NYSBA’s Virtual Bar Center: A Vision Fulfilled

By Hank Greenberg

Building a Virtual Bar Center

A year ago, I shared with the House of Delegates at Cooperstown a vision for how the New York State Bar Association could better meet the needs of our members while simultaneously strengthening its role as a leader in the legal profession.

I believed it imperative that we rebuild our technology and digital operations with a new foundation — a “Virtual Bar Center” — through which attorneys both across the street and around the world could be just a click away from accessing NYSBA’s many services and benefits.

In addition, NYSBA needed to reinvigorate its commitment to diversity, reimagine its communications strategy and intensify our engagement and advocacy on cutting edge public policy issues impacting the profession and public.

It was an ambitious agenda, but together we accomplished all of that in just one year’s time. Here is an overview of that achievement:

The New NYSBA: A Technological Powerhouse

For too long we relied on a website built in 1998 that hampered NYSBA’s ability to analyze data and communicate in real time with existing and potential new alike. We have not only overhauled that site, but also put in place new software and technology systems that better serve members’ needs and also optimize staff productivity.

Our robust digital presence has made CLE registration and product purchases more user friendly with a new online store and member database. We are moving content outside of paywalls, digitizing our archives and posting breaking legal news to our website and social media platforms.

No one could have foreseen the events of the past several months when we launched our technology initiatives, but their timing has served us well. Just a few weeks before COVID-19 struck, our Virtual Bar Center was completed. As a result, when we were forced to close the Bar Center at 1 Elk St. in Albany at 8:00 p.m. on March 22, we were able to seamlessly move to a remote platform and continue to serve our membership without undue interruptions.

Our digital reformation also enabled NYSBA to hold its first-ever virtual House of Delegates meeting in April, at which 207 members — the highest number in the body’s history — expressed their views and engaged in robust debate without a hitch.  Following this success, bar associations around the country have reached out for our guidance on how to make the transition to virtual operations.

Simply put, NYSBA has become a nimble technological powerhouse. That capacity will be indispensable going forward, with the accelerating digitalization of the legal profession and society at large.

Leading on Diversity

 This past year NYSBA has led by example on diversity.  We took the unprecedented step of appointing diverse leaders to all 59 of NYSBA’s standing committees, while implementing an association-wide diversity and inclusion plan.

We repeatedly spoke out against intolerance, hate and unlawful acts directed at minorities and immigrants. During Annual Meeting, we held a summit that featured nationally respected speakers on the threat of white nationalism and domestic terrorism. And, in response to an alarming outbreak of hate crimes in New York, we assembled a blue-ribbon task force to study and make recommendations to combat this scourge.

The Commercial & Federal Litigation Section Task Force on Women’s Initiatives also updated its landmark 2017 study on women in the courtroom, as the House adopted its new report: “The Time is Now: Achieving Equality for Women Attorneys in the Courtroom and in ADR.”

NYSBA is walking the walk on diversity. But we also recognize there is more work to be done on this front, and we will continue these efforts into the future.

A New and Energized Communications Strategy

These accomplishments on modernization and diversity coincided with NYSBA’s implementation of a revamped communications strategy thanks to our Special Committee on Strategic Communications. It was established last June and is superbly led by past President David Miranda.  Never before has NYSBA appeared in news reports as frequently, and in such a favorable light, as it does with regularity today.

Just in the past year, NYSBA has been mentioned in countless news articles. Its priorities have been highlighted in numerous op-eds and letters to the editor and delivered during radio commentaries and television interviews with regional and national media outlets, including CNN, Fox News, The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, NY1, Northeast Public Radio, Capital Tonight and The Capitol Pressroom.

NYSBA’s press releases contain real news because our groundbreaking initiatives impact both the legal community and society as a whole. Our website’s “News Center” provides timely and valuable daily content. No longer do members have to wait for print editions of the Journal and State Bar News to get the most up-to-date information that matters to them — both personally and professionally.

Thought Leader and Resource for Policymakers

Over the past year, NYSBA continued its commitment to reshaping the development of the law and protecting the citizenry’s rights. We formed six task forces to study and make recommendations to policymakers on substantive legal and public policy issues and four groups to address the challenges and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of our task forces held public hearings and livestreamed meetings, allowing our members and the public to observe their deliberations and provide input.

