COVID-19 Makes For Socially Distanced NJ Bar Convention

By Jeannie O'Sullivan
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Law360 (April 13, 2020, 9:09 PM EDT) -- The New Jersey State Bar Association convention's online format this year will hamper the social and networking highlights that make it far more than just an educational seminar, Garden State attorneys said Monday as they lamented yet another event scaled back by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The annual Atlantic City event is a valuable opportunity to knock out a year's worth of continuing legal education credits in one fell swoop, but it's also a place for the association's roughly 18,000 members to build camaraderie outside of the courtroom. That is, when there's no global health crisis.

The association announced Friday that the coronavirus has moved the beloved May convention completely online, a first for the 121-year-old group, though virtual social events are still in the mix.

Those who look forward to their yearly stay at the posh Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa — where industry players from clerks to judges to legal support professionals take in dozens of educational panels during the day and flock to mixers and dinners at night — wonder if virtual parties will stack up to in-person ones.

Short Hills, New Jersey-based matrimonial attorney Evan R. Weinstein has made the annual trek to the Jersey Shore on and off during his 20 years of practicing law. He loves dining with old industry friends and new contacts.

"I always view the convention as being an in-person experience, socializing with other attorneys and networking and developing relationships, personal and professional," the Weinstein Lindemann & Weinstein attorney told Law360.

But "obviously the health and safety of all the attorneys of this great state matters to all of us," Weinstein added.

Titled "Uniting the Legal Community," the convention will be held May 13 to 15 and feature a "fully interactive" continuing legal education program held via a virtual symposium. Attendees can rack up as many as 16 credits in educational tracks covering areas like family and criminal law, diversity and inclusion, real property, municipal court, and presidential initiatives, according to the association's announcement.

Among the speakers will be New Jersey Supreme Court justices, retired jurists and federal judges. The lineup so far also includes representatives from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and Rutgers Law School.

Attendees can take in daily online happy hour sessions and a virtual exhibit hall. President-elect Kimberly A. Yonta and the association's officers and trustees will get sworn in during a livestreamed event.

The convention, which is always held in May, was initially postponed until the end of June. Association President Evelyn Padin said the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic is what drove the idea to scrap the in-person event in favor of a virtual symposium.

"We do not know how many people will support our virtual annual meeting but are optimistic because our free webinars that we have presented are showing high numbers," Padin told Law360 in an email, adding that the association's "great" IT specialist is behind the modernization of its virtual courses.

Tracy Julian, a Pashman Stein Walder Hayden PC partner who specializes in commercial litigation and family law, hailed the association's resourcefulness.

"Given our circumstances, the bar's ability to adapt and create this symposium is pretty admirable," Julian said.

A member of the association's Family Law section, the Holmdel, New Jersey-based attorney has become accustomed to coronavirus cancellations. The section's annual retreat, a Nashville getaway that had been scheduled for March, was also a no-go this year, she said.

Still, "there's a desire to connect and we'll just have to figure out a way to do it," she said of the convention's remaining networking possibilities.

All attorneys acknowledged that the Garden State legal industry has risen to the challenges of a public health crisis that has, as of Monday, claimed 2,443 lives in New Jersey. New Jersey cases now total 64,584, placing the state in second behind New York.

Client meetings held via Zoom or FaceTime have become part of the new work-from-home normal, and the New Jersey judiciary rolled out virtual courtrooms without missing a beat, the attorneys noted.

One draw for this year's convention is what appear to be cheaper registration fees than in previous years, Einhorn Barbarito Frost & Botwinick PC partner Cimmerian A. Morgan said. The fees top out at $99 for association members, while public interest attorneys and judges pay $49 and students and law clerks attend for free.

A faithful convention attendee for all of his 14 years at the Denville, New Jersey-based firm, Morgan said he'll miss some social aspects, such the annual dinners he shares with his firm and networking with forensic accountants.

Yet since online courses are nothing new for the association, Morgan doubts a virtual convention will fall short when it comes to quality education offerings.

"I don't have any worry that they're not going to be able to technologically deliver the goods," he said.

--Editing by Breda Lund.

UPDATE: This article has been updated to include commentary from association President Evelyn Padin.

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