Moving pieces: Bar associations shift gears in wake of COVID-19

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Out of necessity, area bar associations have effectively put the brakes on all in-person events, programs, and fund-raisers for the next two months in the wake of the rapidly changing coronavirus outbreak that is altering lives like never before.

The postponements and reschedulings, of course, are a small price to pay for the nationwide need to stop the seemingly unending spread of the virus, bar officials agree.

Joanne Geha Swanson, president of the Detroit Bar Association, said it is important that the legal community take the long and the broad view of a crisis that is producing shocks and after-shocks on a daily basis.

“First, I think that any comment on the effect of the evolving COVID-19 crisis should begin with gratitude and prayers for the health care providers, public safety, government, and infrastructure workers, grocery and food service employees, and countless others who are continuing their essential work with dedication and sacrifice on the front lines of this pandemic,” Swanson said.

“As lawyers, we also recognize that when the emergency orders are lifted, the need for our pro bono services will be greater than ever,” noted Swanson, a partner with Kerr Russell in Detroit. “Laid off workers and those directly affected by the COVID-19 virus will struggle with credit, mortgage, rent, and other issues resulting from the loss of income. This applies equally to small business owners hard hit by the shutdown.

The Detroit Bar Association, said Swanson, has a “robust pro bono program,” led by Pro Bono Committee Chair John Sier, a principal with Kitch in Detroit. 
“We encourage all lawyers and law firms to make plans to join this effort by assisting at one of the many clinics in our community,” she said. “They can find more information on the Detroit Bar Association’s website at detroitlawyer.org/probono and in our monthly Access to Justice Pro Bono Newsletter, which lists the clinics and services that need volunteer lawyers.

“We also ask law firms and lawyers to sign up to staff the Detroit Bar Legal Services Clinic that is held on the fourth Tuesday of each month adjacent to our office in the Penobscot Building.”

Like other organizations and law firms across the state, the Detroit Bar has “adapted well to the emergency orders” announced by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last month, Swanson indicated.

“We just released our latest issue of the Detroit Lawyer,” Swanson said of the DBA’s monthly magazine. “Our sections are holding virtual meetings via Zoom, including meetings with Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Patricia Fresard, chief judge pro tem. And our staff, while working remotely, is continuing to advance the mission of the (Detroit) Bar in service to our members and the surrounding community.”

In the meantime, “barring further prohibition” on account of the coronavirus, the Detroit Bar’s Annual Meeting has been rescheduled to August 13 at the Detroit Golf Club and “our pinnacle event, the 2020 Archer Award Gala,” will be held on Nov. 19 as planned, according to Swanson.

“The Gala, which honors an attorney or jurist who exemplifies the ideal of the law as public service, raises funds for our pro bono and community outreach efforts,” she said of the event named in honor of former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, a past president of the American Bar Association as well as the State Bar of Michigan. “We encourage our friends in the legal and business community to sign up now to become a sponsor.”

The Macomb County Bar Association also is facing the COVID-19 situation head on, according to Executive Director Rick Troy, and “is doing great,” all things considered.

“We began remote operation on March 13,” Troy said. “Our Lawyer Referral Service continues to help people find a local lawyer for their legal needs. 
“Like all other organizations, we have had to cancel a number of events,” Troy added. “The saddest cancellation was Law Day. Our CLE's were cancelled too, but we are working on delivering online education.”

The MCBA’s Annual Golf Outing, scheduled for June 22 at Greystone Golf Club off Mound Road, is still planned, Troy indicated, while officials are “monitoring very closely our May 15 Annual Meeting at Jimmy John's Ball Park” in Utica.

He noted that the association last week held a Happy Hour “online. of course, using Zoom.

“And, the Foundation spearheaded a fund-raiser to help the Macomb County Food Pantry,” Troy said. “We've raised about $2,000 so far and we will continue this effort through April 15.”

The Oakland County Bar Association also has taken a proactive approach in dealing with the shifting sands of the coronavirus landscape, according to Dan Quick, OCBA president.

“The OCBA, like everybody else, has worked hard to adapt to the situation,” said Quick, a partner with Dickinson Wright. “Executive Director Jennifer Roosenberg, her staff, and the board of directors are in constant contact to adjust to what seem like new daily realities. 

“We have partnered with Chief Judges (Shalina) Kumar and (Katherine) Ryan and many of the district courts to publish court orders in response to COVID-19 to our members,” Quick noted. “We are also building a resources page on our website where attorneys can quickly find the most recent notices. The OCBA office has been closed since March 24, with staff working remotely.”

Quick said that “all in-person events through April are cancelled or postponed” for the OCBA.

“In alignment with the courts, all District Court Case Evaluation hearings at the OCBA have been adjourned through April 17, with the possibility of the adjournments to extend through the end of April,” Quick said. “We have urged committees to conduct video or phone conferences during their regular committee meetings. The Young Lawyers are holding a virtual happy hour. And our Lawyers of a Certain Age (LOCA) Committee is opening their book club to the full membership with a video conference discussion scheduled for April 23.”

In addition, Quick said that the OCBA Board of Directors “continues to meet regularly via video,” while staff members are “personally calling each of our 2,800 members to check in on them and see how the OCBA might further help during these times.”

In terms of the OCBA’s financial picture, Quick said “we are hopeful that we largely face delayed revenue from events which we will still hold during the summer or fall.”

For now, he said, “we are committed to continuing to pay staff as normal. However, we are mindful that the delay in revenue and upcoming renewal period could impact our first fiscal quarter of our 2020-21 bar year and we are preparing for a few different budget scenarios.”

The virus also has taken a personal toll on one OCBA staff member in particular, Quick said.

“One staff member had two family members in France contract the coronavirus,” Quick said. “Her father, who had a heart condition, succumbed to the virus this past weekend, but her brother is finally recovering after being hospitalized for a couple weeks. I am sure we will all have personal connections with such victims before this is all over.”

Mark Jane, president of Washtenaw County Bar Association, said the more than 700-member organization has adjusted well to the new way of work life due to the coronavirus crisis.

“We have conducted a couple of Executive Committee meetings, and the March 2020 board meeting, by conference call,” said Jane, a senior attorney with Butzel Long in Ann Arbor. “We have had to combine the annual meeting with the bench-bar conference, and will hold it sometime in July or August.  We are working on alternate plans for the election. At this time, in-person section and committee meetings are cancelled until further notice.”

Financially, said Jane, “we are holding our own.”

Kyeena Slater, executive director of the WCBA and immediate past president of the Michigan Association of Bar Executives, said her staff has been “working remotely from home” for several weeks.

“One of our projects is reminding our members to update their member directory profiles on our website,” said Slater. “Colleagues as well as members of the public may search for an attorney by name or by area of law.”

Slater, like her other bar association colleagues across the region, is hoping for a return to normalcy soon.

“We’re eager to return to the office,” she said.
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Melanie Deeds and Sheila Pursglove contributed to this report.

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