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Vol. 46, No. 2

In the event of a pandemic: Bar executives weigh how soon it will be safe to gather in person

By Marilyn Cavicchia

As the pandemic wears on and the novelty of waving into a webcam wears off, many bar members, staff, and others are eager to once again meet in person. At the same time, many people are keeping a close eye on numbers of COVID-19 cases and on the latest mandates from state and local authorities. Bar Leader recently asked members of the bar association community where they were, currently, with in-person meetings and what they thought might happen in the months ahead. Here’s a sampling of what we heard.

2021 planning takes decisiveness but also flexibility

While the pandemic has involved playing some things by ear and adapting as conditions change, bars generally plan 12 months in advance, notes Tracey DeMarea, executive director of the Johnson County (Kan.) Bar Association—which means she and her board have had to do their best to determine what 2021 holds in store.

One of the bar’s two biggest in-person events is its bench-bar conference, a full-day educational program in spring with vendors, a happy hour, and a keynote speaker, typically drawing about 300 attendees. For 2021, the bar has proactively decided that the conference will be held virtually, regardless of what the pandemic conditions are by spring.

With a socially distanced classroom layout for the conference (which would likely still be necessary by spring), “we would have a huge reduction in people we could accommodate because of social distancing,” DeMarea says, “so, reducing income and perhaps not covering the expenses.” Another consideration, she notes, was that some people might register for the event, thinking they would feel safe by then—but ultimately decide they didn’t feel safe, and ask for a refund.   

“If we hit a spike [in cases] the day before,” DeMarea asks, “will everyone bow out, and I'll be left in a hotel classroom on my own?” Adding to those concerns for the bench-bar conference and also for the bar’s popular monthly luncheons, is the question of what would happen if someone tested positive after the event. Contact tracing would have to be done, DeMarea notes, and there might also be media fallout from the bar’s decision to hold the event during the pandemic.

For the luncheons, which typically draw 200 to 250 people for a free buffet, networking, and hearing a speaker, DeMarea has contracted with her usual hotel starting again in 2021—but she has insisted that her contract for each month have a clause that says she can cancel, without penalty, up to three days before the event.

The intention, DeMarea explains, was to build in a way that this beloved member benefit can resume as soon as it’s safe to do so in its typical form—but until then, the luncheons will remain on hold rather than in a redesigned format. Current conditions, she explains, would require seating only three or four people at each 70-inch round, and there could be no buffet. Also, DeMarea says, the members who most love this event are seniors—who are also in the at-risk population for COVID-19.

With dues notices recently sent, DeMarea says, her challenge is now to show the value of membership in part by developing new, virtual programs that can help fill the gap until in-person events can resume.

The Santa Cruz County (Calif.) Bar Association & Lawyer Referral Service finds itself in a similar position—planning for 2021 based on current information—with one big difference: Its state maintains a ban on all in-person events other than protests and faith-based or cultural ceremonies.

“Our situation is compounded by the fact that we typically hold our member events at our local community college or our city art and history museum,” says Executive Director Lolly Belanger. “Both of these entities are now closed, with no planned reopening dates.”

The bar’s bylaws say the annual meeting and installation of officers must take place in the first quarter of the year, Belanger notes. In 2020, it was scheduled for March 11 but had to be canceled on the day of the event because the facility needed to close immediately. The bar quickly switched to an online vote for its board officers.

For 2021, Belanger says, the bar will most likely put together an online event and then wait and see if things change in terms of health mandates and what is allowed. “It's extremely odd to not be planning for next year's events now,” Belanger says, “but we don't have a lot of options, so we're going to just do our best to put something together rapidly once things change.”

No indoor, in-person events

“We are basically a no-go for any indoor in-person gatherings for the foreseeable future,” says Crista Hogan, executive director of the Springfield (Mo.) Metropolitan Bar Association. For example, she notes, an 18-minute award ceremony on the courthouse steps took the place of the bar’s usual indoor Law Day events that draw 150 people.

