This column is adapted from Heath Gilbert’s speech delivered at the May 21, 2020, MCB Annual Meeting.
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic into our world and the subsequent collective pause that we all have undergone has created a crisis in all aspects of our lives. From the closing of schools, to the stay-at-home orders, to change in our daily routines, economic loss to our clients and practices and the tragic loss of life in our community and nationwide, life as we have known it, has changed. In the months to come, the collective societal pause will continue to result in a significant change in our professional lives.
By the very nature of our profession as counselors of law, we are and will be called upon to be beacons of calming light in the eyes of this storm. In addition, every imaginable area of criminal and civil trial practice will experience delays that will manifest themselves for quite some time. And it is not just limited to the trial bar, as the real estate, estate planning and all areas of the bar will continue to experience impediments to their practices. This collective pause coupled with a predicted resurgence of COVID-19 in the coming fall and winter highlights that the curve of the limitation to justice is rising rather than flattening.
For the last few years, the Mecklenburg County Bar has been introspective and rightly chartered a course to improve involvement of members in our organization and Bar leadership involvement in your Sections and Committees. We have examined ways to improve our outputs to our members that include continuing legal education and bringing more value for your membership dollars. In the last year, we have made a concentrated effort to be more accommodating and to seek ways to fulfill membership requests. Yet, circumstances compel us to do more. The mission statement of the Mecklenburg County Bar as set forth on the main page of the website reads as follows:
The mission of the Mecklenburg County Bar is to serve the public and the Bar members in improving and preserving the administration of justice, and to assist the North Carolina State Bar as described by statutory requirements.
With this mission statement as our charge, how do we in the midst of a COVID-19 world, keep and fulfill our obligation? With respect to the management of your Bar, we will continue to utilize technology to carry on the work of the Bar. For now, we will continue to conduct CLEs, section and committee meetings via Zoom or WebEx. When it is safe again to gather together, I assure you that we will.
With respect to our macro mission, the COVID-19 pandemic not only reminds us, but demands, that we, as officers of the Court, leaders of this community and bearers of the torch of access to justiciable relief, are compelled to find a way forward to improve and preserve the administration of justice. For more than 100 years, our Bar has led the way with innovations later adopted by others. We were the first in this state to adopt a lawyer referral service and we established the first Lawyer Assistance Program in the United States offered by a metropolitan Bar. During my remarks at the annual meeting in May, I called for this Bar to be the first to study and recommend a path forward for the practice of law in a post COVID-19 world.
With the current and anticipated crippling delays of COVID-19, we as practitioners will not be able to facilitate the improvement and preservation of justice until we determine how that can be done when our current methods are limited out of respect for public health. As practitioners, we must have the courage to consider a shift in the paradigm of our practice processes if we intend on bending the curve on the limitation to justice.
The MCB Executive Committee, upon my recommendation, has commissioned a study for the improvement and preservation of justice amid a COVID-19 world, which will be known as the Justice Access Post-Pandemic Initiative. Kathi Lucchesi of Lincoln Derr and former Superior Court Judge Chase Saunders are co-chairing these efforts. They will begin the process of examining the limitations that have been brought upon our profession by COVID-19 and will recommend innovative ways to facilitate our processes as practitioners, including pioneering ways to conduct jury trials in a protected environment or facilitating real estate closings with all the parties and the closing counsel in different locations.
This study will also build upon the current implemented successes of things such as Web-Ex court hearings, video alternative dispute resolution and video notarization. It is my hope that their recommendations will serve as a lodestar for those that have the power to effectuate change and want the perspective of practitioners on how best to implement the same in our efforts to maintain equal access to justice for all. This Bar is called upon to function in a moment of great uncertainty, yet I know that the determination and character of this Bar will overcome any impediment placed in our way.