Vol. 45, No. 5

Connection in a time of chaos: Bars play pivotal role during COVID-19 shutdown

By Marilyn Cavicchia

(Editor’s note: This article and its companion piece on how bars are tending to their staff culture during this pandemic are not the final word when it comes to bars’ response to COVID-19 on behalf of their members, their staff, the legal profession, and the public. There can be no final word yet, given that the pandemic and its many interrelated effects continue to evolve. Watch for further information about bars’ COVID-19 efforts in future issues of Bar Leader and Bar Leader Weekly, on the ABA Division for Bar Services website, and from the National Conference of Bar Presidents, National Association of Bar Executives, and National Conference of Bar Foundations. For the bars mentioned in this article, in order to give a more complete picture than we could include here, each link goes directly to the bar’s main area for COVID-19 information and resources, if available.)

When it became clear, this past March, that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to have a major impact on the legal profession in her area and on lawyers’ ability to practice, Tracey DeMarea sprang into action.

DeMarea, who is executive director of the Johnson County (Kan.) Bar Association, made sure she was on email lists for state and local courts, sent court updates to all her bar’s members, and—for the benefit of all lawyers in her county and beyond—created an area on the bar’s website for up-to-date COVID-19 information. In the early days, she recalls, she sent two or three updates per day and spent additional time updating the website.

“There were times that really was all I was doing,” she says. “But that's what our members needed, and I received a lot of 'thank you' messages. I needed to be relevant to them, timely and a reliable source.”

Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the California Lawyers Association was faced with a similar scramble, gathering information from courts in the state’s 58 counties, all of which are fairly independent and have their own rules, according to Ona Alston Dosunmu, the bar’s CEO and executive director.

And this work has not ended, even as the CLA ramps up many other efforts to assist members, the legal profession, and the public. When Bar Leader spoke with Dosunmu, efforts were under way to make interim court rules that would apply statewide during the emergency—but until that was in place, the CLA was continuing to check court information twice daily and update its own website.

“It’s quite challenging,” Dosunmu concedes, “but we're trying to serve as the hub for that information.”

Bar presidents serving during the pandemic are learning firsthand a lesson that is often delivered at the ABA Bar Leadership Institute: that you can carefully map out the issues you want to focus on, but a crisis may intervene and change those plans. Hank Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association, was anticipating the gentle wind-down of his term, which ends on May 31; instead, he says, he has been gratified to lead the bar’s COVID-19 efforts, establishing emergency task forces to address the pandemic’s many different effects on lawyers, justice, and the public.

“We didn't wait for the phone calls or the emails or the cries for help. All you needed was a set of eyes and common sense to know there was tremendous suffering out there,” he says. “So we we were extraordinarily proactive. We flexed muscles we didn't even know we had as an association.”

DeMarea, Dosunmu, Greenberg, and their bars aren’t alone. Large and small, integrated and voluntary, bars across the country have worked swiftly to ensure that their members and, often, other lawyers in their area, have the information they need to keep practicing—and a sense of connection to help them stay strong, and able to help others.

Webinars deliver practice information, more

With live attendance now impossible, many bars have found that their CLE webinars are a popular resource. For example, “literally thousands” of lawyers attended a webinar conducted by the CLA on pandemic-related employment issues, Dosunmu says. More recently, she notes, about 700 people attended a panel discussion webinar organized by immediate past President Heather Rosing, on top 10 tips for law firm owners and managers.

“There is a real appetite for continuing legal education amongst our members, and we're trying to deliver on that,” Dosunmu says, noting that there’s been a mix of pandemic-related information, as well as the programming that would have been offered in person—and that the programs specific to COVID-19 are offered at no cost.

If anything about the timing of the pandemic could be said to be fortuitous, in the case of the Louisiana State Bar Association, it’s that the bar had its annual Solo and Small Firm Conference in early March. This means that for the segment of members with the least assistance and infrastructure at work, a lot of technological information was still fresh in their minds.

Another advantage, according to Shawn Holahan, the bar’s practice management counsel, is that she was able to “harvest” some of the same topics that had been presented and deliver them in a new format. The first such webinar, “E-SIGNATURES: What to Do If You & Your Client Cannot Meet,” had 800 participants watching as the speaker presented on e-signatures and e-filing, electronic transactions/pleadings, e-notarization, and recent developments.

The Colorado Bar Association has drawn on an existing partnership with Affinity Consulting to produce webinars on remote work and disaster preparedness, says Heather Folker, director of communications and membership at the CBA and the Denver Bar Association. The CBA also has a webpage highlighting white papers and archived webinars about remote work.

“We also reached out to all our member benefit vendors to ask what specials they were offering during this time,” Folker adds. “Quite a few are offering valuable free services, such as Discovery Genie offering a free one year, and SimpleLaw giving away two free months.”

