NYSBA Transforms Its Operations to Better Serve NY Attorneys

By Scott Karson

NYSBA Transforms Its Operations to Better Serve NY Attorneys

Scott Karson Photo

With members in all 50 states and more than 100 countries, the New York State Bar Association is truly a global organization. As such, we know that there are 70,000 lawyers who rely on us to make prudent decisions about how we advocate for them, regardless of whether they work on the tip of Long Island or in tiny Lichtenstein.

As stewards of the New York legal community, we take seriously our fiscal responsibility to spend the money our members entrust to us in ways that provide value to our members and benefit our profession, our clients and those less fortunate who need legal representation to make their voices heard but cannot afford it.

The pandemic has taught us valuable lessons about the best way to operate in a post-COVID-19 world. With our members in far-flung reaches of the state and world, in-person events are very important to a select group of lawyers, but the majority of others are much better served by our Virtual Bar Center.

Case in point: Our attendance at Continuing Legal Education classes is at an all-time high and our virtual Annual Meeting received rave reviews as more than 65 events were held daily with no drop-off in participation. For the first time, a lawyer from Buffalo or Rochester or Syracuse could attend a Tax Law Section or Antitrust program without having to travel to the Hilton in New York City or miss an important meeting with local clients to do so.

The needs of the Association’s employees have changed dramatically as well. In 2017, NYSBA had 125 full-time employees and none worked remotely. Now, there are 84 employees. Some did not work in the office regularly before the pandemic, but that was not the norm. Now, it is commonplace for NYSBA employees to work remotely for at least part of the week. Our decision to hire remote employees has brought rich diversity and experience to our staff and is helping us become a more inclusive organization.

As we look forward to emerging from the pandemic, we find the traditional workday and in-person office requirements have been upended and will likely stay that way to some degree. Employees have become more productive as they have benefited from the flexible work arrangements. They work harder and longer because they can more easily fulfill their personal and family obligations while operating remotely.

The pandemic accelerated trends that were already underway, particularly when it comes to technological advances. The legal profession’s dependency on brick-and-mortar law offices and courthouses has been diminished, and likely will be completely transformed in the years to come. New York is moving toward a “virtual court system.” Many lawyers have not seen the inside of their law offices in over a year, and yet continue to ably represent their clients.

NYSBA has recognized this trend and, thankfully, was already moving toward a more online approach when the pandemic hit. Over the past year, it too has transformed, offering members real-time information and services through its Virtual Bar Center.

The reality is that there is no reason for us to return to a pre-pandemic model of operating, and to do so would be a significant step backward. As a result of this seismic shift and taking into consideration all aspects of the so-called new normal, NYSBA must reconsider and redesign how and where it does business – and that includes examining the efficacy of its current physical home, the Bar Center.

The Bar Center, located at One Elk Street in Albany, has 60,119 square feet of space, and NYSBA pays the New York Bar Foundation, which owns the building, $302,229 annually in rent. Under the current lease, which expires on Dec. 31, 2021, NYSBA is responsible for the cost of insurance, maintenance, utilities, and taxes, which added another $800,000 to the operating budget in 2020.

The total cost is just above $1.1 million, which is clearly significant, especially considering that 40 percent of the building was not fully utilized before the pandemic and it’s likely that less space will be needed when our operations return to normal. The reality is that the vast majority of NYSBA members have never been to the Bar Center and will never have an occasion to go there. Post-pandemic, it is estimated that NYSBA will need 23,000 to 27,000 square feet of professional office space because more employees will work remotely or only be in the office part-time. While NYSBA previously held two of its four annual House of Delegates meetings in the Bar Center’s Great Hall, historically at least two House meetings per year were held off site, in spaces for which NYSBA paid rent.

One Elk Street also has several other significant limitations. Before the Bar Center was dedicated in 1971, the Association agreed to retain the facades of the row houses in deference to historic preservationists. As a result of design and construction restrictions, access for persons with disabilities has always been limited and improving accessibility for our members and guests will be a priority regardless of our location.

The row houses do not have street-level access from the front, forcing members who are disabled to use one of the rear entrances and take a circuitous route to offices or meeting rooms. Any plan to improve street-level access in the front of the building would alter the historical appearance of the townhouses and no doubt be met with opposition from local preservationists.

In September of 2020, I appointed a NYSBA team to negotiate the new lease for One Elk Street with the Foundation. Past President David Miranda chairs the negotiating team, which also includes Michael McNamara and Sandra Rivera. As part of the discussions between this team and the Bar Foundation, NYSBA told the Foundation that substantial renovations would be needed for the Bar Center. On Dec. 3, 2020, NYSBA asked the Foundation whether it would be willing to raise the funds necessary to pay for these renovations, which are necessary to keep the Bar Center viable into the future. On Dec. 31, 2020, the Foundation said it was not capable of leading such an ambitious capital campaign but has expressed a willingness to discuss common goals and concerns of our organizations.

With this understanding, NYSBA subsequently inquired about the cost of performing the most immediate and necessary repairs and received an estimate of $2.6 million, and has begun investigating the cost of renting new facilities in downtown Albany. Before taking further action, NYSBA must take a serious inventory of the fiscal realities of maintaining the building at One Elk Street, its post-pandemic staffing needs, and how to best serve our members and fulfill our core mission with the resources it has. At the House of Delegates meeting this past Saturday, we discussed these realities and the status of the lease negotiations, which we are now sharing with you.

While the Bar Center clearly has sentimental and historical value, we cannot let emotion guide our business decisions. Now, more than ever, we must show fiscal restraint as the Association and its members recover from the pandemic and resulting economic fallout in order to ensure that NYSBA continues to flourish. The timing of the current lease expiration, and lessons we learned from the pandemic, permits us to examine and transform how we do business, how we can maximize our reach, and most importantly improve how we attract and serve our members in the next decade and beyond.

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