As we emerge from the forced hibernation of pandemic quarantine, we take stock of personal and collective lessons learned, and reassess our vision for the future. As part of this reassessment, the New York State Bar Association, like many law firms and businesses around the country, is rethinking its facilities and staffing needs. Because of the vision of our leadership, and innovative investments in technology made over the last three years, our association has been able to continue to seamlessly serve our members’ needs during the pandemic, and today is stronger and more effective than ever.
Over its almost 150-year history, NYSBA has frequently adapted to meet the needs of its members, the legal profession and the public. Time and again, we have expanded operations and broadened our outlook, as dictated by the needs of the day. In the past, change meant expanding our association’s brick-and-mortar presence either through relocation of our headquarters or overhauling our facilities space. Major moves and ambitious renovations of the Bar Center on Elk Street signaled new beginnings and an expansion of our association’s role as the leader for lawyers across the state and nation.
The Virtual Bar Center Meets Pandemic Challenges
Today, the digital revolution has transformed the way people communicate and do business. This necessitated a completely different kind of expansion for our association, requiring it to rebuild technology and digital operations and create a “virtual” bar center. In June 2019, then-NYSBA President Hank Greenberg set an ambitious goal: the construction of a virtual bar center, where attorneys across the street and around the world are just a click away from accessing association benefits and services.The world and our members were quickly moving from physical to virtual platforms, and we embraced state-of-the-art technologies to remain a national and global professional leader.
During the year prior to the pandemic, NYSBA underwent a digital transformation. Over $2 million was invested in new technology and expertise. This investment included a new association management system (i.e., a member database that connects to CLE registration, section and committee appointments and member dues renewal); a completely new website; and the use of new telecommunication hardware and software. The completion of the initial stage of this transformation occurred just weeks before the COVID-19 crisis hit New York in March 2020. As a result, the association has continued to increase service to members, to reach members digitally, and to provide real-time information about developments related to the pandemic and legal news pertinent to the legal community, throughout this crisis.
CLE programming during the pandemic is a testament to the flexibility of the virtual bar center. The Committee on Continuing Legal Education and the CLE Department quickly pivoted to schedule hundreds of CLE webinars throughout 2020 and 2021. NYSBA CLE programs were a financial bright spot in 2020, despite projections anticipating both continued declining membership dues revenue and total revenue over the next decade.CLE net revenue nearly tripled from $614,144 in 2019 to $1,778,676 in 2020. This record-breaking increase in revenue was due to the prescient timing of our technological transition. Indeed, the quick move to virtual programming allowed NYSBA members to continue to receive timely updates and developments in the law during a period of profound change in court operations, emergency orders and indeed major shifts in the function of the practice of law itself. Additionally, NYSBA was able to quickly adapt to Zoom remote conferencing, including for NYSBA sections, committees and association governance meetings. The four House of Delegates meetings, held virtually during the pandemic, had record attendance. According to an April survey of members, 63% would like to see virtual programming and events as the primary option moving forward.
NYSBA outsourced its entire IT department to a Maryland-based company whose employees – working remotely – handled the entire data migration of NYSBA’s antiquated member data system to Salesforce, the new association management system. Having the flexibility to acquire talent from outside the association’s immediate geographic area made the transition easier and provided NYSBA with some security, in that it had retained a group with the required expertise to implement the data migration and technological transition. NYSBA also retained a Chicago-based digital design agency to redesign the website. The remote locations of the staff of these respective companies were not an impediment to the projects, and in fact, the retention of these companies enabled NYSBA to ensure it was able to receive the best possible services for its money, uninhibited by the personnel confines of the Capital Region or New York state boundaries.
Over the last five years, to increase efficiencies, the association has reduced its staff by almost one-third, from 125 to 89. Much of this reduction has come from outsourcing the association’s IT and website services. Pre-pandemic, our association was able to operate comfortably using about 30,000 square feet, about half the space available at the Bar Center at One Elk. During the pandemic, the majority of association staff worked remotely, and it is likely that we’ll need even less space when our lives and businesses return to normalcy. Permitting staff to work remotely makes the association attractive to a broader pool of employees, bringing in greater expertise and diversity beyond the Capital Region. Zoom meetings provide our members with efficient and inexpensive access to section and committee meetings, CLE, House of Delegates and leadership meetings.