And not all the resources are aimed at helping lawyers run their practices, Folker says. The CBA has also launched a book club, held an embroidery online class, and also hosted a meditation program with lawyer and mindfulness expert Jeena Cho that drew 560 registrants, and which the bar plans to do again.

With so many lawyers experiencing Zoom and other such platforms for the first time, Holahan has devoted some attention to helping them present well in this format, at least from the waist up. “The need to pull some lawyers into video conferencing [in their practice] has been challenging,” she says, “but that is the only way they can meet their clients.”

Other ways to connect, access practice information

While Zoom is having a moment, videoconferencing and webinars are not the only ways that bars are helping lawyers connect with experts and with each other to discuss how to practice during the pandemic. At the Virginia Bar Association, President Alison McKee  has been moderating a weekly conference call that often reaches the 100-caller capacity, according to Marilyn Shaw, the bar’s director of marketing and communications. The president asks a couple of members in advance to be on the call and address a few issues, with caller Q&A after each topic.

Thus far, Shaw says, topics have included state orders and their effect on law offices, federal acts, U.S. Small Business Administration loans, and virtual court reporters. Surveys indicate interest in the following topics for future calls: teleworking, tehnology at home, financing options, and employment practices for lawyers and firms and for their clients.

“It allows for a discussion on pressing issues, and members are thrilled with the generous sharing aspect,” Shaw says. “Plus, it’s an outlet.”

At the Minnesota State Bar Association, along with remote events via Zoom, much of the activity in recent weeks has been within the bar’s online communities and practicelaw library. The online library contains more than 2,000 forms, videos, checklists, and other resources—most of which were created by members for members, according to Mike Carlson, attorney editor at the MSBA, Hennepin County Bar Association and Ramsey County Bar Association. There’s also the practicelaw Development Community, an area of the website where almost 75 members contribute to open source projects that provide up-to-date practice resources and information. One recent topic, Carlson says, that illustrates how the pandemic has raised practice concerns that few could have anticipated: how to help prepare a will via Zoom.

Catherine Sanders Reach, director of the North Carolina Bar Association Center for Practice Management says that her efforts to help members navigate the pandemic began with three information pieces on a CPM COVID-19 resource page, all posted by March 16: one on how to track developments and best practices for safety at work, firm policies for coming into work, and work-from-home policies (including privacy and confidentiality policies); another that focused more directly on how to move operations from the office to remote work; and a third that specifically covered how to serve clients from a remote location.

Not all aspects of remote legal work are under lawyers’ control, Reach notes; the bar is currently working with the state legislature and governor to establish best practices for e-court and notarization. The governor’s executive order does say that law firms are essential services, Reach adds—something the NCBA had petitioned for—but lawyers are trying to minimize their trips to the office and their contact with each other and with clients.

In a fourth, more recent post, Reach interviewed a certified public accountant about how to handle firm finances, and how to seek assistance via the CARES Act. Other, smaller posts have covered topics such as alternatives to Zoom, how to increase home internet speed, and how to turn off game systems, smart speakers, and other devices that may be listening when lawyers don’t want them to.

‘I’ve been feeling the cycles’

Reach has also started a Slack channel for members to ask practice management questions and share information with each other, and she continues to do one-on-one consultations. Lately, she says, she gets a lot of requests along the lines of, “I need to move my personal injury firm into the cloud—now.”

Another common request, she notes, is for guidance regarding how to consolidate and save money on technology, if two systems are in place where one could do the job. As the shutdown continues, Reach adds, she’s hearing from lawyers who want to automate their documents, now that they have the down time to do so.

“I’m feeling the cycles,” she says, referring to the changes in how members are working, what they need, and their overall mood. “All I’m trying to do is keep ahead of it, so they have the resources they need when they’re ready to do it.”

The bar executives, leaders, and staff members with whom Bar Leader spoke all indicated that members’ perspectives on their ability to maintain their practices during the pandemic run a gamut—and change day by day or even moment by moment.

One reason NYSBA established its Emergency Task Force for Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, Greenberg says, is that many have no reserves and are “watching their practices crumble before their eyes.”

Dosunmu notes that much depends not only on practice size, but also on area of practice, with litigators especially feeling the hit because they can’t go to court, while many other lawyers who are better able to work from home report that they are busier than ever.

As the pandemic continues and it becomes easier to look down the road, Dosunmu adds, the picture becomes more concerning for the profession overall: “There is a real recognition, both on our part as a bar association and what our members are telling us, that the legal community is going to be hurt.”

But even with a recession perhaps inevitably coming for lawyers and bars alike, many bars are taking the philosophy that isolation and fear won’t solve anything—and that a lighter touch, a connection, and an outlet may be welcome, or even necessary.

NYSBA has started an online support group, Greenberg says, in recognition that the pandemic has increased already-high levels of anxiety and depression among the lawyer population.

