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September 01, 2021 Vol. 47, No. 1

Starting a job when everything is different: What it’s like to join the bar staff during COVID-19

By Marilyn Cavicchia
Lynne Sabean, Nicole Roberts, and Samantha Mariano-Gruber

Lynne Sabean, Nicole Roberts, and Samantha Mariano-Gruber

For many of us, one of the great surprises of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the degree to which life has gone on. Just as the legal profession hasn’t ground to a halt, the bar world hasn't, either—and this means that many bars have welcomed new staff members, even now.

What’s it like to conduct a job interview via Zoom? To be “shown around” more metaphorically than physically? To first get to know your coworkers as faces in squares on a screen, and then as faces behind masks?

To find out, Bar Leader recently spoke with three people who began new jobs at bar organizations during the pandemic: Samantha Marinaro-Gruber, who has been coordinator for education programs and events at the Bucks County (Pa.) Bar Association since May 2020; Lynne Sabean, who began as director of marketing, communications, and member outreach at the New Hampshire Bar Association in July 2020; and Nicole Roberts, whose first day as assistant editor and communications coordinator at The Missouri Bar was in December 2020.

What was the hiring process like?

Sabean’s path to the bar staff had some twists and turns after a recruiter alerted her to the position in February 2020.

“I was at the point of having an interview scheduled for me when the pandemic hit in March and everything was put on hold,” she recalls, adding that she kept in touch with the recruiter regularly to let her know she was still interested.

“After a while, it almost became an inside joke,” Sabean notes. “‘Yes, I know there’s a pandemic and that we’re all sheltering at home, but could you let them know that when the time’s right, I’d love to talk with them?’”

At the time, Sabean was employed as a marketer at a local performing arts center—but that job came to an end in May 2020 because of both the lack of work during the shutdown and the lack of income with which to pay employees. Shortly afterward, the NHBA restarted its hiring process.

Both of her interviews at the NHBA took place in person but with masks on—which Sabean says she didn’t mind because she has “a lousy poker face.”

Marinaro-Gruber's interview process was partially in person, but it was still very different. After an initial phone interview, she had an on-site interview during which she was given a tour of the building and introduced to the staff—with everyone masked.

“The hardest part about the interview process was not being able to shake a potential employer’s hand,” Marinaro-Gruber recalls, adding that a masked interview requires an increased level of energy to overcome that barrier and be able to still make the small talk that’s important to the process.

“Without being able to see expressions and mannerisms,” she adds, “my interview was likely lengthier than normal with the additional questions needed to be asked by both parties to compensate.”

Despite the pandemic, Roberts found herself in the enviable position of having a great opportunity find her when she wasn’t actively looking for it—at the time that she learned about the job at The Missouri Bar, she was happily working as community engagement editor at the Jefferson City News Tribune. It happened that Roberts had interviewed Hannah Frevert, editor at the bar, for an article—so, when the position opened up, Frevert thought of Roberts and let her know about it.

When it came time for her interview, which was done on Zoom, Roberts says she put her reporting experience to good use: She was already used to interviewing people in formats other than in person, so being interviewed this way was not such a shock. Still, though, there was something missing.

“With in-person interviews, as a reporter,” she explains, “I typically would go into that room with the person and look around and try to find something that could be a conversation piece, to break the ice.” Without having that same ability to connect with her interviewer, she adds, the experience did feel more stressful in one way—but in another, it was comforting to be in her own home, surrounded by her own “stuff.”

Roberts’ efforts to avoid one well-known Zoom hazard were foiled. She put so much focus on preventing her puppy from barking that she forgot about her cat, which then meowed, scratched and thumped at the closed door in a frantic effort to open it—definitely not something Roberts would have encountered in a traditional job interview, she jokes.

How were these new hires onboarded?

Along with the bar’s formal, written onboarding policy, Sabean’s process of settling in at the NHBA was helped by the fact that she knew not only the executive director, George Moore, from her interviews, but also another director from the five years she spent as a practicing attorney.

Very soon after she started, Sabean had a chance to help someone else through the onboarding process, when a new staff member joined her department. “I reviewed resumes during my first week on the job,” Sabean notes. “Having gone through the process so recently myself, I knew how the interviewee was likely feeling and did everything I could to make the hiring process a comfortable one for all involved.”

