Pulaski County Bar Association’s past, incoming presidents prioritize continuing education in “Zoom” era
July 12-18, 2021
By Chloe McGehee
This July 22 marks the upcoming annual meeting of the Pulaski County Bar Association. The PCBA is now in it’s 71st year and there are high hopes for the future after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The association had elected new leadership in the months leading up to the pandemic but decided to postpone the transition until things were more stable. This allowed for the current board members, including President James "Jim" Wyatt and President-Elect Marjorie Rogers, to hold their position for two years, rather than the regular one-year term. Now that it is safer to meet in person, the Bar Association will have their ceremony to change presidents at their annual meeting and awards dinner in July.
This transition comes after the tireless efforts of both presidents, Executive Director Carol King, and all members of the PCBA to keep the association running during the pandemic.
“[March of 2020 was] probably one of the first times ever we had to cancel a monthly meeting and then the next thing you know it was no annual meeting and then we found ourselves in a position of what are we going to do?” Wyatt said. “I mean how do we keep going when we can’t meet in person? We can’t have our lunch and we can’t do CLE [Continued Legal Education]. And then we discovered the magic of Zoom. Everybody worked and we adapted and overcame, and we just transitioned like everybody else.”
“We had to figure out how does Zoom work?” Wyatt continued. “It was this concept out there but nobody used it; we had to dive in and figure out what is Zoom and how can it benefit us. We figured out we can still have board meetings, just virtually, and you know we can still do our meetings, they’ll just be virtual, but we were trying to figure out how do we do CLE? We figured out that we could use the Zoom platform to do a CLE, and so it was really a multi-party work where you know [King] is working with our tech person for our website. [We] got other lawyers to help us, [people] donated. It all came together and the first thing we [shot in the pandemic] was the largest CLE that we’ve ever been able to put on, and it was all online.”
This was not an easy transition for the association, but they managed to pivot quickly to provide the best services they could during the pandemic.
“Carol [King] and I probably talked every day,” Wyatt said. “Just from that time in March when we had to not have that meeting, we probably talked every day, and within about 30 days I would say we started having a plan coming together that was not just ideas. [We knew] we could do this. We can make this happen. I mean we had a board meeting the very next month. So that pivot was immediate. Was everything solved, no, but we immediately had to figure out what we were going to do, and it was an everyday conversation that we were having. We were just not going to let it fail.”
Although the association was able to counteract the harsh impacts of the pandemic, there were still issues that popped up as a result.
“Before the pandemic, the PCBA used to have socials on a monthly basis,” Rogers said. “We would rent out a bar or restaurant and have appetizers and drinks for our members at least once a month. Since the pandemic, we haven’t been able to do that, so I think that will be a huge effect that we’ll kind of have to tackle. Just starting to gather in person I think is going to be really tough.”
Post-pandemic social network
Rogers does have plans to tackle some of these issues, including carrying on the online continued legal education, while also offering in-person speakers. She also thinks that outdoor socials and luncheons could be successful in the future. For the annual meeting, a larger space is a must-have.
“I really want to help get our members back to socializing,” Rogers said. “I think it’s very important for our organization to have a good connection with attorneys. Because we’re such a large organization, I think our members really enjoy getting to know attorneys in different areas, and so I really want to help with that because we haven’t been able to do it for so long. I want to be able to get back and centralize, get to meet people who took the bar during COVID that we haven’t got to meet with and who are new attorneys. Hopefully we’ll be able to start off socializing and getting the education back up.”
Rogers is also looking forward to continuing programs with PCBA and their associated foundation, the Pulaski County Bar Foundation, that were canceled during the pandemic.
“Every year we try and partner with another organization, we used to do City Year, and we do blood drives and book drives,” Rogers said. “One time we donated tennis shoes; then we do a mock trial every year with camps for kids where they get to come and see a mock trial. This year we haven’t been able to do [that]. Hopefully because we’ll have increased participation at social events, we can try to make the social events also donation events and so we will have more items or money to donate to schools and organizations. By that increased participation in social events, we can help other communities. I think our members really enjoy seeing us do stuff with everything they donate.”
Rogers and Wyatt also said they are both looking forward to bringing back Law Week, the KARK call-in show and expungement clinic programs that were canceled in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
One of the main roles of the PCBA is providing continued legal education, or CLE, and it is vital to the legal field. COVID-19 made these harder to prepare as there were no in-person meetings and speakers were hard to come by. Although the association was able to have successful CLEs online, members are looking forward to in-person sessions again.
“Number one is just the lack of contact. Lawyers in general are social people,” Wyatt said. “We would have 100 people coming to the monthly luncheon and it was to see the speakers, but a lot of it was people wanting to see your face. That lack of interaction is obviously huge.”
“Two, it really changed the meetings. We had to go from just having a speaker that was interesting to giving a person an incentive to log in online. People are busy,” Wyatt continued. “Three, I talk with my hands a lot, and I do that in CLE, I like to walk around, I like to see facial reactions. When you’re just looking at a screen and you don’t see the other people, that’s still kind of odd. It’s just different, but when you don’t have a choice, it’s a great platform to still be able to do it. But I think everybody is looking forward to being able to go back in-person.”
