Bar Leaders Pivot in Response to Pandemic


Bar Leaders Pivot in Response to Pandemic

Laura Ernde

The pandemic has forced everyone to change the way they do business, and that includes the staff at the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) and Justice & Diversity Center (JDC). We recently spoke with bar association leaders to find out how they pivoted in order to continue providing service to members and the public. We also asked what changes may become permanent.

BASF Events Go Virtual

Membership organizations like BASF have relied heavily on face-to-face networking and member engagement, so when the pandemic hit and live events were suspended indefinitely it presented a big challenge, said Deputy Executive Director Jack Hannan.

Thankfully, back-end technology upgrades fortuitously completed in 2019 allowed for a quick and seamless switch to online programming via webinars and Zoom meetings. Between March 1 and December 31, 2020, the bar hosted 320 online events. Many times, the bar had multiple events going on simultaneously.

“Now everyone on my team is a Zoom master,” he said.

The solo and small firm lawyers who had already been working remotely stepped up to share their best practices and resources.

Being virtual also allowed the bar to bring in speakers from different parts of the country. For example, the bar hosted a virtual swearing-in for new law students, which featured a short video that Sen. Elizabeth Warren recorded specially for them. The audience for online events expanded as well, attracting folks from across the country.

Once it’s safe to gather in person again, Hannan said he expects the bar will host more hybrid in-person and virtual events, so members can choose the format most convenient to them.

In lieu of its annual in-person Judges Reception last summer, which typically draws hundreds of people, the bar used online conference hosting software Remo. They found it was the best option for creating a themed event featuring a keynote speaker and short video presentations. Remo also allows participants to choose to visit virtual “tables” and strike up conversations with up to six people.

“It really gives you a sense of moving through a room, stopping at different tables and chatting with different people,” Hannan said.

And the technology options are getting better all the time. “We’re always on the lookout for that next interesting platform,” he said.

For staff, BASF anticipates keeping a work-from-home model for positions where it makes sense and is looking at options to relocate in a smaller footprint while maintaining space for hosting events.

JDC Confronts Client Access Issues

For many clients of the Justice & Diversity Center, adjusting to the pandemic presented numerous challenges, said Gloria Chun, managing attorney for pro bono legal services programs.

“It was so sudden. We didn’t have a structure in place for working with clients remotely,” Chun said. Add in potential language barriers and a lack of access to smartphones and other technology and it’s easy to see why she and her team are anxious for a safe return to in-person client meetings.

But there have been some bright spots. Homeless shelters adopted technology that allowed for remote consultations with JDC lawyers, she said.

And virtual appointments can sometimes be more convenient for clients. The clinic that handles restraining orders reported that domestic violence survivors are more likely to appear at a remote appointment.

“Going forward we’re open to the idea of developing remote services or a hybrid of in-person and remote and packaging it in a way we could make it easy for clients to understand and access,” she said.

The pandemic has also presented new opportunities for recruiting and training pro bono lawyers virtually, she said.

It’s too early to tell what the long-term ramifications will be for providing legal services, she said.

“We’re in a wait-and-see mode,” she said.

Laura Ernde is a San Francisco-based writer and communications consultant. She has covered legal affairs for more than a decade, as a journalist and former editor of the California Bar Journal.