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Constrained by the pandemic, voluntary bars adapt and shine

Senior Editor News in Photos

Voluntary BarsAt first, COVID-19 posed an existential threat to voluntary bar associations, hobbling the economy and forcing them to cancel some of their biggest draws — networking opportunities through luncheons, awards dinners, barbecues, and happy hours.

But six months into the health crisis, some of the most active and recognizable VBAs say they have weathered the storm, largely through remote technology and hard work.

Some are just beginning to ramp up in-person gatherings, or “hybrid” get togethers that are simulcast online. One VBA has been transformed.

“This year has proven to be challenging for many law firms and non-profit organizations across the U.S. The Dade County Bar Association has been no exception,” said its president, Jane Muir.

A “slight decline in engagement” was unavoidable, especially in a COVID hot zone, but the Dade County Bar Association has doubled down on member communication and switched to virtual educational and networking opportunities, Muir said.

“We have maintained communication, developed relevant programs, and we are working to improve on our services to members behind the scenes,” Muir said.

Dade County Bar Association's Jane MuirIn June, DCBA announced a partnership with Citrus Health Network, the leading Housing Assistance Network of Dade program, or “HAND,” to help individuals and families with government rental assistance grants.

On October 19, DCBA is sponsoring a virtual candidate forum featuring Commissioner Steve Bovo and Commissioner Daniella Levine-Cava. On October 20, the DCBA is sponsoring a virtual fitness class. The same day, it is also sponsoring the next edition of its virtual “Tea with the Court” series, this time featuring U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz, a former Bar president, discussing the latest news about the pandemic and the courts.

The DCBA’s lists job opportunities, 11th Judicial Circuit administrative news, CLEs, and volunteering opportunities, to name a few.

“Providing education and support for the legal profession is our priority, so we have developed virtual events and networking opportunities to support our members as best as we can,” Muir said.

Meanwhile, DCBA is preparing to renovate its building in the heart of Miami’s legal district — within a block of five courthouses and three Metrorail stations — to offer “co-working space” for members, and an externship program for law students to provide pro bono legal services, Muir said.

“The respite from hosting and attending events has given us the opportunity to direct our efforts toward long-range plans, so that we can enhance our service to the community and our benefits to members,” Muir said. “It may be counterintuitive, but the pandemic makes voluntary bar associations even more essential, as we have the ability to serve the local community and understand their immediate needs, including lawyer referrals, office space, and information about court operations.”

Larger VBAs with professional staff, or those serving regions with low infection rates, have had an advantage, said Jacksonville Bar Association executive director Craig Shoup.

“From my understanding, if a bar was not able to pivot very well into the online world, then it was hit pretty hard,” he said. “We’re staying busy.”

Craig ShoupSetbacks were inevitable, at least early in the pandemic, Shoup said. Some sponsors, citing the economy, dropped out. JBA suffered a staff reduction.

Membership appears to have remained strong at about 2,000, Shoup said.

“We do membership a little differently, we offer it 365 days a year and if you join now, you’re a member for a year,” he said. “But because we only started that a few years ago, a lot of our memberships are coming due in June.”

The Jacksonville Bar Association has one of the highest participation rates in the state, Shoup said.

“We probably have the highest percentage in the state, compared to Florida Bar members in our circuit,” he said. “If we’re not the most percentage-wise, we’re pretty close.”

In June, the Jacksonville Bar conducted its annual mediators conference online, and it drew statewide viewership, Shoup said. JBA has recently started hybrid events that allow members to attend in-person or view online.

On October 16, JBA’s Hispanic and Latino Interest Committee sponsored a virtual CLE, “Victims of Domestic Violence and the Local Resources to Help Them.”

On the same day, JBA sponsored its first, in-person only event, an outdoor barbecue at Jacksonville Landing. The event featured tents, chicken and ribs, and a putt-putt golf course, Shoup said. More than 90 members registered.

“We had masks available,” Shoup said. “We set the time from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., to gives folks who may have concerns to come early or come late and not hit that typical noon rush.”

On October 21, the Jacksonville Bar Association plans another milestone — an in-person member luncheon featuring FSU Law School Dean Erin O’Hara O’Connor, who will speak about “the future lawyers that COVID is shaping.”

“We’re probably the first big bar to do that,” Shoup said. “We’re limiting attendance, we’re eliminating the touch points, the hotel is doing all of their intensive cleanings.”

Seating in the Omni dining room will be limited to 104, and other health precautions are being taken, Shoup said. Members who have scheduling conflicts, or who aren’t comfortable mingling during a pandemic, can view O’Hara’s remarks online, Shoup said.

“We want to connect with the lawyers whenever we can,” he said.

In Southwest Florida, a much smaller voluntary bar association was nearly on the ropes when the pandemic forced the cancellation of one of its premiere events, an April scholarship banquet.

Travis CoyBut the George Edgecomb Bar Association, Tampa Bay’s largest predominantly African American bar association, has too rich of a tradition to give up that easily, said its president, Travis Coy, a prosecutor. Founded in 1982, GEBA takes its name from Hillsborough County’s first African American judge, George E. Edgecomb.

“It would have been easy to say, we’re not going to do anything, and blame it on COVID and everything else that is going on in the world,” Coy said.

Instead, Coy worked with a former GEBA president, his attorney wife, Theresa, and combined the banquet with an annual membership luncheon into a single Zoom program.

“The membership luncheon in September is how we kick off our year, and I know some people were venturing out and wanting to socialize,” Coy said. “But we had to put the health and safety of our membership first, and besides, I didn’t want my presidency ending before it began.”

The event was a success, Coy said, and lent additional weight to the theme of his presidency, “Pressing Forward Together During Challenging Times.”

“We’ve never done our membership luncheon or even our scholarship banquet, virtually,” he said. “We did it together and it worked out fine.”

Pictures from the event are posted on the GEBA website https://www.mygeba.com/.

GEBA plans to sponsor, via Facebook Live, an attorney webinar for the community in the near future, Coy said.

On October 20, GEBA will sponsor a virtual general meeting and CLE, “Obtaining, Maintaining, and Elevating Black Lawyers in Law Firms.”

Joselyn Hardrick will moderate and the discussion will feature insights from Lori Baggett, managing shareholder, Carlton Fields; Tiffany McElheran, shareholder, Bush Ross; and Jonathan Ellis, partner, Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick. This event is free for members and $25 for non-members.

GEBA membership, which begins at around 40 and grows to 100 by the end of the bar year, is outpacing last year’s growth, Coy said.

“We’re still doing our business, we’re just doing our business in a different way,” he said. “It has actually forced us to be more innovative, and if anything, it has gotten us out of our comfort zone and it has improved our brand.”

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