Back to the House

By Bret Parker, Executive Director

As I sit here at my dining room table in shorts and a t-shirt, I’m grateful to have a day set aside for no meetings, conference calls, or Zoom meetings — a day to do some quiet, uninterrupted, contemplative work (such as writing this column). And earlier this week, I was also happy to be among people at the New York City Bar Association on 44th Street, where I caught up with some colleagues (some of whom I hadn’t seen in over a year) in hallway conversations and over lunch at the Red Flame Diner.

Like many of you, I’ve experienced the pros and cons of remote work. On a positive note, there’s less stress and more productivity without the burden of a daily commute. On a negative note, I feel a bit overscheduled. It’s good to have flexibility to take breaks more easily when working from home, but it’s also too easy for work to intrude on home life. In-person networking and social events of course are better than remote ones, although I attended our virtual scavenger hunt, met a few people I didn’t know, and had a great time being distracted during the early pandemic. And it’s been interesting to experience the different nuances among the cell phone, the remote office phone, the Zoom meeting, and the audio-only conference call when we prefer to be off-camera.

As I think about our gradual return to normalcy (knock on wood; I see you, Delta variant) and what it will mean for the City Bar and its members, it strikes me that the City Bar is a special case. One of the great joys of spending time at the House of the Association is that you never know whom you might see or even get to meet. And the next best thing to meeting a Supreme Court Justice or any number of legal powerhouses yourself is to witness a new lawyer having a seconds-long encounter with a future historic figure, a moment you know they’ll remember all their life.

Those moments are why I’m thankful the City Bar doesn’t face the pressure so many other organizations and businesses do at this moment: to decide whether it’s even worth returning to a physical space to serve our members and the public. Of course, we have decisions to make regarding which staff may benefit from continuing to work remotely (and which need to be in the building at times), and how we will accommodate our members who may wish to continue taking advantage of remote activities. But I think it’s safe to say that the House of the Association is not going anywhere, as it were. It’s too important a meeting place, too important an event space. It’s like an unofficial part of the legal profession’s very infrastructure.

That said, we want to hear from you. We know many look forward to getting back to in-person meetings and events, while others appreciate the advantages certain remote activities offer. I suspect the right formula for the City Bar will be a combination of in-person and remote – that is, the best of both worlds.

I think it will take some time to find the right mix, but there are some general ideas to guide us. For some CLEs, you may be interested only in learning some specific information, and if there’s no interactive or networking aspect (or you’re not seeking that), a completely online experience may work for you. But if you’re looking to network with others, perhaps ask a speaker some follow-up questions during a break, or depending on your personal learning style or home/office arrangement, you may prefer to attend in person.

Regarding committee meetings, it’s important to remember that our committees are relatively small, and the members are actively engaged in work and in the exchange of cutting-edge information and best practices while sitting around a table. While not everyone has to be an extrovert, it’s not a room in which to sit passively. That said, it’s not easy for some to attend these meetings. For example, requiring in-person attendance at committee meetings, which are often early in the morning or late in the day, can create problems for those with young children. While we’re leaving the logistics of the meeting to the discretion of the Chair for now, I personally believe the best approach is for committees to alternate meetings so some are completely in-person and some are completely remote, because a hybrid committee meeting isn’t optimal for anyone (we will be providing hybrid committee meeting setups upon request).

I think it’s fair to say, and important to keep in mind, that remote events and Zoom meetings are easier for more experienced attorneys who already have networks of connections. It’s easier to catch up by Zoom with people you already know. By contrast, it’s very hard for junior attorneys to meet others for the first time and make a lasting connection when you can’t have a side conversation in private. It only stands to reason that these limitations would disproportionately affect attorneys from underrepresented groups who are trying to break into the profession.

Before taking office in May 2020, City Bar President Sheila S. Boston presciently included Mental Health and Wellness as one of the “six pillars” of her tenure. Humans are social animals, and there are all sorts of studies of how the pandemic is affecting social connection and well-being. And even before the pandemic, research was warning of the downsides of digital technology and smartphones. It’s easier to be there for friends and colleagues when you can make eye contact and read body language to see if they are OK and if you are on the same wavelength.

Above all, perhaps the greatest benefit the House of the Association offers is serendipity. In the recent “City Bar Leaders Share Their Stories” video, there are some great examples of how members’ careers and lives were changed by happenstance, by chance meetings, just by spending time at our building.

Whatever the future holds, however we choose to engage, I look forward to running into you at the House of the Association.