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Should the Bar’s Fall Meetings always be held virtually?

Senior Editor Top Stories

Zoom meetingAnother legal tradition could fall to the COVID-19 pandemic in January when the Board of Governors is scheduled to decide whether the Bar’s Fall Meetings should always be conducted virtually.

A staff analysis shows that the Bar could realize $62,000 in annual savings — not counting the time and travel expense individual members would save.

Program Evaluation Committee Chair Brian Burgoon told the Board of Governors at a December 4 meeting that the move would represent “a huge savings to the budget.”

The Program Evaluation Committee voted in October to recommend the change. The Board of Governors is expected to weigh the proposal at its next meeting on January 28.

The Bar’s Fall, Winter, and Annual meetings are the most convenient way for hundreds of attorney volunteers to perform the vital committee and section work that a self-regulated profession demands.

In addition to consuming hundreds of hours of staff time, the meetings also provide members with highly prized networking opportunities. Format changes aren’t taken lightly.

An October 22 survey of 73 Bar committee chairs showed that 90% considered the all-virtual 2020 Fall Meeting “very productive” and only 10% considered it “somewhat productive.”

“There has been much more engagement with meetings held via Zoom versus in-person meetings as not everyone was able to travel to one location pre-COVID,” read one anonymous response. “Now it helps people save time from traveling, and also provides the necessary safety precautions due to COVID.”

Forty-three percent of respondents said there would be “no impact at all” if the Annual Convention and Winter Meetings continued as live events — with a virtual option — and Fall Meetings were limited to virtual-only.

Another 20% of respondents said such a schedule would have a “small negative impact” and 14% said it would result in a “small positive impact.”

Not surprisingly, respondents credited the virtual platform with improving attendance.

According to the survey, attendance at the virtual Fall Meeting ranged from a low of 45% — 30 members of the 67-member CLE Committee — to 100% for some smaller committees, such as the nine-member Labor and Employment Law Certification Committee.

Many survey respondents reported that going virtual dramatically improved attendance.

“We were shocked by the attendance,” one committee chair wrote approvingly.

“My members are senior lawyers and normally don’t attend Bar meetings due to expense, difficulty of travel, and now the fear of COVID,” read another anonymous response.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced Bar leaders to shift the 2020 Annual Convention to an all virtual event, registration skyrocketed to 8,000, well above the approximately 2,000 that organizers expected an in-person event would attract.

Most survey respondents said the virtual platform did not impede, and in some cases improved, their committee’s performance.

Zoom meetings are far superior to ones conducted via telephone conference, according to one respondent, because it eliminated the need for a roll call with every vote.

“Zoom enabled the committee to reduce a two-day meeting to a one-day meeting,” wrote another respondent.

Not all respondents were enthusiastic supporters, however.

“We were able to get through the agenda timely, however, we likely would have scheduled more items because some topics are just easier to discuss in person,” wrote one critic.

Some respondents contend that the Zoom format is too limiting.

“If we have three meetings a year, I would only like one to be virtual,” wrote one respondent. “It is very hard to discuss technical rule-making over Zoom.”

Another said videoconferencing doesn’t spark the same “energy” as an in-person meeting.

“While there was no difference in ‘comfort,’ obviously something is lost on Zoom as contrasted with a live meeting,” wrote one.

This isn’t the first time a crisis has given rise to a proposed change in the Bar’s 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 at the time predicted that the move would save $50,000 annually. A similar committee 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. With the economy, it’s financially difficult for judges and others to attend [all three],” said former PEC Chair Frank Walker.

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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