, in a follow-up conversation with Bar Leader.

Landis and her co-chair, Marjie Greek, were in the process of selecting the venue for 2020 when the COVID shutdown happened. Even with a lot of lead time until September, Landis says, the committee “felt that it would not be responsible to call forth a gathering targeting people in the high-risk group.” 

But the subject matter was too important to skip a year—especially in 2020. “We’re seeing people with a lot of bad information out in the world,” Landis says. “So, my thought is, the more good information we can put out there—even if 10 people watch it—it’s going to be worthwhile.”

As it turns out, many more than 10 people attended each session; for example, a webinar on estate planning had 85 attendees. “In the real-life version of this event,” Landis notes, “the rooms don’t hold that many.” Even the least-attended session had 31 people, she adds. 

Overall, she says, 554 people attended the webinars (which were spread over multiple days), and 156 people viewed them later on YouTube—for a total reach of about 710.

When she went to pick up copies of the print handbook to send to any attendees who requested it, Landis heard a stereotype: “'I don’t understand why you’re doing it online,'” someone told her. “'It’s not like older people can even access it.'”

In fact, Landis says, many older people have significant experience with technology, whether from their careers or their personal lives—and during the pandemic, many seniors (including Landis’s own father) have helped their peers learn how to use Zoom and other such platforms so they can avoid feeling isolated. “It’s how people talk to their grandkids now,” Landis notes, “and have for the past year.”

Looking ahead, the committee is planning a virtual 2021 Senior Law Day but is also seeking ways to safely add an in-person element. One idea, Landis says, is to ask retirement homes and assisted living centers to stream the webinars in their common rooms. If COVID numbers look good by August 2021, she adds, the committee might add in a half day of in-person, outdoor programming, specifically the Ask a Lawyer consultations.

By 2022, Landis hopes Senior Law Day will be mostly in person, but she foresees that it will now always involve streaming or YouTube. “I think the change the world has made is that having an online element is not optional anymore,” Landis says. “Going forward, people are going to expect at least a certain degree of remote access.”

Going big with a virtual format

Law Day, and civic education in general, has always been a big deal for the 450-member Washington County (Pa.) Bar Association and its Public Relations and Education Committee. “Our bar likes to get out there and do those types of things,” says Kathy Sabol, executive director, adding that some popular programs have been a people’s law school and outreach at a community center that serves many children who have negative associations with court, through their parents.

To extend its Law Day programming further into 2021, the WCBA has launched the six-part Rule of Law Series designed to appeal to high school students (who need civics credits to graduate, in Pennsylvania), lawyers (who can earn CLE credit for attending) and members of the general public. Rachel Lozosky, chair of the committee, notes that resources made available by the ABA (including learning modules prepared by the U.S. court system) work remarkably well for these three distinct audiences.

The WCBA's plans caught the eye of the local paper for Washington County, which wrote about the series and also published a two-page, full-color Law Day spread on May 1. Sabol is pleased that there was still a tangible component to Law Day, particularly for students who won contests for their essays, bookmarks, and other projects and now have something physical to put in their portfolios.

The seminar series began on April 15, with the topic “The Rule of Law in Action: Civility and Civil Discourse.” Lozosky was joined by Mike Pecosh, a licensed professional counselor. Attendees were guided to explore examples from the courts and the legal system and then to reflect on certain questions about how to engage in civil discussion, even on controversial topics—and how this is important to the rule of law, and also to personal well-being.

"Civility is the underpinning of our ability to discuss and uphold the rule of law, and to work together to make changes," Lozosky says, explaining why this topic was chosen to kick off the series.  

The series will continue through November, with each session building on the previous ones while highlighting a different aspect of this year’s Law Day theme, “Advancing the Rule of Law Now.” In most cases, the seminar will include a prepared video or other learning module, with a speaker or speakers from the Washington County area adding a local, more personalized perspective. Recordings are available after each live event.

As with 2020, many of the bar’s typical Law Day festivities would not have been possible this year. For one thing, Sabol notes, the courthouse, usually the location for award presentations, will be under emergency orders until July. Also, even though schools have resumed in-person learning, they have consistently told the bar that they’re not yet comfortable with outside visitors.

One reason that this programming is an extended series, Lozosky says, is to avoid funneling all of the resources toward one or two days, and then risking that those days see low attendance. Another is that the committee is trying to be "creative and ambitious" in recruiting speakers and designing the seminars—which takes time.

“You have to remind people so many times before it sticks for them, that something is happening,” Sabol adds. “I think that as it goes on and it builds some steam, attendance will just keep growing.”

Sabol also foresees that the series can be used to highlight certain “signposts” throughout the year, such as Constitution Day in September.

Speaking of signposts, the bar will monitor public health guidelines and add an in-person component later in the year, if possible—but Zoom programs and recordings will still be offered as well.

Like many others, the WCBA hopes and expects to be back to in-person Law Day in 2022. “Having said that,” Lozosky adds, “I don’t think we can throw out any tool that we have in our toolbox moving forward. We could record things that people can access if they don’t have the ability to come out in the evening. If you’re shut in, for any reason—hey, it’s an hour of education. So, I wouldn’t dismiss it.”