Going virtual in a big way
While many bars are enthusiastically resuming in-person board meetings as the standard with Zoom participation as needed, other bars are more fully embracing the idea that virtual board meetings are indefinitely part of the mix.
Though the Erie County bar strongly encourages in-person attendance with a virtual option as needed, Noble says the bar is proactively planning for some of the board meetings to be entirely virtual—such as in winter, when many people are preoccupied with holidays or the end of the year, and when Buffalo-area weather makes travel more daunting.
“When the snow is flying on a Monday night and we know we’re meeting at 8:00 the next morning,” she says, “let’s make sure that one is virtual. So, we ask people to commit to be in person, but we’re using that virtual option to make their lives easier as necessary.”
While the board of the Johnson County bar has resumed the in-person format for three of its 10 meetings per year—on a Friday late afternoon, with optional networking and drinks before and after—the other board meetings continue to be held on Zoom during the lunch hour.
DeMarea says she hasn’t seen a big drop-off in engagement when the board meets on Zoom, and the lunchtime virtual meetings are also much easier for the four board members (out of 16) who are judges. Complicating matters, she notes, is that the bar moved its offices in January 2020, from a location very close to the courthouse to one that’s 10 or 15 minutes away.
“It’s not the end of the world because we’re still very central to everybody, but it makes a difference to the judges,” DeMarea says. “So, we heard that, and while we were on Zoom, it was a lot easier for everybody to just turn up.”
The MSBA has been tracking member engagement and satisfaction with virtual events and programming since shortly after the pandemic began—and has consistently found that most members like or even prefer this format. In fact, Velazquez says, 62 percent of members indicate that they never want to attend any bar event in person. This information has led the MSBA to strategically lean in with the virtual format, including for board meetings. Sections, committees, and other groups within the bar have been advised to hold at least 50 percent of their meetings virtually, he says, noting that this is part of an overall movement in the bar from a “club product” model—driven by in-person attendance—to a “content product” model—driven by an Amazon-fueled consumer preference for convenience.
One strength of the virtual format for board meetings, Velazquez says, is that it helps break down a barrier in which a select few members meet in person to discuss matters that affect the full membership, most of whom prefer to meet virtually. MSBA President Shapiro notes that cutting back on the number of in-person board meetings can also help increase geographic diversity among the board.
“Maryland is not necessarily a huge state, but for our folks out in the west or in the east, it can be very difficult to commute to any other location,” he explains. “Particularly if you’re going from side to side, it could be a four-hour drive for a meeting, and the ability to encourage and facilitate people on the further outreaches to engage is one of the things that our leadership has been trying to stress.”
Currently, Velazquez says, it would still be difficult for a member to gain support for a board run unless they are known from in-person events—but he expects that this will change as the bar continues its progress away from the “club” model and as technology becomes more seamless.
Davis has a different suggestion for how to accommodate far-flung members who want to serve on the board: Though he knows budgets are tight, he would like to see bars budget gas and lodging for board members who need to drive in from far away—and who would face a long drive home, potentially late in the evening. While he doesn’t want to go back to the way things were, when it was assumed that all board members were fine with a long drive, he also wouldn’t want bars to entirely scrap in-person board meetings for this reason.
“I think putting some money in the budget—and it doesn’t have to be a ton—to make sure you’re looking out for those people is smart,” he says.
As for the question of whether board members can engage fully enough in virtual meetings, especially when big decisions are at stake, Velazquez points to the for-profit sector. "The reality is that we're having a discussion on a topic that corporate America has long since grappled with. Boards of major organizations are globally distributed, and somehow, they've been able to make big decisions," he says. "I don't think that a bar board of governors is such a unique animal that it is incapable of having discussions, making decisions, and governing [via a virtual platform]."
But Shapiro says that for now, the weightiest discussions might still be best suited to an in-person board meeting, like a recent one where he saw the best governance work he has ever experienced as part of the MSBA.
“I do question whether we could have had that type of robust, collegial, respectful, civil, engaging discussion that resulted in really thoughtful dialogue and action [if not in person]. I don't know if that would've been as feasible at this point in time in a virtual format,” he says. “So it may be that that's a learning curve that we're going to continue to experiment with.”