As a result of the pandemic, the traditional workday and in-person office requirements have been upended. According to some studies and reports, the pre-pandemic model may not return in the same form, as many employees prefer, at the very least, a hybrid model of virtual and in-person work and have demonstrated that productivity has not been negatively impacted as a result. In fact, productivity has improved as workers are able to fit their work around their personal and familial responsibilities. Physical office space has become less significant, as compared to technology, employee expertise and production. As a result of this seismic shift, NYSBA has an opportunity to reconsider and redesign how and where it operates and the manner in which it serves its members.
The Bar Center at One Elk Street
For the last 50 years, the association’s home has been at historic One Elk Street. The Elk Street buildings are recognized for their creative integration of historic preservation with modern design. The Bar Center occupies numbers 1 through 6 Elk St., nestled perfectly between the New York Court of Appeals and the Capitol. One Elk creatively combines a new building with 19th century townhouses, welding them together to form a single, functional complex. This unique combination of 19th century architecture and award-winning contemporary design led former New York Times design critic Ada Louise Huxtable to write that the building “is one of the neatest architectural achievements in the country. . . . it is a sophisticated triumph in the most delicate, complex and poorly understood art of the environment: urban design.”When One Elk is full for a House meeting or reception, it has an energy that is electric and alive. Walking its halls during moments of quiet contemplation, one cannot help but feel the comforting weight of its history and be inspired by the greatness of those who have passed through its doors. The building has become a proud symbol of the greatness of our association.
In 1969, the association transferred title of the Elk Street properties to the New York Bar Foundation in exchange for promissory notes, which were subsequently forgiven by the association. Initially the foundation, as owner, paid for the maintenance and upkeep of the building, but was soon unable to keep up with the costs. Under the current lease, dating to 1991, the association has paid all rent, utilities, taxes, housekeeping, maintenance, internal and external structural repairs for One Elk. The total cost to the association to rent and maintain One Elk is more than $1 million per year. The current lease at One Elk expires at the end of this year, coming at a time when the association is considering how to best allocate its resources to deliver improved value and services to its members.
Over the past year, the association has retained architects, engineers and construction consultants to determine the viability of One Elk as the long-term home of the association. These outside experts conclude that the building’s heating and ventilation systems are outdated and will soon be in need of renovation and that the building’s restrooms and elevators need renovation in order to increase accessibility.Since One Elk consists of multiple, interconnected, independent buildings, it is a challenge to provide access throughout the building to persons with difficulty walking. This challenge is further compounded by historical preservation requirements that prohibit major structural changes to the front facade of the building on Elk Street. As an association that is dedicated to, and advocates for, diversity and inclusion, our home must be fully and easily accessible to all our members and guests.
Outside consultants have indicated that although One Elk remains operable, costly renovations are recommended over the next three years. Initial estimates to consolidate reduced print shop operations, improve handicap accessibility, make restrooms accessible, upgrade the heating, ventilation and cooling systems, and provide a centralized ADA-compliant elevator system place the cost of such renovations at $4.8 million during the years 2022 and 2024. The association’s finance committee has estimated remaining at One Elk under current lease terms will cost the association approximately $18 million over the next 10 years, more than double the cost of other suitable space in downtown Albany for the same period.
As part of lease renewal discussions, the association shared details of the proposed renovations and their costs with the foundation leadership and sought a commitment from the foundation to contribute funds for renovations necessary to keep the Bar Center viable as the association’s long-term home. The foundation advised it was not “in any position to pay for renovations desired by the association at the One Elk Street property, which is owned by the foundation.”
The foundation has proposed continuing under the current lease term while the feasibility of a joint fundraising campaign is explored. However, any continuation of the lease under current terms, even for a short period of time, will be costly to the association as current rent and maintenance amounts to almost $100,000 per month and anticipated renovations will soon be required. It makes even less financial sense to commit to pay millions for renovations under a short-term lease at One Elk.
Like the association, the foundation has undergone changes over the years. Formed in 1950, it was originally intended to raise charitable income for use by the association. Since then, the foundation changed its bylaws and mission statement to broaden the foundation’s outreach beyond the association, to serve the legal profession and access to justice causes. Today, the foundation proudly offers grants to dozens of deserving legal services organizations throughout New York. In 2020, the foundation provided grants to over 100 organizations, totaling over $600,000, including just over $20,000 to the New York State Bar Association.Despite changes to the foundation’s mission, the association continues to assist the foundation financially. In addition to paying the foundation rent of $300,000 per year, and paying the costs of maintaining One Elk, the association also provides services and pays expenses to assist the foundation’s business operations. In 2020, the association was involved in providing over $900,000 in rent as well as direct and indirect contributions and services to the foundation.
