As many members know, I am challenged with ADHD, which I did not discover that I had until I was almost 30 years old and well past graduate school and law school. I have found that many in our profession are similarly afflicted. I have served as an instructor in CLE’s on this topic for this Bar and hope to do a follow-up on the topic in the future. With that said, one of the challenges that comes with ADHD is that one’s mind tends to operate very much like a television set constantly changing channels and weirdly at the same time, one’s mind can hyperfocus on something so fiercely that any actions or activity going on around the object of focus can be totally blocked out. Also, those of us with ADHD have an underlying level of pent-up energy that lends itself well to the engagement of trial work or high-pressure contract negotiation. So, as one can imagine, at the end of each day, every day, those of us with ADHD generally have to spend some time settling down and reflecting upon the activities of the day. This helps to recenter us and refocus us as we move forward and candidly, doing this makes it easier to fall asleep in the evening.
I submit to you that over the last year we, as practitioners, collectively and societally have lived the experience of an adult with ADHD. It has been hard to stay completely focused with every element of life and career being thrust upon us all at once and then having the same go through drastic overnight changes. Our practices have gone through significant adjustments, sometimes more than once in the same month due to forces that we could not control. When we have been able to focus, we often would hyperfocus and spend hours absorbed into our work because at least that gave us some refuge from news about the next business closing, death or illness and societal change.
It is probably kismet that I came to be your President at the precise time that we have collectively gone through this ADHD year. And as a result, I suggest that it is necessary for us as members of the Bar to pursue the aforementioned “end of day” recenter and refocus strategy as we begin to move beyond COVID. It is important to see what happened, what worked, what did not, and whether our world will be permanently reshaped by our collective experience.
We went from 100% in-person hearings and trials to 80% hearings and trials via WebEx. This County attempted jury trials last fall and has finally been able to start them again. In Federal Court, jury trials were conducted with a new courtroom configuration. Those of us in civil practice have done our best to move matters along by increasing the number of binding arbitrations, taking part in electronic mediations, and in state court, promoting the re-introduction of judicial settlement conferences that were prevalent when I started practicing in the early 2000s but have seemed to go away in recent years, at least in Mecklenburg County.
Surprisingly, many transactional lawyers have seen their workload increase during this time of COVID. Interest rates remained low and with clients receiving SBA loans and PPP funds, some clients that would not have otherwise taken risks started to anticipate economic recovery early, hired employees, purchased property or closed business deals. The transactional practices, however, were simultaneously slowed down for the first few months with the built-in constraints of our world pre-COVID-19. The limitations of the then current state and local filing systems with the Secretary of State, the Clerk’s office and the Register of Deeds coupled with the limited staff due to remote working or illness did not always afford the speed that may have been necessary to keep up the pace during COVID or sustain the pressure from some clients that many not have gained a level of increased patience during COVID. The advent of the video notarization program introduced by the General Assembly working with the office of the Secretary of State began to reintroduce some efficiency and speed back into the transactional processes.
Last July, I commissioned the Justice Access Initiative (“JAI”) to study the effects of COVID-19 on our professional lives. The good work of Chase Saunders and Kathi Lucchesi and their dozens of Bar member volunteers produced more than 600 pages of a report and supporting materials. The crux of the report was a recognition that whether we like it or not, the structures and processes that we have had in place for our collective practice of law since the 1970’s is no longer enough. The time has come to embrace the technological advantages that we have and reformat our structures so that our processes and procedures are built around technology rather than continue as we were pre-COVID, where our technology was used to complement our processes and procedures. Or as more succinctly put, move from the analog practice of law to the digital practice of law.
I also suggest that whether or not those that make decisions on the future of the practice of law deliberately and affirmatively move towards a rapid embrace of technology, the changes that COVID has created with WebEx hearings, electronic ADR and other matters will be very difficult to abandon because many of those concepts are not only convenient, after a year and a half, they will become normalized. Moreover, the more normalized that the process becomes the harder it will be to revert back entirely to pre-COVID concepts. And as practitioners we should take an active role in the conversations on whether we want to return entirely to the “old ways” or do we want to embrace the new technological strides that COVID created. I hope our members will continue to have these conversations. To ensure that we as a Bar continue to provide resources and supplement this concept, the JAI will continue to live on through a new Ad hoc Committee known as the Justice Access Committee that will review the JAI report and find ways that the Bar can assist in the process of implementing some of the recommendations in the JAI report such as preparing a plan to help members with the new electronic filing rollout.
In addition to the JAI, our Bar has adapted and adjusted to a world during COVID. The Bar Center now sits in a very different neighborhood than it did a year ago. If you have not been down to the Bar Center recently, I can assure you that you will surprised by the significant change in the landscape created by the new townhouse neighborhood that almost completely encapsulates the Bar Center. Despite the significant aesthetic changes to the Bar neighborhood, the Bar itself and our staff continue to be strong. We have shown that the Bar is not a building but rather is its people. Our members have continued to come to events, such as the record number that took part in the Law & Society event in December, or the significant number of you that have embraced our Bar CLE programs. In addition, many of our committees and sections have had record participation at their meetings and events. All of this has been accomplished by a full-throated embrace of technology and a willingness to adapt to meet the needs of members. As this Bar moves forward post COVID, I am certain that this same strategy will continue to guide our Bar.
In the next few weeks, we will begin the process of reopening the Bar Center. Like many of you, a year ago, I was hoping and praying for a vaccine and also like so many of you, I can happily report that I received my second dose and am ready to “get on with it.” Unfortunately for me, I will not be your President at the time that we have our first all-member event post-COVID, which will totally deny me being able to hand out a single “door prize” all year. Nevertheless, you will be in very good hands with my friend Fred DeVore, who is not only a seasoned and excellent trial lawyer, but he is also one of the most demure and honest men that I have ever known. He will provide the calming presence needed as we begin to re-instate some modicum of normalcy back to our lives as practitioners.
I hope that members take this opportunity to recenter and refocus themselves for what lies ahead. I hope that members will continue to challenge themselves to ask if we can do more and if we can do better. I also hope that we don’t forget the strides that we have made the last year to prepare ourselves for life beyond COVID.