Continuing legal education became even more important as Arkansas had its 93rd legislative session in 2021, and there were more than 800 changes to the legal code.
“After our latest legislative session, there’s been lawsuits filed that affect every person who has a child and gets divorced. That is a major change. There was a criminal law passed about felons in possession of a firearm,” Wyatt said. “You’ve got to know that, you’ve got to figure out what’s been passed and know it because there’s not this big, long time frame [to learn it]. It happens, and then it goes. So, these are the various CLEs that people do, and the legislative updates are tremendously beneficial. Even in an hour-long CLE you can’t cover every single thing, but that just goes back to providing a service to the members. It’s having someone who’s willing to come and say alright, here we go and lay them out, at least in a snapshot to where you now have the information, and you can go look it up yourself. You can see how the CLEs are super important.”
Another prominent topic in the legal field is diversity and inclusivity as the pandemic and legislative session brought up issues of access to justice and voter rights. The association has a number of different lawyers from all backgrounds, but always wants to improve.
“Anything we can do to be more inclusive and ensure that everyone gets an equal opportunity and is equally represented, I’m all for it,” Rogers said. “Any gender, race, anything I would love for people to participate. I think attorneys sometimes get fatigued with issues and just being more relatable can hopefully open the door to ensure that minorities are equally represented or equally have access to the courts. We work a lot with Access To Justice to make sure that lower income individuals can still have access to the courts, and I think that’s very important. Attorneys can help make sure just because [someone] may not be able to afford an attorney, we still need to make sure that they have representation and know how to at least get through the court system.”
Legislative legwork and new laws
The Pulaski Bar also has another role during legislative sessions, including the 93rd General Assembly that recessed until later this year to complete its work on congressional redistricting after the U.S. Department of Commerce provides updated population data from the 2020 census.
“The legislators aren’t always lawyers, so they don’t sometimes know the effects that these bills have on litigation,” Rogers said. “The wording matters and your punctuation matters, and sometimes they don’t think about it, so I think it’s really important that lawyers look at the bills that are going to be proposed and go and testify and inform the legislators how these bills could affect litigation and their constituents. We usually have someone that will go over there to the legislature and testify on behalf of our members and the Arkansas Bar Association does that as well. There have been some bills and varying areas that have really changed the makeup of a practice area and so at that point you have to learn a new way to litigate, because these laws are evolving.”
Although online legal practices had their cons, there could be a place for more virtual trials, meetings, CLEs and court hearings in the future. They allow for witnesses to come to court without being physically present, and for people to attend court when they might not have been able to otherwise.
They also allow for lawyers to visit with their clients online and save themselves hour-long drives. For the bar association, they want to offer CLE to people all over the state, and online sessions allow for that. Members who travel or work from home can join a CLE on their lunch break or from another county. This is a change that could have occurred in the future, but the pandemic allowed for an earlier shift in the legal community to a more online basis.
“I still think there is a place for virtual because if a guy says ‘hey I want to grab an hour CLE and get to court at 1:30 or so,’ he can do that now,” Wyatt said. “I think it’s just kind of a hybrid world. I think the court is going to be a hybrid. I think people have figured out what Zoom and stuff like that offers. I do not think we will ever practice the way we used to. It’s an evolution that’s here.”
When looking back at the 70 years of history of the Association, there has never been a time like this. The pandemic will always be remembered and it is important to recognize how people got through it, said the outgoing PBCA president.
“A real concern was loss of support and membership. But you know what, people kept supporting the bar. With the history that goes back with this bar, I have no doubt that the Pulaski County Bar will continue to thrive, but it takes the support and work of the local membership,” said Wyatt. “I have no doubt that will continue to happen. Everybody will have tough times going forward and I would hope somebody could look back and say ‘you know if the Pulaski County Bar was able to do what they did and they didn’t let that pandemic stop them, then we’re not going to let what we’re dealing with stop us.’
“Nobody knew what was going to happen. We can’t just stop having court. I don’t think we’re special, I just think we worked hard, we found a solution, it worked and we went with it,” he concluded.
If there’s one thing PCBA prioritizes, it is dedication to their members no matter what. Rogers said she is prioritizing putting members and community first during her term as president, and Wyatt is looking forward to handing over the reins.
“I wanted to be able to give that gavel to Marjorie. She deserves that honor,” Wyatt said. “There’s really nothing that you can’t overcome with just some hard work and thinking outside the box and just working together. Despite a pandemic, our Bar Association is better off today than the day that I started now.
“That’s not because I was some super great president. It’s because we have a great board. It’s a group of people that bring a vast amount of knowledge and personal experiences. When we were trying to figure out speakers for all these CLEs, I can’t think of one single person who said no. You will always find somebody willing to help and it makes your job so much easier,” he said. “When I started out I never would have believed I’d be doing it for two years, but it’s been one of the most rewarding periods of my life. I’ve been blessed by so many people because of this, I’ll carry that for the rest of my life.”
The Pulaski County Bar Association, which is housed at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Bowen School of Law, will hold its 71st annual meeting, awards dinner on July 22 at the downtown Robinson Center.