Vol. 45, No. 6

The show must go on: Bars develop virtual Law Day celebrations

By Marilyn Cavicchia

As with so many other events in spring of 2020, this year’s Law Day celebration required some rethinking once it became clear that the typical in-person gatherings were out of the question.

The ABA Division for Public Education offered a variety of digital resources to help bars and other organizations supplement their programming on this year’s theme: “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: The 19th Amendment at 100.” For bars offering programming over the summer related to the 19th Amendment centennial, the public education division and the Law Library of Congress are offering free on-demand screening of their Law Day 2020 program "Social Movement Changing America: The Legacies of the 19th Amendment."

Here’s a look at how some bars across the country celebrated Law Day this year, including the ways they shifted their plans and made the best use of the new format.

Oklahoma Bar Association and Oklahoma Law Day Committee

Art and writing contests for pre-K through 12th grade, a free legal advice hotline, and a one-hour TV show have all been statewide Law Day traditions for more than 40 years, says Carol Manning, communications director at the OBA.

“Fortunately,” she says, “contest winners were honored in a ceremony with the supreme court chief justice before sheltering in place was needed.”

The annual “Ask A Lawyer” program required some adjustments. The typical phone bank model, in which 30 lawyers per shift go to a physical space to answer calls and emails in two cities from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., was eliminated for this year. Instead, Manning says, the email option was expanded from one day to about a week and was widely promoted, so volunteer lawyers could safely answer questions from anywhere.

More rethinking was needed for the Ask A Lawyer TV show, which is produced with the statewide PBS station. Production was about two-thirds done before the pandemic hit, Manning says. A few remaining in-person interviews were switched to video conferencing, and panel discussions that usually follow major segments were scrapped, with quick Q&A segments from last year used to help fill the time. The typical scrolling call-in number during the show was replaced with an email option.

When the TV station closed its studio, Manning adds, the video production company that the bar uses to film the major segments expanded its work to allow the project to continue. 

“Another challenge popped up when we lost the availability of our host, who had no childcare options,” Manning says. A past president was recruited to come to the bar center to film the intro and the vital pieces between the segments.

Connecticut Bar Association

The initial plan for the CBA’s Law Day 2020 celebration included an interactive event in which students from Mercy High School were to act as prominent figures in the history of women's suffrage and the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The sting of having to cancel this component was greatly relieved by the overwhelming response to the virtual program that was developed instead, which was attended by more than 120 legal professionals and middle and high school students, says CBA Civics Education Committee Co-Chair Jonathan Weiner.

On Friday, May 8, guest speaker Secretary of the State Denise W. Merrill led a virtual program called “Your Vote, Your Voice, Our Democracy: Celebrating the Centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment in the Age of COVID-19,” in which she wove the historical theme into a discussion about voting challenges today, especially in light of the pandemic.

The event, organized by the Civics Education Committee, served as the culmination of the bar's yearlong efforts to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment. Events held earlier in the year included lectures and a statewide scavenger hunt.

The virtual Law Day program was co-sponsored by many affinity and local bar associations throughout the state, including the Connecticut Asian Pacific American Bar Association, Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, Fairfield County Bar Association, Hartford County Bar Association, Greater Bridgeport Bar Association, Greater New Britain Bar Association, Litchfield County Bar Association, Middlesex County Bar Association, New Haven County Bar Association, Tolland County Bar Association, and Waterbury Bar Association.

“We're looking forward to providing more events like this in the coming year to expand access to civics education across Connecticut,” Weiner says, “especially in light of post-COVID-19 restrictions on school activities.”

Chicago Bar Association Young Lawyers Section

This year, the CBA Young Lawyers Section observed Law Day by producing a compilation video that features remarks by the chief judge of United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Hon. Rebecca Pallmeyer, and by the First Vice President of the CBA, Maryam Ahmad, with additional commentary by YLS Chair Octavio Duran. The music in the video is taken from a past performance of “Hallelujah Chorus” by the Chicago Bar Association Symphony Orchestra, with friends from the DePaul Community Chorus and Niles Metropolitan Chorus.

In the video, Duran notes that this virtual celebration takes the place of the YLS’s traditional week full of activities culminating in a large, in-person event. Pallmeyer and Ahmad walk viewers through the history of the 19th Amendment and the importance of the rule of law and of voting rights today.

Pallmeyer notes the unhappy association that the number 19 has taken on recently, as it is in the shortened name for the coronavirus, but that even the lack of in-person celebrations of Law Day and of the 19th Amendment centennial couldn’t dampen her joy. The amendment didn’t lead in a straight line to women becoming judges or members of Congress, she says, “but the right to vote is so fundamental, so genuine, so crucial. When women and men use their voices, they can make the changes we long for.”

Ahmad, who observes that the 19th Amendment and the work that led up to it were “transformative” and viewed by many as “radical change at that time,” says, “The women’s suffrage movement forever changed America.”

Dallas Bar Association

The DBA directly addressed the COVID-19 pandemic in a Law Day Zoom webinar called “Adaptability in the New Normal.” Attended by about 250 people, this program highlighted the strength of the bar and its legal community and the hope that all will come through this crisis together.  Also addressed in this program were other crises and challenging times, including 9/11, the assassination of President Kennedy (after which the president of the DBA went to the city jail to speak to Lee Harvey Oswald), and the ongoing struggle for women’s rights and racial equality. Along with past bar presidents, notes DBA Communications Director Jessica Smith, other speakers included Harriet Miers, White House counsel to President George W. Bush, and Robert Jordan, who was ambassador to Saudi Arabia during 9/11.

York County (Pa.) Bar Association/York County Bar Foundation

The York County Bar Association and York County Bar Foundation held their annual Law Day celebration on June 15, 2020. Though Chief Executive Officer Victoria Connor regretted the loss of the in-person luncheon (and having contest-winning bookmark designs printed on chocolate bars and distributed to attendees), all the major elements were successfully moved to a digital format, and the Zoom event was attended by 100 people, Connor says.

Along with addresses by the presidents of the bar and the foundation, the event showcased winners of the following contests and awards: high school mock trials; an essay competition in which nine schools were represented; a bookmark contest for which 5,000 copies of the winning entry are printed and distributed at local libraries, with information about the bar’s lawyer referral service on the back; and the Liberty Bell Award, which honors a local person who has helped advance the rule of law and access to justice.

The event also featured a presentation by Dora Townsend, a resident of nearby Gettysburg, who used historical photos and news clippings, quotes from personal letters, and family heirlooms to tell the story of her great-grandmother, a notable figure in the woman’s suffrage movement. Dora Lewis (typically referred to in suffragist documents as Mrs. Lawrence Lewis) came from a wealthy, progressive Philadelphia family and became involved in the suffrage movement as a 51-year-old widow. She was one of the 5,000 women who paraded in Washington, D.C., a member of one of the delegations of women who stood as “silent sentinel” at the door of the White House (hoping to shame President Woodrow Wilson into action), and one of 41 women arrested in November 1917 and subjected to what became known as “the Night of Terror” because of their brutal treatment by prison guards.

Her ancestor’s experiences are still relevant, Townsend noted, because her activism was spurred by “the glaring inequity she saw” and also because conflicts over what should be decided at the federal level and what should be up to the states (a persistent issue in getting the 19th Amendment ratified) still recur today.