Vol. 45, No. 6

A permanent shift? Looking toward post-pandemic future, bars mull remote work, online meetings, physical space

By Dan Kittay

Trying to determine how large a physical space they need is a question bars continually face. Such factors as staff size, budget, and the need for member meeting and/or working space all need to be considered. When you throw the chaos of dealing with a pandemic into the mix, making decisions on all of the above factors is that much more difficult.

Interviews with several bar leaders and those who work with bars and other membership organizations show a wide range of circumstances that bars are looking at when it comes to assessing their needs once their areas begin to allow more in-person interactions. But they all have one thing in common: No one knows for sure yet what expectations their members will have of them, and how they can best meet them.

"We don't have to decide everything right now. What may be true today for behavior may not be true two or three months from now,” says Elizabeth Derrico, a former bar staff member and now a consultant. “We've got to accept a certain degree of uncertainty and operating in uncertain space. But we've always got to scan for more information that can turn uncertainty into less uncertainty."

A large-scale remote work experiment

The issue of how much staff workspace a bar needs has been debated in recent years. As technology has improved, the ability for some staff members to work remotely has become possible, and bars have wrestled with the question of whether to allow telecommuting, and to what degree. When the pandemic caused many cities to shut down office buildings, many bars, by necessity, had their first experience with widespread remote work.

While the San Diego County (Calif.) Bar Association had previously purchased equipment to allow for remote work, before the pandemic, it had not yet instituted any telecommuting policies, says Jill Epstein, executive director. Once it became clear that the office would need to be shut down for COVID restrictions, the 23-person staff took a "practice day” on March 12, where everybody worked from home and noted any glitches that needed to be fixed.

"I was concerned about our lawyer referral and information service phone tree, and whether the calls would get to our specialists,” Epstein says, adding that the bar carefully monitored the bandwidth of its network when all staff members were logged in. Some staff members needed adapters and other equipment, she notes, but ultimately, everyone was set to continue their work from home.

The SDCBA has decided that it will switch from an in-house server system to a cloud-based one in the future, to make remote connections more efficient, Epstein says. It’s “probably inevitable,” she adds, that remote work will remain a bigger part of the routine even once conditions allow for a full return to the office—and this may eventually prompt another big change.

“A lot of other companies are reconsidering how much of a real estate footprint they really need,” Epstein notes, “and we'll be re-evaluating that as our lease comes due."

At the York County (Pa.) Bar Association and York County Bar Foundation, newly purchased software for a virtual private network (widely known as VPN) was installed the same day that the area was placed under a stay-at-home order, says Victoria Connor, chief executive officer. Some of the staff were deemed essential workers and were allowed to come into the office as needed, Connor says, while the rest stayed home, using the new VPN to log in.

In addition to regular staff tasks, the move to virtual bar functions included board meetings, which Connor set up on Zoom. The local court system also adopted virtual meetings, and set up a "town hall" where members of the bar got to ask questions of judges and others in the court system. Those meetings will continue after the pandemic restrictions ease, Connor says.

At the beginning of the stay-at-home orders, the YCBA became accredited for online CLE and began offering programming. Early programs drew about 100 lawyers, compared with about 50 for previous in-person seminars, Connor says. Based in part on the popularity of this format, the bar is now planning online seminars through August, and expects them to be an ongoing part of its CLE offerings once in-person events can resume.

Embracing the move to online events

Also currently mulling the post-pandemic roster of in-person and online events is Tracey DeMarea, executive director of the Johnson County (Kan.) Bar Association. The JoCo Bar (as it’s known for short) moved into a new office last December, and had two rooms equipped for functions such as CLE programs and workspace for members to use when they're downtown and can stop in at bar headquarters.

The shutdown happened before the bar had a chance to offer any in-person programming in its new location. As she looks toward the future, DeMarea is considering a hybrid approach, where a limited number of members could attend in person, and the program would also be streamed for those who want to watch online. "Those who are desperate to get out and network" would be able to attend (with proper social distancing and other precautions in place for as long as they are needed), she explains, while others could watch in their offices.

The bar also is adapting to the loss of its monthly luncheons, which have been a staple for years, with anywhere from 200 to 350 members attending each month in space rented in a local hotel. With that not an option for now, DeMarea will switch the format to a webinar, with a keynote speaker and other substantive content that usually accompanies the luncheon.

"I'm embracing this," DeMarea says of the pandemic’s impetus to think differently if she wants to keep her bar relevant to its members. Among the JoCo Bar’s 1,400 members are a certain group who tend to come to bar functions. With the move to online events, there’s been a shift, and many more are attending.

"I'm seeing members who I haven't encountered before," DeMarea says. "What a great opportunity to see their membership's worthiness."