A Vision for the Future
The fiscal realities associated with One Elk require our leaders to take a serious inventory of association needs and how we can best serve our members today and in the future. Staff cutbacks over the last five years make it difficult for the association to justify an increase to the financial burdens of continuing to rent and maintain One Elk, even putting aside the millions of dollars of anticipated necessary renovations. Although the association is strong financially, it remains so through staffing cuts and other efficiencies. No membership association can expect to cut its way to growth.
There is a path for continued growth of our association’s membership, reach and influence, through continued execution of the virtual bar center plan begun two years ago. That plan calls for the use of association resources to attract, and retain as members, New York lawyers out of state and throughout the world. New York is the economic and legal capital of the world. New York law, and New York lawyers and judges, are globally recognized as the gold standard in our profession. The New York State Bar Association is a global force and the most recognized bar association throughout the world.Our association is widely regarded as the world leader among bar associations; our reputation is unmatched.
Over 320,000 attorneys are licensed to practice in New York; more than 67,000, over 20%, live or practice outside the state, and more than 22,000 live outside the United States. While these attorneys are not physically in the state, they have a professional tie to New York; they need New York law and New York connections. In short, they need the New York State Bar Association. Since most of our members will never set foot in the Bar Center, our investments in technology enable us to better attract and serve these members. In order to continue to grow we must expand globally, and our association must invest in technology and member services necessary to meet members’ needs virtually.
Additionally, there has long been a desire for the association to have a satellite location in New York City, as the majority of in-state NYSBA members are in the New York metro area. Over the past few years, leaders worked toward that goal, making progress on a midtown Manhattan location and a plan that would have provided office and meeting space. This plan was deferred due to the COVID-19 crisis. Establishing a nimble footprint in Albany, which more appropriately fits NYSBA’s staffing and other needs, offers greater flexibility to revisit a New York City satellite site that further serves downstate members.
The timing of the current lease expiration, and lessons learned from the pandemic, compel us to examine and transform how NYSBA does business, maximize its reach and, most importantly, improve how it attracts and serves its members in the next decade and beyond.
Our Bar Center is a great symbol of our association, one that we are rightfully proud of. But the spirit of our association and its work is not grounded in any physical location. The important work of our association and its causes does not, and will not, waver or diminish depending on where we meet, whether it be at One Elk in Albany, or at meetings in Cooperstown, New York City, or even when we meet remotely.
Fifty years ago, the leaders of NYSBA embarked on a bold and courageous path to pursue their vision for our association. Today our association has again arrived at a crossroads, that arrival hastened by an unforeseen pandemic. As we choose our path forward, we must not be bound by our affection for the past or our fear of change in the future. We must have the same courage and vision that our forebears were blessed with 50 years ago.
Click here to read about frequently asked questions about the Bar Center.
1. See Henry M. Greenberg, Report of President to the House of Delegates (June 2019); plans to improve the association’s technology and website capabilities began during the 2018-19 term of Past President Michael Miller.
2. See John H. Gross, Report of Chair of the Finance Committee to the House of Delegates (Apr. 2021).
3. See Domenick Napoletano, Report of Treasurer to House of Delegates (Apr. 2021), at 3.
4. See New York State Bar Association – Rededication November 10, 1990, at 6.
5. “It should be noted that the current facilities management team is doing an exceptional job of keeping the space properly heated and ventilated with extremely old equipment.” See Metropolis Due Diligence Report – One Elk Street (Feb. 22, 2021).
6. Outside design consultants estimate the association needs about 25,000 square feet to house staff, accommodate multiple meeting rooms for members and a large reception room that can fit at least 50 people for CLE and other programs. See Diana Cesta, MADesign – Program Development for New Office Space (Feb. 10, 2021).
7. In 2020 the association returned an additional $36,479 to the foundation for programs that were not completed due to the pandemic.
8. In 2020, the foundation’s business operational costs provided by the association were estimated at $400,000. This does not include the cost of salaries of the foundation’s two dedicated staff, whose salaries are reimbursed by the foundation. The association also assists the foundation in its fundraising efforts, and last year helped raise approximately $144,000 in contributions in conjunction with renewal of association membership dues, and $82,000 from association sections.
9. See MCI Group, Report for New York State Bar Association – Developing a Membership Growth & Engagement Strategy (Nov. 2018).