Vol. 45, No. 5

Faced with pandemic, ABA Day in Washington goes digital

By Dan Kittay

Those who lobby for bar associations will tell you that face-to-face meetings with lawmakers or their staffs are a key part of making your case on a particular issue, or demonstrating your expertise so that you can be called on when decision makers have questions. Those meetings are a big impetus for events such as ABA Day in Washington, when delegations from around the country come to Washington, D.C., to meet with their elected representatives.

So what do you do when you're the ABA, and Congress has shut down office buildings because of the coronavirus pandemic, six weeks before the in-person event you've been planning since last October?

"We made the decision to switch to a completely digital event," says Holly O'Grady Cook, director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office. On March 12, she recalls, it was announced that Congress would be closed to the public temporarily, and on March 13, the switch to an online-only event was approved.

"It was before we had signed most of our contracts,” Cook notes. “Without knowing when Congress would be open again, we asked ourselves whether we should invest in an in-person event that might not happen."

Cook's team had previously decided to add digital components as a complement to the in-person portion of ABA Day, which was to be held April 22-23. They had planned some panel discussions and online advocacy early on, "but we knew we couldn't divert anyone's attention from the in-person D.C. event," she says. That all changed when the pandemic took hold.

While the medium changed, and the name changed to ABA Day Digital, the date remained the same, and so did the issues that were selected as the focus: Legal Services Corporation funding; access to legal services for homeless veterans; preserving the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program; and increasing rural areas' access to broadband.

Those who visited the page—which was open to anyone who wanted to attend—were also able to view presentations and panel discussions on the ABA insideWashington Twitter page. Some programs featured video portions. Most of the videos were pre-recorded well before the event, but one on the second day had a segment that was recorded the night before, which led to at least one stressful moment, Cook says.

"We started uploading it at 11:30 for a 1:00 event. At 1:00, it still hadn't finished loading,” she explains. “There is some benefit to not trying to load a video the day you want to show it."

Fewer barriers to participation

Some attendees who had been at previous, in-person ABA Days said the new format worked well and that, in fact, it had some advantages over the typical event. While in-person meetings are an effective part of advocacy, there can be real limitations in terms of who can participate, says Cale Battles, government relations coordinator at the State Bar of Wisconsin. “We can't send our entire state bar delegation or board of governors,” he notes, “because it's cost prohibitive."

The digital aspect is “a new layer” that Battles thinks ABA Day needed, and which he hopes will continue even once the in-person component returns. “There are statistics that show that the more contacts their local constituents have, the more impactful that voice becomes,” he explains. “The digital aspect provides an opportunity for members who don't typically get that opportunity to meet their representatives or senators to have a voice."

While face-to-face meetings will probably never be replaced, there is a real benefit to having a strong digital component to an organization's advocacy efforts, agrees Devin Martin, grassroots outreach coordinator, also at the State Bar of Wisconsin. "Lawmakers are lobbied constantly by all kinds of organizations, corporations and special interests,” he says. “They understand that the people who are coming to meet them in those rooms don't always represent every human being in their organization. They understand that some organizations have internal dissent, and perhaps what the leadership thinks isn't the same as what the rank-and-file thinks.

"One of the things that digital advocacy shows is that it's not just the leadership that cares deeply about an issue—we have membership behind this."

The best of both

Andrew VanSingel, a Chicago attorney and chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness, says the simplicity of digital advocacy has its pluses and minuses.

"You get more contacts with this approach, although that is balanced by their being less personal,” he explains. “That underscores the need for higher participation in a digital format. If you get a contingent of six people who walk into a senator's office, that's more than sufficient. Six letters to a senator might not move the needle at all."

In-person and digital office visits don't have to be mutually exclusive, says Laura Farber, a Pasadena attorney who has been a co-captain of California’s ABA Day delegation. "I believe in in-person lobbying. That being said, you can do virtual in-person lobbying, if you can find a representative to meet by Skype or other method,” she says. “We need to be thinking outside of the box.

“If I have a member in my delegation who can't afford to travel to D.C. but is willing to set up a Zoom call with their representative, I'd be in heaven. The assumption that in-person is the only way to do this is very narrow-minded."

Some highlights, and a look toward next year

This year’s digital event was the first-ever ABA Day for Conisha Hackett, a student at University of Mississippi School of Law, and a delegate of diversity in the ABA Law Student Division. The sessions on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and expanding broadband internet access to rural areas hit home for Hackett, who says that the pandemic-related restrictions on movement have made the broadband issue more visible for her. Hackett lives in a small town in Mississippi and does have access to broadband, but not everyone near her is so lucky.

"If you travel just a few miles down the road, there are people with no access,” she says. “I don't know how I would be able to complete law school, let alone my externships, without being able to log in to listen to lectures."

Regarding the loan forgiveness program, Hackett notes that it is hard now to attract young lawyers to practice in rural areas in exchange for reductions or eliminations of student loan debt. Without sufficient broadband access, the task is that much harder, she adds.

The ABA's Cook says initial figures show significant participation in this year's ABA Day, as measured by viewings of videos. A typical year draws about 300 participants, she says, and some of this year's videos had more than 1,000 views. Planning for next year's event, she adds, will be based in part on what level of access the public will be allowed to the halls of Congress by then, and in part on an assessment of the overall effectiveness of this year’s digital approach.