I went to high school in Louisburg, NC, which is about 30 miles north of Raleigh. Louisburg is the location of Louisburg Junior College and where my father was charged to be as his Methodist Pastoral appointment in the mid to late 1980s.
About 3,000 people resided in the town at that time. A “big night” out on the town was going to Pizza Hut, Golden Corral or the Murphy House Restaurant, all of which sat on the main thoroughfare. It was the kind of place where everyone knew my father, you would always run into someone you knew at a retail shop, “teenager fun” on the weekend was cruising down the same main thoroughfare and everyone was aware of where you lived and went to church. Former Superior Court Judge Hamilton Hobgood was a member of my father’s church at that time and was known to scold criminal defendants because he “knew their mama and daddy” and they should “know better.” If someone in your house was sick, a neighbor might check in on you. If someone in a household passed away, covered dish meals would appear. The kids from the recreation sports teams stayed together all the way through high school.
The person that taught you a subject in school might also hire you to rake leaves. In short, the community grew from the shared experiences, the side conversations, the collective emotional commitment to a rival football game and from sharing a meal. Such interactions and relationships in the community instilled an inherent purpose of care for one another and concern for the greater good.
Our Bar community is very much the same. Most of us come into the Bar knowing very few folks other than some law school classmates or summer clerk connections. The connectivity, however, begins almost out of the box when one is handed their first case file or transactional file where there is opposing counsel. Those relationships continue to build as you start to interact with more members of the Bar on other matters. Eventually, one might take part in a Continuing Legal Education event, YLD event or any other social event where they meet other attorneys and share common stories. One’s circle of friends, referral sources, advice/mentor support and connections begin to grow until it becomes part of the symbiotic “community” of lawyers. And just like any community that exists on a micro level, that community demands interaction and purpose to keep it afloat.
The purpose of our Bar, in my opinion, is set forth in the vision of the newly adopted MCB Strategic Framework which is, “To build a supportive and inclusive professional community that we believe will make us better lawyers, leaders and citizens, so we can be effective in improving access to, and the fair administration of, justice for all members of our community.” During COVID, there has been tremendous suffering of personal health as well as the mental health and exhaustion of the daily grind that COVID has wrought. We as practitioners have suffered as our community has also been damaged. Yes, we are having Zoom meetings and Zoom cocktail hours, but Zoom only allows one conversation to exist. The all-important side conversations are not present. Gone are the days of meeting a colleague for lunch or a beer and networking. We cannot congregate in the halls of the Courthouse and discuss our latest case or even how bad the Panthers played last weekend. The in-person Bar meetings where we have lunch or dinner together are gone. CLE events are essentially all televised.
For me personally, I lament the fact that during this year, my only interaction with all members is this column and Zoom meetings. My tendency is to throw myself fully into my volunteer roles and would have welcomed the chance to go to your events and meet and interact with many of you and experience the wealth of knowledge and diversity in our Bar. I have joked that my first in-person Bar event as President will likely be my last event and based upon the timeline for vaccinations, this now seems fairly prophetic.
Even though our community has been severely limited, and putting aside my own lamentations, which are wildly inconsequential, the flip side to all of this is that despite all inability to create the traditional community, through the efforts of the volunteers in the Justice Access Initiative as well as the hard work of our sections and committees, the foundation has been refortified that will help reinvigorate our Bar and foster a greater feeling of localized ownership among our members.
We often talk about the Bar like it is a person, a committee or a building. What this year has taught me, however, is that the Bar is us, the members. Our Sections continue to meet and hold virtual events. This month the Memorials Committee to hold its first virtual memorial and continue the time-honored tradition that is unique to our Bar. The D&I Committee has not only continued its good work but reintroduced wonderful programs such as the Minority Lawyer Mentoring Program. Our BLI Committee is gearing up for the class of 2021 and the CLE Committee has provided a myriad of quality programming, many of which have been included with your dues or presented at significantly reduced rates as a member benefit.
More than 100 lawyers, many of whom have never held a leadership position in the Bar much less served on a committee, have stepped up and taken ownership in the Bar with their great work on the Justice Access Initiative, which is being reported out this month. The JAI report will include significant recommendations for the transformance of our practice during and post-COVID, including the following:
• Open up courtrooms in former Civil Courthouse
• Mandatory pretrial settlement conferences to reduce backlog
• Motions practice conducted using Webex using written submissions, affidavits, verified motions
• Recalibrate filing rules and operational hours to accommodate user needs
• Provide additional help and locations for conducting eviction hearing
• Develop and use eviction diversion programs for mitigation purposes
• Focus on the need for the timely filing and digitization of documents in an accessible database for user access
• Consider the use of virtual communication to accelerate the exchange of information about court related activities, e.g., Live Chat or Chatbots
• Develop and implement virtual, remote solutions for justice access issues using current, enhanced software
A community, by and through its commonality, is united by its common purposes. Members of that community are called upon to support the common policies and interests in that community in order to strengthen the same. The recommendations of the JAI are, by their design, reflective of the needs of our Bar and with an eye towards supporting our Bar community. Despite the fact that we have been unable to be a traditional community in person, by our actions, we are attempting to reinforce that community so that we can sustain it moving forward and make it effective in improving access to and the fair administration of justice. Over the next few weeks, we will have an ongoing discussion as to how we begin to implement the recommendations of the JAI so that we fulfill our obligation to build a supportive and inclusive professional community.