That seems to be a common phenomenon. A recent Austin (Texas) Bar Association CLE seminar reached the Zoom attendee limit, says Executive Director DeLaine Ward—and it may not have just been because of the pandemic. With increased traffic congestion in the city, “there’s people who don't want to come downtown anymore,” Ward notes. “A lot of law firms are moving out of the downtown area because of the cost."

Because courts are increasingly relying on virtual hearings and online filings, "You don't need to be by the courthouse anymore," she adds. When she started at the bar, Ward recalls, about 75 percent of firms were located downtown. That number has dropped to about 50 percent.

All of this means that members are more willing to attend CLE programming and other events virtually, Ward adds, and since more of their practices have become more virtual (or entirely virtual during the pandemic), it's easy for many to include bar functions in their online activities.

No sudden moves toward smaller headquarters

While she appreciates the popularity of the virtual events, Ward says that "it's still important for our members to get together from time to time, to network and socialize."

Another reason for the Austin bar to reinstate some in-person events, once it can, is to make use of its new headquarters. The bar purchased an 1899 house in April 2019, and has spent the time since then renovating the space and making it ADA accessible. At about the time the bar was ready to move in, the shutdown happened, so as of press time for this issue, the staff of eight has not been able to occupy the offices, meeting space and wraparound porch that are part of the building.

The Indianapolis Bar Association had a similar timing issue with its new headquarters. Planning included a lengthy process that included hiring a design firm to help decide what the bar needed as well as to design it, and conducting focus groups of members to learn what they would like to have. Staff moved into the new space on March 1. The COVID shutdown started 12 days later.

"We literally just got the last piece of furniture in two days before we shut down," says Julie Armstrong, the bar’s executive director. There was time for one board meeting, she adds, before the building had to be closed.

Remote working was not a problem, Armstrong notes, because the staff had been telecommuting in February, in the gap between when the lease on their previous space had expired, and when the new building was ready.

The immediate outlook for the Indy Bar is different from that of a lot of others. The new headquarters is in a house, and the bar is on the first and second floors. Because members had said they wanted fresh air and sunshine, the first floor has large windows that open fully. That qualifies as an outdoor space under Indiana regulations, Armstrong says, so the bar is already holding some in-person functions, following social distancing guidelines.

The bar is equipped to provide online CLE and meetings, and is likely to adopt a hybrid of both once the COVID restrictions have eased. The bar will likely adopt the same approach to telecommuting for staff, for those whose jobs allow them to work remotely, Armstrong says.

Taking a ‘for now’ approach

Even once most bars can hold in-person events again, some say, expectations for attendance may have to change. "I think it's going to be a long time before lawyers feel comfortable going to programming, whether it be a CLE seminar or a social program at a bar association," says Terry Murphy, executive director of the Chicago Bar Association. "I think it's going to be at least until the end of this year, or maybe even longer. The pandemic is defining for us, in many ways, how associations are likely to survive in the future."

The success of providing virtual programming combined with its lower costs and the reluctance of lawyers to mingle socially when they don't have to, means that the CBA will have a "much more vigorous and larger online presence than before,” Murphy believes. “In many ways, there's no turning back.”

Zoe Linza, executive director of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, hopes to see members at the bar’s headquarters in the not-too-distant future. Linza expects that while a large percentage of CLE programming will remain virtual, BAMSL will be able to stage some in-person association events in the coming months.

"I think the networking in person is important," Linza says. She hopes the bar can start with smaller events with about 50 members, so social distancing can be easily maintained. BAMSL has created a pandemic task force that is advised by a physician, she notes, and will carefully monitor safety guidelines.

Another question bars and other professional associations will face when restrictions are lifted is how many of the members who are newly attending events online will continue to attend, either online or in person, when their lives return to something closer to what they were before the pandemic. The answer—and its implications for nondues revenue—could affect decisions on physical space, staff size and budgeting.

"The thing that we don't know,” says consultant Mary Byers, “is what people's level of online meeting fatigue is." Also unknown, she adds, is how comfortable people will be with returning to physical meetings and workspaces, and how soon.

In general, Byers says, people may be realizing the "extreme time savings in commuting to and from meetings," and savings in parking and other expenses, by attending virtually. For bars and other organizations, holding events online means not having to spend money on lodging and food. "Savings could run into the thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Byers says, “depending on the size of the organization."

Trying to make long-term decisions now is "difficult and overwhelming," Byers says; the good news, she adds, is that it's also unnecessary.

With so much still uncertain, she explains, it's better to focus on incremental plans regarding anything involving the bar headquarters and where and how staff will work, and members will meet.

"Take a 'for now' approach, rather than a forever approach,” Byers  advises. “Consider three-month, six-month and nine-month plans, and recognize that they may need to be adjusted as more information becomes available."