Vol. 46, No. 2

What's great about 2020? More than you'd expect

By Marilyn Cavicchia

There’s no way around the fact that 2020 has been a rough year. But no year is ever a total loss—and when Bar Leader reached out within the bar community to ask for some good news about 2020, the response was almost overwhelming.

What’s more, many of the highlights people most wanted to share were things they have developed or learned as a direct result of the pandemic and its challenges. As this year winds down and we all prepare for what’s next, Bar Leader hopes this article provides a helpful dose of optimism—and perhaps some ideas you can apply in 2021, too.

New ways to help the public

A few developments in Utah—including the “regulatory sandbox” to test new ideas—captured a lot of attention this year. Utah State Bar Communications Director Matthew Page singles out as a particular highlight the success of the bar’s Licensed Paralegal Practitioner program.

“Our first class had four LPPs, and they quickly had all the clients they could handle,” says Page, adding that another round of testing—conducted within COVID-19 safety parameters—led to another nine LPPs being certified.

The Lancaster (Pa.) Bar Association is partnering with Recovery Lancaster on a program in which Lancaster County businesses with under 20 employees receive free advice from local business lawyers on legal issues related to the pandemic and its challenges. “Qualifying businesses receive a free initial consultation of up to one hour with a participating attorney,” says Lisa Driendl-Miller, the bar’s executive director.

To help keep children engaged over the summer and spur their interest in law, the Erie County (Pa.) Bar Association created the “Little Legal Eagle Summer Activity Packet.” Designed for children ages 5 through 9, each drawstring bag contained a coloring book and crayons, a gavel squeeze toy, and activity and game sheets. The bar priced the packets at $25 each, according to Executive Director Julie Kresge.   

Also trying new ways to reach out is the Prince William County (Va.) Bar Association. “We've gotten creative with our community outreach programming, finding new, safe ways to deliver a meal to a homeless shelter or to healthcare workers or to teach a long-running program to high school seniors virtually,” says Executive Director Alissa Hudson, “and our creativity continues.”

The Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, through its St. Louis Attorneys Against Hunger Committee, has focused on supporting local charities and alleviating hunger during the pandemic. For example, in less than two weeks, the committee’s main initiative raised $100,000 from local law firms to be donated to the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis for its weekly food distribution and PPE distribution drive-through events. Also, Step It Up, Inc., a charity run by BAMSL member Beth Boggs, switched from providing shoes to those in need to providing food to families in need. BAMSL member Sarah Bardol, chair of the Young Lawyers Division Community Service Committee, teamed up with Boggs on an effort to make and deliver meals at weekly food distribution sites. Approximately 25,000 meals are distributed each week, along with thousands of masks during drive-through distribution events. St. Louis Area Foodbank created a virtual food drive specifically for BAMSL members to donate food directly from their computers or phones. The food drive raised nearly $15,000; BAMSL volunteers also packed food distribution boxes.

On the law-focused front, the bar has coordinated COVID-related pro bono efforts in areas such as family law and bankruptcy. Also, the BAMSL COVID-19 Emergency Pro Bono Estate Planning Task Force—formed by the chair of the bar’s Probate & Trust Law Section after a surgical resident contacted the bar for help—has almost 100 lawyers available to assist health care workers with estate planning.

“The attorneys prepare an estate plan, including at least a will, durable powers of attorney, and health care declaration/living will for the health care worker and his or her spouse,” explains Susan Sagarra, the bar’s assistant executive director for membership and marketing.

Successful events, programs, celebrations

Several bar executives and staff members identified their reimagined events as highlights for 2020. For example:

  • Jessica Smith, communications and media director for the Dallas Bar Association, calls the bar’s first-ever virtual bench-bar conference, held in late September, “a great success,” with more than 230 members registered. The event also helped raise funds for equal access to justice, Smith notes.
  • BAMSL’s Sagarra is proud that her bar successfully shifted its bench-bar conference from in-person to virtual just two weeks before the event, held in late August and early September. In addition to substantive programming, this year’s conference included (all virtual) a happy hour, yoga, and a judicial trivia game hosted by Hon. Duane Benton, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. To highlight sponsors and sustaining partners and also to add some of the flavor of the always popular in-person event, bar staff members packed and then delivered or mailed goodie boxes to all registered participants, Sagarra notes.
  • The Erie County (Pa.) Bar Association held a socially distanced member appreciation week in August, with (Mask) Ear Saver Monday, Tech Tuesday, Wellness Wednesday, Thirsty Thursday, and Feature Film Friday.
  • Anna Hubbard, publications director at the Arkansas Bar Association, considers the bar’s livestreamed award ceremony in June to be among the best things the bar did in 2020.
  • A few people who responded to this Bar Leader query mentioned that their new virtual learning programs—both CLE and otherwise—turned out to be an unexpected highlight. When the pandemic hit, the Westchester County (N.Y.) Bar Association shifted its CLE programs—previously all in person—to virtual platforms. The bar also dropped its CLE prices, adds Executive Director Isabel Dichiara, and reached out to partner with the specialty/affinity bars in its county, other county bars, and the New York State Bar Association. By early June, Dichiara says, the bar had held more than 20 CLE programs in 2020—all but two of which were after March—and another 15 to 20 non-CLE informational programs. “Our attendance was much higher and more diverse than we typically see as well,” Dichiara adds.
  • Many bars have had to figure out how to hold award ceremonies, gavel passes, and other celebrations online. But what about a centennial? That’s what the Federal Bar Association had to do—and the book and video that were produced for the occasion continue to be a great source of pride, says Executive Director Stacy King. In October, King and the author of the book spoke about their project at Association Media & Publishing’s virtual conference. “We also are using the book as a marketing and PR tool,” King notes, “and sending it to all federal chief judges, district court clerks and circuit executives, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court, the [U.S.] Senate and House, and the White House.”