The House of Delegates adopted comprehensive reports regarding the Uniform Bar Exam, the state’s rural justice crisis and the legal questions facing autonomous vehicles. The House also adopted a report from our Committee on Cannabis Law recommending the legalization of adult marijuana use in New York, and a report of the Task Force on Parole Reform that developed actionable solutions to the woefully high reincarceration rate of parolees in this state.

On behalf of all law students and future lawyers, we made a historic breakthrough in February, when our proposal to remove all mental health questions from the state bar application was approved by the Court of Appeals. NYSBA’s Working Group on Attorney Mental Health worked with extraordinary speed and skill and its report was a blueprint for real and lasting change.

In a similar vein, an innovative task force on the decline of local journalism produced an important report, and our Health Law Section addressed numerous issues related to COVID-19 in a thoughtful and scholarly manner.

NYSBA also led the charge at the American Bar Association’s (ABA) mid-year meeting in Austin, Texas for the adoption of a resolution to explore ways to expand access to justice, and again at the ABA’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco for the adoption of a resolution encouraging online providers of legal documents to adopt the ABA Best Practice Guidelines for Online Legal Document Providers.

Response to COVID-19

COVID-19 upended our lives, and the legal profession was not immune to these significant changes.  As a result, March through May was the most intense and challenging period of my year as NYSBA president.

During this period, association leaders and staff worked around the clock to help our members and the public.  Rather than shut down, we stepped up.  No bar association provided more services or engaged in more effective advocacy for the betterment of the profession and public. It was, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, NYSBA’s finest hour.

Indeed, we launched the following initiatives to address the challenges presented to lawyers by COVID-19:

  • Oversaw the transformation of NYSBA’s website, social media outlets, and other digital platforms to provide real-time information regarding COVID-19 through e-blasts, webinars, publications, and an online information center.
  • Convened on an emergency basis the Task Force of the New York Bar Examination, which made recommendations regarding the administration of the examination during the crisis that were adopted by the Court of Appeals in less than 48 hours.
  • Created an Emergency Task Force for Solo and Small Firm Practitioners impacted by the crisis.
  • Partnered with the Office of Court Administration to support and coordinate a statewide pro bono network of lawyers to handle the expected surge in legal cases resulting from the pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout.
  • Established the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force to Oversee Statewide Pro Bono Network, which, through an innovative website, provides free legal assistance for persons whose unemployment insurance claims are denied and who requires assistance in certain Surrogate Court’s matters; and also established a working group to provide recommendations to help resolve landlord-tenant disputes.
  • Established a Working Group on Re-Opening Law Firms, which produced guidance for law firms to consider and address before a return to bricks and mortar offices is possible.

NYSBA Global

We also broke new ground this past year through the launch of our global membership initiative. Our international presence was expanded by an increased focus on membership, global events and recognition of New York’s preeminent place in the worldwide legal profession and commercial marketplace. We introduced a quarterly global newsletter to international members and reached out to 109 bar associations outside the United States, entering into memorandums of understanding with our counterparts in Seoul, Korea; Tokyo, Japan; Bucharest, Romania; and elsewhere.

The Gala: An Unforgettable Evening

On the evening of Jan. 30, 2020, nearly 1,000 attorneys gathered under the breathtaking Blue Whale at the American Museum of Natural History. After a quarter-century hiatus, NYSBA revived its proud 118-year tradition of holding an annual Gala dinner.

We awarded the Gold Medal to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, making her the 10th member of the high court to receive our association’s highest honor. Justice Kagan and Professor John Q. Barrett, her law school classmate and a distinguished legal historian, conducted an engaging fireside chat. We also honored the judges of the New York Court of Appeals and heard a stirring address by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. The National Anthem was sung by Christopher Jackson, an Emmy and Grammy award-winning songwriter and composer.

The Gala was a grand and memorable event. Our profession came together to honor the rule of law and pay tribute to those who perform distinguished service to the law and society. It was a testament to our storied past and a future pledge to our continuing commitment to do the public good.

It has been the highest honor of my professional life to serve as president of this great association.  I have been blessed with extraordinary support from the officers, executive committee and House of Delegates. We are also fortunate to have a world-class staff that is laser focused on NYSBA’s mission and works tirelessly to implement it.

As we continue to navigate through unprecedented and challenging times, NYSBA’s future is bright. In the past, whenever we met the challenges of the day, our association grew and prospered. We are once again securing our future for generations to come. We owe nothing less to our members, the legal profession and the public.

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