APRIL 2020 | AROUND THE ABA

ABA Day takes all-digital route to make its case on Capitol Hill

The coronavirus pandemic has changed many well-laid plans, including the cancellation of countless meetings and conferences. But the American Bar Association will move ahead with ABA Day, its annual advocacy outreach to members of Congress, this year with an all-digital twist.

The association will hold its first fully digital lobby day, called ABA Day Digital, April 22-23. Instead of hundreds of ABA members meeting in person with their congressional representatives, there will be an extensive, coordinated online effort to advocate for ABA issues related to the coronavirus pandemic. Topics include crucial issues like access to legal services for low-income Americans and veterans, which are especially important during an emergency.

“The ABA is fortunate that we already have the technology, skills and planning in place to quickly change our annual ABA Day event from an in-person Hill event into a completely online advocacy effort, and we are excited to do so,” says Director of Governmental Affairs Holly Cook.

The ABA Governmental Affairs Office (GAO) staff has been working hard for months on this year’s ABA Day program, and did not miss a beat as it adjusted course to plan a major online advocacy effort.

Helping with that effort is Eric Storey, director of GAO’s Grassroots and Digital Advocacy.  “We’re looking forward to having an all-online conference with panel discussions, Twitter takeovers, Twitterstorms and chats. We’ll also have online meetings with Google Hangouts and specific times to focus on ABA issues.”

YourABA chatted with Storey to learn more about the event.

Tell us about ABA Day and how it got started.

Every large association has what’s called a lobby day. Congressional offices all agree that face-to-face interaction with constituents is the best way to move the needle on legislation. It’s a way to put a face on an issue but also have a good one-on-one with the people who are the boots on the ground. The meetings are extremely beneficial for both the members on the Hill and for their constituents.

The ABA has hosted ABA Day every year for decades and we are very proud of the impact we have had on issues important to the legal profession. For the last two years, Deborah Enix-Ross has served as the chair of the ABA Day Planning Committee working with the GAO staff, the National Conference of Bar Presidents and the National Association of Bar Executives to co-sponsor this event.

We usually have about 300 legal professionals come from across the country for our three-day event. We update attendees on important legislative issues pending at the national level and provide them with state-specific information they can use to advocate on the issues as constituents during meetings with the members of Congress from their state.

How will this year’s ABA Day be different?

Congressional offices are temporarily closed to the public because of the coronavirus so in-person visits are not an option. We are instead pivoting to an all-online version of ABA Day.

We actually started ABA Day Digital last year with a very soft launch. While ABA Day participants visited members of Congress on the Hill, we asked their colleagues at home to send online messages to congressional offices as well. We had a good response, but this year we are opening the digital event to everyone — you don’t need to be an ABA member to be involved.

Our goal is to show what thousands of attorneys and legal professionals from all 50 states and territories can accomplish storming Capitol Hill as a united legal front — even online. 

How will the digital event work?

In addition to the online panel discussions and meetings, we will also try to get people to advocate by sending emails, social media posts or making phone calls, all of which can be done through our ABA portal. ABA members can personalize the emails. Personalized messages are the third most effective way to influence legislation, right behind in-person visits to Congress members and meeting with leadership that represent multiple constituents.

How do you decide which issues to focus on?

Working with our state bar leaders on the ABA Planning Committee, our GAO team identifies issues pending in Congress that are also important to members of our legal profession. If the ABA has policy on those issues and state bar leaders agree that they are important to their members as well, then the committee votes on which issues should be prioritized so we can have the most impact before the end of the legislative session.

What are the issues the ABA is lobbying for this year?

The ABA Day Planning Committee has decided to focus on four advocacy issues, all of which are also impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. They are:

  • Legal Services Corporation funding. LSC provides the backbone for the country’s civil legal aid and pro bono system. People need access to essential legal services, especially during a national emergency like the coronavirus pandemic. The outbreak has already caused a significant increase in the need for legal help with evictions and unemployment, lack of access to health care, scams aimed at the elderly and temporary restraining orders needed to protect survivors of domestic violence.
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness program funding. PSLF provides loan forgiveness for those who make a substantial career commitment to public service. The program has been under threat of elimination for years and we are fighting to protect it. Given the current COVID-19 outbreak, keeping the program intact is especially necessary to ensure that we have thousands of public servants — first responders, attorneys and other professionals — where and when we need them, especially in case of an emergency.
  • Veterans Affairs access to legal assistance. The VA technically is not allowed to give any information or recommendations that has to do with legal services. We’ve been trying to advance a bill to change that for eight years. H.R. 3749, the Legal Services for Homeless Veterans Act, would allow the secretary of Veterans Affairs to partner with public and private entities to provide legal services to homeless veterans and veterans at risk of homelessness. This year, the bill finally passed the House for the first time and we are hopeful it will pass the Senate. We especially need this authority now during the spread of the coronavirus to help overcome the legal barriers that often prevent veterans from accessing their benefits and available services.
  • Broadband access in rural areas. Expanding access to affordable and dependable high-speed internet is critical to improving access to justice for Americans living in rural communities. Without adequate high-speed internet, attorneys and self-represented litigants in rural areas face extremely high barriers, and these communities cannot attract new lawyers. The result is a pressing access to justice issue that we need Congress to fix.

Is that more than you usually advocate for during ABA Day?

We usually focus on two or three key issues, but because we have online capabilities, we want members to maximize the ability that technology gives us to get engaged. We are working hard to give people a menu of options so that they can engage on the things that matter to them and in ways that interest them most. While we have four primary issues for ABA Day Digital this year, we also hope people will engage on some of the other important advocacy issues we have pending on our website, including protecting the attorney-client privilege for emails in prisons. 

What will success look like to you?

Positive movement on the issues the ABA is fighting for this year. A significant increase in the number of ABA members and members of the legal profession joining us for ABA Day, especially some of our younger lawyers. A positive experience for everyone advocating online for the first time. And a template on which to build for future ABA Days for the association.

How can ABA members and others get involved?

You can go to ambar.org/abadaydigital to access the portal to join us. If you only have a few minutes to spend on our website, follow the Take Action links to find our preformatted advocacy campaigns on each of the issues we just talked about and send an email, place a patch-through phone call or make a social media post with your elected officials’ names already plugged in. Don’t forget to personalize your message for even more impact.

We hope members with more time will join our online panel discussions, Twitter chats and other planned events. Getting involved in ABA advocacy really matters and it makes a difference. Don’t wait until an election to get involved. You can influence legislation right now.