Sabean adds that along with posting the position and collecting resumes, Human Resources Director Paula L. Lewis helped by participating in the interviews to answer questions that Sabean hadn’t been there long enough to answer—and then allowed her to make the ultimate decision on who to hire.

Roberts credits her smooth onboarding process to some thoughtful steps by her supervisor, Director of Communications Farrah Fite, who provided her with a detailed agenda indicating whom she would be talking with, what programs she would be learning about, and if there would be a virtual event each day. Talking with each department director was especially helpful, she recalls, because she was new to the bar world and faced a steep learning curve. Roberts also sat in on other departments’ weekly meetings, as a chance to learn more and to meet other staff members.

But it wasn’t all business: Virtual lunches within her department helped Roberts learn about her coworkers’ hobbies, families, and other personal details, and she also participated in the bar-wide virtual coffee break. During her first week, she says, there was even a virtual escape room activity, planned by a social committee of the staff.

Fite also assigned Roberts to interview bar staff members for a monthly “staff spotlight” feature—both to take advantage of her reporting skills, and as one more way to get to know her colleagues better.

Since June 2021, when her bar began transitioning to a hybrid model for staff, Roberts has continued her onboarding by looking for opportunities to say hello. Roberts considers herself to be a very social person, and when she sees that someone is in their office with the door open, she’ll knock and introduce herself.

“I do wish that I could meet more people in person,” she says. “But I understand that not everyone has the same comfort level as me, and I don’t want to put anyone in an uncomfortable situation.”

What is work like now?

Like The Missouri Bar, the BCBA has resumed in-person work with a hybrid model. Both the annual bar foundation golf outing earlier in 2021 and the bench bar conference in late September 2021 returned to the in-person format as well. All CLE programs are now offered both on Zoom and in person at the bar building; Marinaro-Gruber says in-person CLE attendance is picking up and is on track to be “phenomenal” for the bench bar conference because members are so eager to see each other.

Marinaro-Gruber says seeing her new coworkers unmasked and in person was a big adjustment. “Body language and expressions play such a large part in how we understand tone and mannerisms,” she says. “Once the team was fully vaccinated and able to work without masks, we were finally able to really read one another.”

Not only her work at the bar but also the events industry as a whole have been profoundly affected by the pandemic, notes Marinaro-Gruber, who came to the bar with 10 years’ experience as an event manager.

“As event managers, we are used to fast-paced, constantly changing live programs,” she notes. “The hybrid model consists of all of that, now with a technology component!

“We are now constantly learning new platforms, new ways to keep interest (so folks don’t log into Zoom and walk away) and balancing quality; making sure it’s even for those in-person and virtual.”

The Missouri Bar’s hybrid model allows three days in the office and two days at home; the communications department aims for all of its staff to be in the office on Fridays, Roberts says, so there’s one day a week when the team can all see each other. However, she adds, her department has not yet been able to hold its staff meetings in person, because of differing schedules as well as the spike in cases due to the delta variant, which has led to a more strict focus on masks and social distancing.

“In my department, we’ve found it’s a lot easier to just do it virtually,” Roberts says, because not many of the bars’ spaces are large enough to permit sufficient social distancing and because masks can be even more of a hindrance than screens are. So, whether people are in the office or at home, meetings currently take place on Microsoft Teams. “We did recently meet in person for the first time to go get lunch,” she adds. “That was strange to me!”

Roberts has yet to interact with members in person and doesn’t expect to anytime soon—especially because many have said they prefer the virtual format for many bar events.  

When Sabean started, the bar was at half capacity each day (and with masks on), though Sabean herself came in daily because she thought it was unfair to ask her direct reports to come in when she was not there. In recent months, the NHBA has resumed 100 percent in-person work, and more recently has relaxed its mask requirements. Sabean had seen everyone’s faces before, in biweekly all-staff meetings on GoTo Meeting; like Roberts, she also made a point to “pop in” and meet coworkers in person on days when they were in the office.

Still, she says, echoing both Mariano-Gruber and Roberts, it was very strange at first to see her colleagues’ unmasked faces in person.

“Other than that,” she adds, “the return to full in-office has been a relief. To me, it feels like 'the before time.'”

(Editor's note: COVID-19 and the related health and safety best practices and requirements continue to change frequently. This article is a snapshot; some changes may have occurred after Bar Leader spoke with these bar staff members.)