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President's Page: The power of the pivot

Vol. 76, No. 3 / May - June 2020

Tom Bender

Thomas V. Bender is a member of the firm of Horn Aylward & Bandy, LLC in Kansas City.



Pivot. The first time I heard the word was playing basketball. You had a pivot foot you kept in place and you pivoted toward the basket, moving the other foot in another direction. Back then, I never heard the word used in any other context; now, it is the word du jour.

We have words that rise and fall in our daily lexicon. Akin to grammatical carbon dating, we can identify words or phrases that are symbolic of a certain period: workaholic (1970s); preppy (1980s); “my bad” (1990s). Merriam-Webster keeps track of words that people look up and name the word of the year or century. “Synergy” was the big word in the 1990s; “austerity” became the word most used after 2008. And now you see certain words or phrases appear repeatedly in briefs, such as the need to “put in place legal guardrails.” This year is clearly the year of the P: pandemic is the sad event that will be remembered, along with the associated PPEs, PCRs, and the PPP. But the word that has come into its own in describing reactions to an event is “pivot.”

We have pivoted, both as a Bar and as a profession, as we try to find the right direction to travel. But as we pivot our strategies, our primary goals remain the same – to help lawyers even better serve their clients and to improve the law and administration of justice for all Missourians.

We started off the year with what we thought was a major pivot when we selected a new executive director of the Bar. That is usually the big event of a bar year, but not this year. Even before Mischa Buford Epps could move into her office, the pandemic took everyone out of their work areas. All of us had to rethink how we could do our work in a different way, and we had to do so immediately.

We had also worked on new ways to see how we could get lawyers together in person and how to make those experiences as rewarding and memorable as possible. We had events planned throughout the year, including several conferences culminating in our annual meeting in Kansas City. The planning for those events takes months, and our committees were hard at work to come up with innovative ways to educate our members and have fun in the process. On February 1, a group of judges and bar leaders met in Kansas City to talk about speakers and topics for the annual meeting in September. In an eerily prescient vote, the top choice for a plenary topic for that meeting was “Public Health Crisis and the Law,” to focus on what might happen in the event of a pandemic. It turns out we were a year too late for that topic.

The Bar immediately pivoted internally to keep our members and staff safe and to do our work remotely. We also pivoted from our focus of getting members together to instead supporting them when we are apart. We provided a financial resource center, developed and are offering free CLE programs, co-hosted a town hall with the Kansas Bar Association to provide information on PPP benefits, and tried to find ways to keep our members connected to help their well-being. When it became known that changes were immediately needed to allow remote notarizations to take place, we worked with the executive branch to obtain changes so that needed wills and other important documents could be safely executed. We moved to help the community by increasing the numbers of volunteers providing free legal answers online and working with other bars in their efforts to provide volunteer estate planners for health care providers.

Many of our efforts during the year focus on our educational and business conferences: Family Law, Solo and Small Firm, Probate and Estate Planning, Edelman DWI Law & Science, and the Annual Meeting. Public health considerations required a pivot on those events too, making us retool how and when those could be held, all with the core focus on protecting the safety and well-being of our members, staff, and families. During this process we also learned about how pandemics fit, or do not fit, within certain contractual or insurance clauses.

As a profession, the changes were even more dramatic. Courts remained open, but barely. The Supreme Court of Missouri asked for our help in identifying problems our lawyers and the public are experiencing in connection with the timely delivery of legal services and to help fashion solutions for those problems. Retired Judges Lisa Van Amburg and James Welsh volunteered to lead a task force to address those issues, and that group has been hard at work trying to give real-time input to the Court on how to safely proceed with in-person proceedings, including jury trials. Subcommittees of experienced attorneys have spent hundreds of hours in this effort, and we cannot thank them enough for volunteering their time during this chaotic period in their own practices.

Our new lawyers have had their own pivoting to do. The Bar worked with the Board of Law Examiners to host the first virtual enrollment ceremony, in which the new enrollees appeared for the first time before our Supreme Court judges and heard the inspiring comments of Chief Justice Draper. But now they face the challenges of finding or keeping jobs in these uncertain times, and we need to make sure we help them as they begin their legal careers during this unprecedented moment.

We no doubt have more pivoting to do in the future as this public health event takes us in new directions and phases. But these experiences helped us identify some changes we are now working to implement to avoid future problems. Legislative changes will be sought to give the Supreme Court of Missouri the ability to suspend limitations periods in time of public health crises. The task force is identifying best practices to be implemented for ongoing or future public health situations. And The Missouri Bar is continuing to explore new ways to even better serve the needs of our members. We will continue to explore ways to adapt to the new times, but in doing so we will be mindful that not all pivots are necessary or even good. While the word pivot can suggest nimbleness in response, it can also be a disguise for moving away from the bedrocks of our profession. Rights to a speedy trial, to confront witnesses, and to have ways to fairly present evidence to a jury of our peers will always be considered in this balancing act of rights versus public safety. Immunity laws to shield those who protect us need to be balanced against the rights of individuals and be nuanced to prevent unintended consequences. One thing I do recall from my basketball coach was not to move that pivot foot, and we will remain vigilant in our efforts to make sure all fouls are prevented.

Stay safe, be well, and let us know how we can best help you through these challenging times.