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March 01, 2022 Vol. 47, No. 4

Where is everybody? Bars develop new approaches, more flexibility to engage members today

By Robert J. Derocher

When the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent in the spring of 2020, the member volunteers of the Bar Association of Erie County (N.Y.) sprang into action.

“We saw unprecedented engagement. It was fabulous,” says bar Executive Director Anne Noble. “Lawyers really understood the role that bar associations played, and that was really positive, both for getting people to volunteer to do things and for driving membership.

“We saw a lot of people get to know each other, albeit virtually, and emerge to become bar leaders, many that we hadn’t seen before.”

It didn’t last.

By fall 2021, with the COVID delta variant raging, the widespread omicron variant poised to strike, and many homebound members tiring from months of virtual meetings, volunteer involvement both inside and outside the 3,000-member bar was flagging.

Flash forward to February 2022, and Noble is seeing a spring renaissance of member volunteerism. “I’ve seen engagement that I haven’t seen since the beginning of the pandemic,” she says. “People willing to step up to the plate to organize events. People expressing a desire to get out and be part of events.”

The Erie bar’s COVID rollercoaster ride of member engagement is not unusual, many bar observers say. Although the quick pivot by many bars to virtual programming and events initially attracted increased attention—and member engagement—COVID and Zoom fatigue, a jump in retirements and increased workloads for many members have worn away some of those gains, they say.

Armed with lessons learned from the pandemic and plans for a slow move back toward in-person meetings and events, some bar leaders say they are optimistic that they can continue to attract and engage members—particularly some of those who are new or were previously not as involved in bar activities. Although the phrase “new normal” has quickly become cliché, they say, some old ways of approaching member activities will continue to fade, thanks to COVID.

Use of Zoom evolves, becomes more businesslike

While Zoom, Microsoft Teams and the like readily filled the need to bring people together in the early days of the pandemic, it didn’t take long for the phrase “Zoom fatigue” to enter the work-from-home lexicon. With most offices shuttered, long days of at-home virtual meetings eventually became the bane of many—despite the tropical backdrops, after-work DIY cocktails, and other extras that brought much-needed cheer earlier in the pandemic. 

At first, says Nick Hansen, communications manager for the Ramsey County Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association and Minnesota State Bar Association, he could count on upwards of 20 people to attend virtual meetings of the volunteer committee overseeing publication of Hennepin Lawyer. But about a year ago, those numbers began to drop.

“Now we’re lucky if we get three to five members to show up,” he says. “One of the biggest benefits of serving on a committee is the networking opportunity, and it’s just been made more difficult by video calling.”

Karen Korr, a bar and legal services communications strategist in San Diego, agrees that Zoom fatigue remains a challenge, but says it’s one that many associations, law firms and other businesses are learning to combat.

The key, she believes: Cut the fluff.

“Nobody wants to waste time on Zoom. If you’re going to have a Zoom committee meeting, it’s got to be on point,” she says.

Past Arkansas Bar Association President Paul Keith, whose entire term as president occurred during COVID, says the no-nonsense approach helped drive increased attendance at the bar’s Board of Trustees meetings, which were critical as the bar introduced a new governance structure.

“We found that people are very busy, and that when it’s a business meeting, getting it done in an afternoon has helped us with participation, and probably in our committees,” he says.

That businesslike efficiency is one reason why Zoom will likely stay in the New Hampshire Bar Association’s toolkit, even once in-person meetings and events become more common, says Lynne Sabean, the bar’s director of communications, marketing and member outreach. She says Zoom has also played a vital role in bringing members together in a geographically diverse state.

“We’ve actually been able to reach out to some of the people in areas—when they were live events—where they were not able to participate,” Sabean says. “When you see the good that is coming out of this technology, you’re not just going to throw it in the closet. We’re going to figure out ways to make it work going forward. It’s really the best of all worlds.”

Just as bars are backing off from thinking that virtual events must replicate in-person interaction, they’re also thinking strategically about events where virtual platforms may be a better choice and not just a COVID necessity. The Arkansas bar’s Young Lawyers Section went virtual last year with its Wills for Heroes program to help first responders with estate planning.

“They found it worked better than in person,” says bar President Joe Kolb. “Why? They could reach so many other first responders all across the state. They were not limited to whatever location they were going to do for their one-day event. We see that continuing virtually.”