(For more on this topic, see "In the event of a pandemic: Bar executives weigh how soon it will be safe to gather in person," also in this issue.)

Helping members, new admittees, and each other

Gregory J. Nardi, executive director of the Bucks County (Pa.) Bar Association, is especially proud of how his bar helped its members by facilitating communication to lawyers from judges and court administration officials. “During a period with a lot of changes taking place,” he says, “the use of the bar association’s agile communications platforms, from email to newsletters to hosting webinars, enabled these leaders to more rapidly and effectively let the members of the bar know what was going on.”

One highlight for the State Bar of South Dakota, says Nicole Ogan, was hiring a full-time lawyers assistance director in June 2020, after completing a successful year-long pilot with a part-time director. “It was very timely,” Ogan notes, “and has been a huge benefit for our members during these uncertain times.”

Dori Foster-Morales, president of The Florida Bar, recently spent eight weeks conducting Zoom town hall meetings with bar members in all 20 judicial circuits. Panelists have included every chief judge, as well as other judges and dozens of local bar leaders; approximately 2,500 people have attended. The town halls have incorporated polls and opportunities for comments and questions so members can express how they’re doing and what their greatest challenges have been during the pandemic.

“The information gathered from these ‘focus groups’ is being provided to the local bars and our statewide pandemic task force so that member assistance programs and services can be developed, promoted and shared,” says Francine Andia Walker, director of communications for The Florida Bar.

A side benefit, she adds, is that the town hall meetings have also provided the bar with an opportunity to raise awareness of the programs in place to help members, including the Florida Lawyers Helpline. “Poll results of the participants showed that about 30 percent had never heard of it,” Walker notes. “Now they have.”

Similarly, connection and feedback via weekly phone and web conferences helped the Vermont Bar Association realize that another group was in need of support: 2020 bar examinees. The calls have included the VBA executive director, president, and section and division chairs; county bar presidents; the chief justice, chief trial judge, court administrator, and other Vermont judiciary leaders; and the VBA COVID-19 Committee.

As a result of those calls, VBA Executive Director Teri Corsones says, the bar has developed several ways to assist those whose bar admissions process has been affected by COVID-19. These include:

  • a free online job board where examinees can post resumes and letters of interest;
  • free VBA membership (especially helpful because the examinees lost Westlaw access after graduating from law school and can now use Casemaker, Corsones notes);
  • free bar exam wellness programs set up by the bar’s Wellness Committee; and
  • workspace at law firms, enlisted by the bar, for examinees who lack reliable enough internet connection for the remote bar exam.

“We've been very gratified by how so many have stepped up to serve and help make the best of a situation none of us could have imagined a year ago,” Corsones says. “We like to think that we're a stronger VBA for it.”

Another bar that has worked to increase a sense of connection during the pandemic is the Monroe County (N.Y.) Bar Association—and Membership & Communications Manager Liz Novak Henderson counts one aspect of that as a highlight of 2020. Interaction with both members and the internal team became “more human and fuller,” she says. Seeing people’s homes, pets, and children—one of whom popped in to say hi and to say what she was eating, during a couple of internal meetings—was comforting rather than distracting, Henderson adds.

“At a time when life and work was super stressful, those moments of levity were much appreciated and acted as a reminder that we’re all in this together and that we all belong to each other,” she explains. “And recognizing that is the only way we’re going to get through this.”

Addressing racial inequity

Some bars have found that the increased awareness of racial inequity—though prompted by decidedly negative events this past spring and summer—have led to productive discussions and engagement.

“Racial justice work has been amazing—authentic and full of storytelling,” says Ellen Miller, associate executive director of initiatives and external relations at the California Lawyers Association.

Tiela Chambers, chief executive officer and general counsel at the Alameda County (Calif.) Bar Association and Legal Access Alameda says members have dramatically increased their participation in the bar’s MCLE programs, in part because many of them have focused on racial justice.

“This increased participation has been terrific,” she says, “and made us feel actually even more connected.”

Increased giving

Some bars are finding that one of the best things about 2020 is that both members and sponsors are being more generous—not only in spirit or with their time, but also with their money.

That has been the case for the New Hampshire Bar Association, says Lynne Sabean, the bar’s director of marketing, communications, and member outreach. For example, a recent virtual awards ceremony and fundraiser for the New Hampshire Bar Foundation brought in a record number of sponsorships—nearly twice as many as for the in-person event in previous years, with a 50 percent increase in total sponsorship value. As a side note (and one that sponsors may appreciate) Sabean adds that because the bar didn’t need to print the program, it was able to make it longer and more substantial—and with links. And it wasn’t just sponsors who gave more, Sabean notes: Individual donations nearly tripled, thanks not only to members’ generosity, but also their empathy.

“Issues as basic as avoiding eviction, navigating the unemployment system, and getting stimulus checks are front and center in 2020, thanks to the advocacy and outreach of our wonderful pro bono team,” she says. “Everyone knows someone who has been affected by the pandemic, to one degree or another.”