Similarly, other than flu shots by appointment, the Bar Association of Erie County (N.Y.) has not held and is not scheduling any indoor, in-person events during the pandemic. “We are in a wait-and-see mode, watching the public health data,” says Anne M. Noble, executive director. “There is some slight pushback, but most seem to favor this approach.”

Taking a tip from how some have held concerts, dance performances, and other events, Noble adds, this year, the bar held its annual awards program at a nearby drive-in movie theater.

What about the annual meeting? 

“We’re finding it’s still a very mixed bag on whether membership wants to resume in-person meetings,” says Marilyn Shaw, director of marketing and communications at the Virginia Bar Association. Recently, the bar conducted a poll to gauge members’ comfort level about attending its annual meeting in mid-January 2021.

Ultimately, the bar opted for a hybrid meeting, similar to its summer meeting in July 2020—a small, socially distanced in-person gathering along with a webinar feed. The streamlined agenda includes general sessions only, instead of multiple concurrent sessions.

In the poll, while some responded that they would attend either in person or virtually because they so miss seeing each other, another sizeable group said they would rather not attend the meeting in either format. The strongest response seemed to be for “Not in person, but perhaps virtually.”

About 5 percent chose "Other" and said it depended on such factors as programming, whether there would be enforced physical distancing (“We, of course, would follow all state mandates,” Shaw notes), whether a vaccine would be available by January, what flu season will look like, and whether there would be banquets, dancing, and receptions.

Interestingly, Shaw says, some members meant they would attend if the meeting included these events, while others meant that this would lead them to stay away.

A careful mix of virtual and in-person events

The Erie County (Pa.) Bar Association is offering an in-person option for some meetings and events—but within limits. “We have social distancing guidelines in place and have a ‘person count’ on each room,” explains Julie Kresge, executive director. “Once that is reached, we add any additional participants via Zoom.”

Whether for meetings or CLE, Kresge notes, some members prefer gathering in person at the bar’s headquarters and separate education center—where social distancing is easy to maintain, she adds—while others prefer the Zoom option. The bar continues to evaluate its major events for the rest of 2020 and into 2021; here is the current status:

  • The ECBA postponed its 2020 Law Day celebration to May 2021, and a committee will determine whether it will be in person, virtual, or a hybrid.
  • A major fundraiser for an Erie County Law Foundation program called Attorneys and Kids Together is the AKT 5K each May. Instead of a typical event held on one day, this year, the race was held virtually over the course of a week, with runners using an app to record their times—or emailing their times to Kresge, on the honor system. Kresge herself participated in a socially distanced Halloween race and hopes this can be replicated for the 2021 AKT 5K, with a virtual option as well.
  • The bar’s upcoming annual meeting in December will be entirely virtual, as was its midyear meeting.
  • An admission ceremony at the end of October was canceled in favor a private event. There was only one new admittee eligible for the ceremony, Kresge notes, as results from the Pennsylvania bar exam rescheduled from July 2020 were delayed until December.
  • 2021 fundraising event consideration for the law foundation is on hold, but an online event called Erie Gives Day was successful, and was followed by an annual appeal by mail in November.
  • The bench-bar conference scheduled for fall 2020 was postponed to September 2021—which Kresge hopes is far enough out that it can be held fully in-person, at a resort.

Hybrid, but leaning more toward in-person

Also offering hybrid events—but with more of a focus on the in-person format—is the Lafayette (La.) Bar Association & Foundation. Based on the results of a member survey to gauge both comfort level and interest, the bar resumed some in-person events this past summer.

In August, 20 people attended an in-person installation event, says Executive Director Pam Landaiche. More recently, the bar has begun holding hybrid meetings for its family law, young lawyers, and criminal law sections, meaning that people can attend either in person or on Zoom. On average, Landaiche notes, 15 to 18 people have attended in person—in a conference room set up for social distancing—and fewer than 10 have attended virtually.

