When I declared my intention to run for president elect of the New York State Bar Association in 2018, it never crossed my mind that I might – if successful – assume the presidency two years later in the midst of a deadly pandemic that would wreak havoc upon the entire world and change the way we all conduct our business and our lives. Lawyers understand this as well as anyone, as it has become the norm for members of our profession to engage in virtual judicial proceedings, virtual meetings with clients and adversaries and all manner of virtual activities that were formerly conducted live and in person.
What started as a mere trend in the legal profession toward a greater reliance on electronic devices, the internet and novelties such as virtual meetings, e-courts and e-filing, has expanded exponentially. We were forced out of the familiar confines of our law offices into the law offices and courts of the future before many of us felt ready to do so.
NYSBA, too, was forced into a new normal. While our headquarters at One Elk Street in Albany was closed in the spring of 2020 during the worst of the pandemic in New York, the leadership and staff of the Association continued to work hard at the business of the Association. We found ways in which to serve our members remotely – 24/7 – with our new state-of-the-art website, important virtual meetings and programs on Zoom, and webinars and webcasts providing continuing legal education, current information and training to lawyers around the world.
However, while I am so very thankful that we have this great technology – and I don’t know where any of us would be without it – I have concluded that Zoom, Skype and similar programs may not be the panacea that some may think they are.
Simply put, I miss live face-to-face human interaction. I miss all of you.
We have always touted networking as one of the most valuable benefits of bar association membership, yet networking seems to have been lost – or at least significantly diminished – in this era of technology. When you attend a live NYSBA event, not only are you presented with a highly informative (and sometimes entertaining) program, but you are also afforded the opportunity to meet with colleagues to discuss a point of law – or life in general – face-to-face. That kind of communication is not available in our current virtual reality.
As president-elect and chair of our House of Delegates, I was proud to have presided over NYSBA’s first-ever virtual House meeting back in April 2020. It was an amazing accomplishment and achievement for the Association. The meeting attracted the largest number of delegates in the history of our Association to that point; reports and recommendations were presented and debated; motions were made and decided; votes were taken; and NYSBA policies were established. In short, the business of the Association continued unabated. Nevertheless, now I yearn to get back to the old-fashioned face-to-face House of Delegates meetings.
Since the pandemic struck, our Association’s schedule of events has changed drastically. Many events that were previously held routinely every year like clockwork have been canceled, postponed, or changed from live to virtual. The future of many events remains fraught with uncertainty, requiring new and creative approaches. As president, I was very much looking forward to the privilege of attending and speaking at NYSBA section and committee events and local bar association events across the state. Additionally, I was anxious to spread NYSBA’s message far and wide when traveling to the American Bar Association’s Bar Leadership Institute and Annual Meeting in Chicago and the Mid-Atlantic Bar Conference in New Jersey. In fact, since taking office more than four months ago, all of these events were converted from live to virtual. I have had little opportunity to attend and speak at a live event: no programs; no award ceremonies; no conferences; no luncheons, dinners or receptions; no trips or destination events; the list goes on.
Even my installation as president on June 1, 2020 was also a NYSBA first in that it was held as a virtual event. I had been very much looking forward to that planned in-person celebration, with the oath of office to be administered by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, and with my family, friends and colleagues in attendance. Alas, a traditional live installation was not meant to be. Chief Judge DiFiore administered the oath remotely, via Zoom, while I was in my home in Stony Brook, with my wife Joleen at my side. Don’t get me wrong: it was a great honor to have been sworn into office by our state’s Chief Judge under any circumstances – live or virtual – and I will always be grateful to her for participating in such an important event in my life. However, it was simply not the same as the live ceremony I had contemplated.
Likewise, my second installation ceremony which, following tradition, should have been held 13 days later at the House of Delegates meeting in Cooperstown, became a virtual event as well, with Senior Associate Judge Jenny Rivera administering the oath of office remotely via Zoom. Once again, I was deeply honored by Judge Rivera’s participation, as well as her flattering remarks, but wouldn’t it have been even more special had she delivered those remarks in my presence?
In my opinion, there are just certain things that are not well-suited for Zoom. Both of my installation speeches were delivered from my house with only one person (my wife) present. Normally when you make a speech, you can interact with and gauge how your audience is reacting. You hope to hear applause when they agree with you and you feed off of that energy. But when you neither see nor hear the people to whom you are speaking, it’s an entirely different – and somewhat unsettling – experience.
I was also excitedly looking forward to our 2021 Annual Meeting in New York City, including the NYSBA annual gala, which we had already booked to be held “beneath the whale” at the American Museum of Natural History – the venue for the 2020 gala – in late January 2021. It is fair to say that the Annual Meeting is the highlight of a NYSBA president’s term. It is a one-week whirlwind of activity with the president involved morning, noon and night. Make no mistake, we will still make the absolute best of our virtual 2021 Annual Meeting, but from a president’s perspective, I’d be less than candid if I said I wasn’t disappointed to not be able to spend the week at the New York Hilton interacting with our membership in person.
Four months into my term, there have been far too few instances where I was actually involved in live face-to-face interaction with others.
First, in August 2020, NYSBA’s officers, including President Elect T. Andrew Brown, Secretary Sherry Levin Wallach, Treasurer Domenick Napoletano and Immediate Past President Hank Greenberg, joined me, along with members of NYSBA’s senior staff, for a socially distant strategic planning retreat in Cooperstown.
Second, on September 21, 2020, I had the privilege of appearing at Court of Appeals Hall in Albany in connection with the Chief Judge’s 2020 Hearing on Civil Legal Services in New York. The hearing panel included Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, Presiding Justice Rolando T. Acosta of the Appellate Division, First Department, Presiding Justice Alan D. Scheinkman of the Appellate Division, Second Department, Presiding Justice Elizabeth A. Garry of the Appellate Division, Third Department, Presiding Justice Gerald J. Whalen of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department and, of course, your President.
I am hopeful that these two events are just a start and that I can join our members at future live NYSBA events before my term as president is completed, but we are far from saying with any certainty when or where those live events might take place.
In the meantime, I want all of our members to rest assured knowing that even though you’re not seeing me in person on a regular basis, my fellow NYSBA officers, our dedicated and talented staff and I have been hard at work advocating for the profession on your behalf and providing the high level of service you have come to expect from the Association. Our world has changed dramatically this year, but the leadership and service provided by NYSBA has not.
Of course, I continue to remain just an email, phone call or Zoom conference away. As always, be well and stay safe.