by Kyle Sciuchetti
In April, I experienced for the first time what I had envisioned—and had been eagerly looking forward to—during my WSBA presidency: an in-person Board of Governors meeting. Now, to be sure, “in person” looked and felt much different than in the past but, for the first time in more than a year, a small group of us gathered in the same room to conduct the Bar’s business and to commune. The meeting was actually a hybrid, with people from all over the state able to fully participate remotely; accordingly, it was a unique opportunity for me to reflect on the best of both environments—remote and in-person—and what lessons will emerge to become the “new normal” for the WSBA moving forward.
First and foremost, I want to acknowledge that any gathering during a time of pandemic comes with a priority on health and safety. The April meeting was held in my original hometown of Spokane, and a few governors from across the state traveled while other governors participated by Zoom. Much effort went into planning and making sure that all health protocols were respected so participants felt comfortable and safe. The governors and participants who attended in person took their temperature each day, socially distanced, and wore masks during the meetings. Conference rooms were disinfected and cleaned before and after meetings and meals. The hotel offered to suspend housekeeping services during the stay in order to reduce risk and exposure to their guests. Meals were plated or boxed instead of the traditional buffet fare.
Even with these strict protocols and varied access points to the meeting, the Board of Governors discussed and took action on many important issues, including proposed amendments to the Rules for Discipline and Incapacity, a resolution that calls for review and possible change to the format and content of the bar exam to ensure ethical/competent licensees and to eliminate discriminatory effects on examinees of color and first-generation examinees, approval of a reforecast fiscal year 2021 budget, and long-range planning. It was a weighty agenda, and we had presenters and commenters contributing from all parts of the state (and outside the state, in some instances).
At the same time, because some of us were physically present in Spokane, we were able to conduct “business” that is truly best done in person—the business of connecting with the local community. At the invitation of Gonzaga University School of Law Dean Jacob H. Rooksby, WSBA Treasurer and District 4 Governor Dan Clark, and I visited the law school campus prior to the meeting to toast Gonzaga’s law school building on its 21st birthday. Former Governor Paul Swegle and current Governor Hunter Abell met with Dean Rooksby and Assistant Dean Laurie Powers about a WSBA rural-practice support program (which the Board voted to approve the next day). During the meeting, we were able to present several well-deserved awards and commendations to local lawyers. I was honored to recognize former U.S. attorney and current Spokane City Attorney Mike Ormsby as a Local Hero for his civic involvement and service to his legal community; and we had representatives in attendance from the Spokane County Bar who have done incredible work to condemn systemic racism and educate and support colleagues to take action toward a fairer and more equitable justice system.
It was wonderful to congratulate and thank these people face to face (after more than a year of virtual treatment of such ceremonies). And it felt gratifying to conduct business so effectively and accessibly for all participants, no matter their ability to travel. Prior to the pandemic, the WSBA struggled technologically with conference calls and remote participation. It was hard to hear members on the phone and, more often than not, microphone interference and ear-splitting feedback interrupted and delayed meetings. As a result, many volunteers felt that in-person attendance was the only way to meaningfully participate in the discussion. For volunteers from the north, south, or east sides of the state, that meant devoting a half-day or more to travel for a one- or two-hour meeting.
Today, more than a year into the pandemic, the WSBA has embraced new technology that allows meeting attendees to participate virtually and almost seamlessly, despite the occasional frozen screen or dropped call. With personal laptops and headphones, the Board of Governors has learned to integrate a virtual and in-person experience that may eventually become our new normal. In my opinion, gone are the days when in-person meetings are the only practicable option. That is the silver lining of COVID-19, and that is a major breakthrough that we will carry forward as the “new normal.”
Expanding out to the larger legal system, the WSBA is no different than our local and national courts in respect to major adaptations in this new world. Virtual court hearings and depositions with virtual court reporters have changed the way we practice. Some courts are ordering the modification of subpoenas to require depositions to be conducted remotely,11 In re Newbrook Shipping Corp., No. MC JKB-20-0150, 2020 WL 6451939 at ∗4 (D.Md. Nov. 3, 2020). and parties are finding that virtual depositions no longer require the deponent to travel more than 100 miles (or at all) to comply with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.22 Int’l Seaway Trading Corp. v. Target Corp. No. 0:20-MC-00086-NEB-KMM, 2021 WL 672990 at ∗5 (D. Minn. Feb. 22, 2021). Jury selection has been moved to fairgrounds and exposition facilities to ensure proper distancing, and some states are allowing courts to re-summon previously summoned jurors where there is an unanticipated shortage of jurors. Grand jury proceedings are being conducted by video conference. Judges sit behind plexiglass panels with face shields and masks for trials and hearings that must take place in person. Some courts have been using audio systems with headsets that allow clients and attorneys to speak with each other without having to shout due to social distancing. Health surveys and temperature checks are required of attorneys and clients before entering. Some courts are even renting parking lots so that members of the public don’t have to use public transit.
The whole state has adapted, and in many ways I am proud of what the state Bar, our courts, and the entire legal community has done—quickly, sometimes messily, but always with the best intent—to keep the wheels of justice turning.
With the passage of time and the increased availability of vaccines, we hope that temperature checks, masks, and social distancing will start to fade. If our April Board meeting is any indicator, however, some new ways of doing business are here to stay: virtual access, improved communication technology, face-to-face events focused on relationship building and human interaction, and a greater sense of precaution for health and well-being. Our hybrid Board of Governors meetings will become the new normal for a while. And, with any luck, the new normal for the legal profession—now and in the future.
1. In re Newbrook Shipping Corp., No. MC JKB-20-0150, 2020 WL 6451939 at ∗4 (D.Md. Nov. 3, 2020).
2. Int’l Seaway Trading Corp. v. Target Corp. No. 0:20-MC-00086-NEB-KMM, 2021 WL 672990 at ∗5 (D. Minn. Feb. 22, 2021).