In addition to “virtual happy hours” with some sections and committees, and regular committee and section meetings via Zoom, the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association has set up health and wellness check-in chat sessions, says Liz Novak Henderson, the bar’s membership and communications manager.

These take place every Monday for general members and every other Friday for senior lawyers, Henderson says, and the Monday session has a social worker present to lead guided meditation and similar exercises, which members seem to appreciate.

Holahan, who up to this point has focused her webinars on practical matters related to how to practice under quarantine conditions, is considering adding non-CLE sessions for members simply to talk to one another, as some other bars have done. Holahan herself lives alone and has appreciated the positive focus and sense of wholeness and human contact she has gained from planning and leading the LSBA webinar series.

“I can imagine [lawyers] must feel the same way when they feel as if they're connected to other members around Louisiana,” she says.

At the MSBA, one of the most popular webcasts has not been focused on COVID-19, Carlson says, but one called “Business as Usual,” a half-hour CLE (for half a credit) that takes place every Wednesday with the aim of “keeping people engaged in the business of the association” even as they cope with this crisis. Those sessions have proven so popular, he adds, that the bar had to set the first one up as a live event on YouTube to accommodate the attendees who didn’t fit into the Zoom meeting.

The digital divide

Holahan notes that many lawyers and others in Louisiana are no strangers to having to adapt quickly and use different technologies in order to keep life moving. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she says, many people learned to work in “the small screen world” of texting.

Even so, Holahan is having to do a bit of hand-holding, pointing out, for example, that laptops made in the last five years or so do have speakers, even if their owners don’t think they do—and that if their connection to a webinar is poor, it may be because of other devices at home that are also online.

Whether about accessing the webinars or about practice-related tools, Holahan doesn’t mind guiding members through using technology on their own where they might have had help available before. She gives them a pep talk: “You’ve just got to do it now. You’ve got no choice. Your secretary is not there. So, let’s go.”

In a stroke of great timing, Greenberg says, NYSBA’s own technological house was well in order just in time for COVID-19, the quarantine, and the related need for virtual tools. One focus for his term, he says, has been something he calls “the virtual bar center”—ramping up the bar’s social media, email, and other communications systems to be current with new technology. A major component of that effort went live just weeks before COVID-19 became a disruption in New York state.

“When we physically had to leave our bar center on One Oak Street in Albany, our virtual bar center was open for business and fully operational,” Greenberg says.

But Greenberg is all too aware that many solo and small-firm lawyers, particularly those in the state’s rural areas, lack access to the tools and infrastructure that are most needed now—including broadband internet. Advocating for increased access, and getting lawyers the technology they need, is a high priority for the solo-focused emergency task force.

Minnesota was in a similar condition of readiness when it comes to offering resources for members, Carlson says. “Almost all of our programming has been available remotely,” he notes, adding that Minnesota is a large state, with a little more than half of the bar’s members practicing in the Twin Cities area and others accustomed to accessing bar resources and sharing information from afar. But even in normal times, those practicing relatively near the bar center may find it difficult to come to live events, Carlson adds—so the MSBA is not just coming up with stopgaps, but is also thinking of how to incorporate Zoom and other remote tools once the COVID-19 crisis has passed.

Along with the same wide range in technological competence that Holahan noted (some MSBA members have needed guidance with simple cut-and-paste functions, he says, while others have led presentations on Bitcoin), Carlson also echoes Greenberg’s concerns about limited high-speed internet access in more remote areas of his state. There’s only so much he can do to help members with a slow connection, he says, and bolstering technological infrastructure for more remote lawyers may require advocacy by the bar.

A time for bars to shine

Even with much uncertainty in the future and at a time when many bars were already struggling with declining membership, many would agree with Greenberg’s sentiment that this is the bar’s “finest hour” and that both leaders and staff have risen to the occasion.

Holahan hopes that lawyers in Louisiana will have a favorable impression of the integrated LSBA and the kind of help it has been able to provide because its database includes every lawyer in the state.

Dosunmu says that, in part because of its governmental relations function and its role as a hub for other voluntary bars in Calfornia, the pandemic response by CLA staff and volunteers has offered “a chance to showcase the depth and breadth of our expertise,” including to nonmembers—most of the CLA’s COVID-related resources are open to all.

That’s true for the VBA, as well, and Shaw says there has been significant interest within the legal community as a whole. “The hope is that by trying to be a thought leader, we will endear ourselves to our members and perhaps show our value to nonmembers who may join us down the road,” she says.

Looking ahead, Reach says, she sees part of her role as being to encourage members not to forget what they learned during this time, and to consider new ways to embrace technology in order to be more “client-centric,” to market their services during a downturn by being “a thought leader, a partner, and a helper,” and to identify and shift into practice areas that may experience a boom once a version of normal life resumes.

“These are challenging days for everyone,” Henderson notes. “I see our job as a bar association as being to help our members and the legal community in whatever small ways we can—to make law practice life a little easier and to remind our members that we are truly in this together.”