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Bar’s Fall Meetings to be virtual going forward

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'A resounding, stunning, over 90%, in some cases 95% of the folks, strongly supported, or felt there would be no negative impact of moving online'

Zoom meetingThe Board of Governors has agreed to convert all Fall Meetings — one of three major events on the Bar’s annual calendar — to a virtual format.

The board voted unanimously at a January 29 meeting to approve a joint proposal by the Program Evaluation and Budget committees. The conversion would reduce Bar expenditures alone by $62,000 annually, according to staff estimates.

“In addition to the savings obviously to the board, more importantly I think, are savings for our members to participate,” said President Dori Foster-Morales.

Foster-Morales noted that most Bar members are solo and small firm practitioners who charge by the hour, and many of them have difficulty affording time away from work and travel expenses.

But she assured critics that Bar leaders will consider virtual formats only on a “selective” basis.

“So, I don’t think this is going to be trend that all meetings are going to be virtual,” she said. “But yes, certainly, sort of being more selective, so that, again, full participation is available to everybody regardless of their economic status.”

PEC Chair Brian Burgoon referred to an October 2020 survey of 73 Bar committee chairs in which respondents overwhelmingly found the Fall Meeting’s virtual format “very productive.”

“A resounding, stunning, over 90%, in some cases 95% of the folks, strongly supported, or felt there would be no negative impact of moving online,” Burgoon said.

Burgoon said the proposal acknowledges that the Bar has reserved hotel and convention space in Tampa for 2021 and 2022, and those arrangements will have to be cancelled.

“There’s going to be a slight cancellation fee for those, but it’s way less than the savings that we will incur, and the Bar’s meeting department is hopefully going to negotiate a reduction in those cancellation fees,” he said.

Foster-Morales called the decision another example of “making lemonade out of lemons” from the COVID-19 pandemic.

All Board of Governors meetings have been conducted via Zoom since the COVID-19 pandemic forced Chief Justice Charles Canady nearly a year ago to temporarily close courthouses to the public and suspend jury trials.

An annual out-of-state Board of Governors meeting scheduled for Williamsburg, Va., was cancelled last year, and Foster-Morales announced that this year’s out-of-state meeting, tentatively scheduled for Savannah, Ga., will also be cancelled.

Addressing the board later the same morning, Justice Canady warned that “VOCs,” or “variants of concern” of the COVID virus that experts say are more contagious and vaccine-resistant have been detected in Florida, suggesting that the pandemic is far from over.

“I think that is something we are going to be hearing more and more about in the coming weeks,” he said. “I need to say that we in our branch are still beleaguered by the pandemic, but we are pressing on.”

Bar leaders have been weighing the pros and cons of virtual formats since June 2020, when the pandemic forced the Bar to convert the Annual Meeting to an all-virtual format, and attendance skyrocketed from approximately 2,000 to 8,000.

Florida Association for Women Lawyers president Kimberly Hosley, a non-voting board liaison, said the Legal Needs of Children Committee saw attendance jump from 20-30 to “some crazy number, it was like 500 or 600 people,” when it converted a CLE to a virtual format in June 2020.

“Especially in areas like that, where people are committed to an area of the law where they’re not going to make a lot of money, now they’re going to be able to participate,” she said.

The Bar’s Fall, Winter, and Annual meetings are the most convenient way for hundreds of attorney volunteers to perform vital committee and section work. Because Bar members see the events as valuable networking opportunities, Bar leaders weigh format changes carefully.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time a global crisis has sparked a change in the lineup of annual meetings.

During a severe recession in 2009, the Board of Governors agreed to eliminate the “Midyear Meeting,” one of three annual meetings that included the Annual Convention and the “General Meeting of Sections and Divisions.”

A staff analysis predicted that the move would save $50,000 in Bar expenditures annually. A similar survey showed that “82% of the chairs reported there is no business conducted at a third, in-person meeting that could not be conducted via a full committee conference call.”

“Attendance has been declining regularly at these three meetings,” said then PEC Chair Fred Walker. “With the economy, it’s financially difficult for judges and others to attend [all three].”

Walker predicted at the time that improved technology, including videoconferencing, would make it easier for section executive councils and Bar committees to meet outside of the formal setting of a major Bar gathering.

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