In fall, Landaiche says, some larger events were held outdoors. These included a September tennis tournament with about 50 participants and an October golf tournament with 30 teams. The annual bench-bar conference, held indoors, was postponed to November from late August.

“We conducted a survey of past attendees before rescheduling,” Landaiche notes, “and the results were positive.”

Health questionnaire and temperature checks

When the Essex County (N.J.) Bar Association held an awards reception with a golf component this fall, it took a few extra steps to ensure health and safety, according to Executive Director Wendy Deer.

“We spent a great deal of time planning event health protocols, required a health questionnaire that we sent electronically and then confirmed onsite, took temperatures and created ample signage to remind guests to wear masks and remain socially distant,” Deer says. The bar also created videos and livestreamed the event so people who weren’t comfortable participating in person could still feel included.

“Feedback has been positive,” Deer adds, and attendance was also strong, with 64 golfers participating and about 160 people at the outdoor dining event. The bar doesn’t currently have any other in-person social events planned.

What happens in winter?

Similar to the Lafayette bar, the DuPage County (Ill.) Bar Association found that its golf outing, in August, was “huge,” as Executive Director Robert Rupp says, selling out with 36 foursomes and $20,000 in sponsorship support. More than $8,000 was raised for the DuPage Bar Foundation and DuPage Legal Aid. The golf outing included lunch and a cocktail reception, both held indoors and outdoors.

In northern states such as Illinois, one question to consider regarding in-person events is what will happen when it’s too cold to hold them outdoors. In October, four of the DCBA’s large sections hosted after-work networking events at local restaurants under heated tents, with attendance capped at 36. A November coat drive was held as a drive-through event, and a December toy drive was planned to follow that same format. The bar’s annual holiday gala has been canceled.

The celebration and awards program that the bar usually hosts after its installation ceremony has been pushed back twice, Rupp says, and is now scheduled for January 2021. The actual installation was held in June 2020 for 25 people in a tent on the courthouse lawn.

With other events, Rupp says, the DCBA has taken a hybrid approach, with the president or chair joining staff at the bar center while most others participate via Zoom. The bar also has successfully explored Zoom social events. A mixology class in November on Zoom drew 60 members and garnered great reviews, Rupp says, adding that attendees also appreciated that a sponsor sent each of them a $20 gift card for a local wine and beverage shop. A Zoom holiday cooking class is planned for December.

Is virtual CLE here to stay?

The DCBA offered a robust 19 CLE programs on Zoom this October, according to Rupp, who notes that attendance at September’s CLE programs (also on Zoom) was nearly double what is typical for the bar’s pre-pandemic CLEs held at the courthouse. Based on that success, Rupp says, “We may never go back” to in-person CLE.

At the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, “two highly successful international law virtual CLEs have drawn attendees from all over the world,” says Susan Sagarra, the bar’s assistant executive director for membership and marketing. As at many other bars, she adds, other CLE programs since the pandemic began have covered a wide variety of topics related to this crisis. (As a side note—and unlike at many bars—BAMSL staff members have been back in the office since late May.)

Even if they’re not in another country—or another county—attendees often find it easier to manage virtual CLE and meetings, some bars have found. For example, since switching to virtual meetings, the Bucks County (Pa.) Bar Association has seen an increase in participation from a lot of members who previously would not have attended in-person meetings because of the travel time that was required.

“This dynamic has caused us to rethink how we will hold future meetings even after we resume them in person,” says Executive Director Gregory J. Nardi.

The Prince William County (Va.) Bar Association has had a similar experience, says Executive Director Alissa Hudson. “When we switched our educational programming to virtual, attendance increased significantly,” she explains, “because members could attend from the safety of their office or the comfort of their home, while they were taking care of their children, who were also home.” 

The bar also began offering CLE at no charge, Hudson adds, because members' income was down while courts were closed, and has added many non-CLE virtual programs as a way for members to stay connected.

“But we do miss gathering in person, and look forward to resuming those activities when it is safe to do so,” she says. “My guess is there will always be a virtual component to future programming—we just have to figure out how to manage that.”