Varying assignments to meet varying member needs

As they continue efforts to reach and work with their members in what they hope is a waning world of COVID, bars are increasingly becoming more flexible and measured in their approaches to get them involved and keep them engaged. This involves rethinking not only how and where meetings and events occur, but also the nature of the commitment that’s expected.

“We’ve been trying to look for short-term volunteering opportunities to try and get people in the door and active right away, as opposed to, ‘Come to a few meetings for a few months, and then you raise your hand to volunteer,’” Hansen says. “I try to get people engaged right away.”

That approach is also key in outward-facing volunteer opportunities in New Hampshire, Sabean says, where many members have seen increased work commitments that have cut into their available free time. This crunch is occurring at the same time that the bar recently spun off its pro bono components to a newly formed civil legal aid organization, 603 Legal Aid, while holding onto its reduced and full-fee programs and New Hampshire Free Legal Answers as well as Lawline community programs. (Note: ABA Free Legal Answers is a project of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service; New Hampshire is one of several participating states.)

“We have a solution to whatever a lawyer can say to us [when we ask for help],” Sabean notes. “If they say, ‘I don’t have time to take on full cases now through 603 Legal Aid,’ we say, ‘Awesome! Free Legal Answers. You can go in and work at 10 o’clock at night in your pajamas and do as little or as much as you want. Or Lawline is only a two-hour, one-time commitment.”

Also trying microvolunteering—in a big way—is the Johnson County (Kan.) Bar Association. When she realized that members were all over the map as far as their comfort levels and time availability, Executive Director Tracey DeMarea began connecting with small, local charity organizations that needed one-time donations of things like kitchen utensils and office supplies.

“I’m hosting happy hours for our members to come, network, and donate,” DeMarea says. “We’re calling them ‘We’re Giving Back.’” The bar has even established a new section to coordinate these service opportunities: the Community and Outreach Section.

“The more the board and I thought about it, the more we realized we have a number of ‘community’ type projects we’re involved with, and that involvement ranges,” DeMarea explains. “So, we appointed a section chair, which is also a board position, so I have someone to work with.”

The most recent We're Giving Back event, on March 9, 2022, was in support of No Shame, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that provides free access to period products and other hygiene and health care items. For this event, the Johnson County bar partnered with the Association for Women Lawyers of Greater Kansas City; more than 30 lawyers attended, DeMarea says. 

‘Hybrid’ takes on a new meaning

Against a backdrop of another decline in COVID cases, some bars are now setting a course for bolstering volunteering and member engagement that incorporates in-person events and activities. Earlier in the pandemic, it seemed as if hybrid events—with concurrent in-person and virtual options—would be the solution. Now, many bars are taking a “hybrid” approach by offering a mix of virtual events and in-person ones—but not always the same event and at the same time. 

In Erie County, Noble says, the bar has made plans for small “coffee and conversation” get-togethers throughout the county, as well as other smaller gatherings, as they build toward a somewhat larger—and still tentative—Law Day gathering in May.

“We’re not forcing anyone to be in person. We’re not holding 200-person indoor events. We’re having smaller social gatherings to help ease people back,” she says. “It was so hard in March of 2020. Why would we expect it to be easy for people to return to normal? It’s the same kind of pivot. We need to make it as comfortable as we can for people.”

Plans are being readied for the Arkansas bar’s traditional annual meeting this summer to return to in-person for the first time since 2019. That planning, however, will likely include virtual elements as a way to broaden participation and give members attendance options.

“We have a real test case coming in June,” says former Arkansas bar President Brian Rosenthal. “We’re trying to keep people engaged—and safe.”

Paris Eriksen, volunteer engagement advisor for the Washington State Bar Association, says her bar expects to take a hybrid approach that blends virtual capabilities with smaller in-person events and activities in order to keep volunteer members engaged. A survey of volunteers last year found that a majority found it easy to participate virtually—but that they still hoped to have some occasional in-person interaction with other members.

“People still feel a sense of pause. They are uncomfortable about how to plan [events], so it’s not happening,” she says. “It seems too up in the air. It can become a hassle for volunteers—and then you become worried if anyone is going to show up.”

The bar did hold a small in-person luncheon for its 50-year members last year, Eriksen says, taking careful precautions to ensure everyone’s safety.

While bar leaders agree that safety considerations will linger and will be part of all event and engagement planning for the foreseeable future, there is still a growing sense that members want—and need—more in-person interaction as part of the mix.

“I don’t think virtual is gone forever, but we do see an appetite for people to gather together, and we’re encouraging it,” Noble says. “We think it’s really important for people’s mental well-being.”

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