How has the State Bar of Michigan been impacted by the public health crisis? JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent discuss the latest Bar updates with current president Dennis Barnes. He offers an overview of the Bar’s work to address challenges presented by the pandemic, including practical solutions for the remote practice of law and efforts to promote the public’s access to justice in these uncertain times.
Dennis Barnes is a member of Barris, Sott, Denn, & Driker, PLLC and president of the State Bar of Michigan.
State Bar of Michigan: On Balance Podcast
President Dennis Barnes – Practicing Law During COVID-19
Intro: Welcome to State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast, where we talk about practice management and lawyer wellness for a thriving law practice with your hosts JoAnn Hathaway and Tish Vincent, here on Legal Talk Network.
Take it away ladies.
Tish Vincent: Hello and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s On Balance Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Tish Vincent.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I am JoAnn Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Dennis Barnes, President of the State Bar of Michigan join us today as our podcast guest to talk about practicing law in the COVID-19 pandemic.
So Dennis, would you share some information about yourself with our listeners?
Dennis Barnes: Sure. Greetings from the Communications Center/kitchen table of the Barnes bunker. I am Dennis Barnes. I am a member of Barris, Sott, Denn & Driker in Detroit. For the past 33 or so years I have been at Barris, Sott. I practice business counseling and business litigation and in recent years that’s been mixed with a lot of alternative dispute resolution work.
I am also a husband and a father of four wonderful children; they are all adults now, and I like to stay active in the community, in my church and a host of other organizations, including Bar organizations.
I am a past President of the Federal Bar Association’s Eastern District of Michigan Chapter and as you mentioned currently President of the State Bar of Michigan.
Tish Vincent: Thank you Dennis. Could you share with our listeners how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for you as an attorney?
Dennis Barnes: I suppose like everyone else or for most of us I am working from home. So I am one of the lucky ones, I was already equipped with a VPN and Internet and phones and have been fully functional from home for quite a while.
In fact, when I really want to get something done I work from home, you don’t have the distractions that sometimes the office has. So before coronavirus era I thought it was a very productive and even relaxing way to work, but now it’s not quite the same. We have got four people working in the house, one student and three working and each of us is kind of cordoned off into our little corners of the house and we will work by day and have some fun by night. So it’s all been working out well and I think like most lawyers we are all adapting.
JoAnn Hathaway: How has the role of President of the State Bar of Michigan been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Dennis Barnes: Boy, that I think has been impacted a lot more than even the practice of law. As you might imagine, I had a calendar full of engagements, Bar Association meetings, speaking engagements, events of all kinds and they were all canceled within a matter of a few short days.
I don’t think I would be in this position if I wasn’t somewhat of a social animal. So for me that aspect of the job I thought was fun, that’s probably the part that I will miss the most and I look forward to getting back to it when the world normalizes.
But for now I am getting out and meeting lawyers all across the state remotely. As all the events dropped off my calendar, it was interesting I told my partners that I would likely have a lot more time on my hands and a greater capacity for the workload of the firm and how wrong I was. So far that hasn’t turned out to be the case at all, with all of the hurly burly of COVID response, COVID planning, for the lawyers, for courts, for the public, dealing with State Bar staff. So all of the — it’s been a crazy few weeks, but it’s been very engaging.
These are interesting times and they have presented very interesting challenges and that part of it has been a lot of fun with the pace being just one notch below what I would describe as frenetic, it’s been fun.
My wife I might add is starting to get jealous of Janet Welch; I think I have been on — I have had more time talking to Janet than my wife over the last few weeks, and for those of you who don’t know, Janet is the Executive Director of the State Bar of Michigan, a wonderful and talented and lovely lady who my wife really is not jealous of; she loves her.
Tish Vincent: You mentioned the State Bar. Can you share how you have seen the operations of the State Bar be impacted by this pandemic?
Dennis Barnes: Well, in terms of its operations the State Bar is shifted into remote mode, just like the rest of us. One really interesting facet to that is that over the last few years, in the last year in particular, we have had a review of our entire governance structure at the State Bar. It’s been I think 30 plus years since we have last done that. And in the last decade, in the last few years in particular we have been shifting to a lot of the newer technologies, online resources, e-blasts and reevaluating everything, but in the last year in particular we are looking at governance and what functions of the State Bar can we do remotely, what functions do we not have to pay for travel expenses and have in-person meetings and what facets do we really want the interaction of an in-person meeting for. This is one small aspect of the whole governance project.
What we have seen is a complete acceleration, the pace of the change and the transition; all those things that we have been black boarding are in the last three weeks just common everyday things. Online Zoom conferences, rapid use of email blasts and daily updates with all of the information that lawyers need these days.
We have done an online Board of Commissioners meeting already. We have got one scheduled for a week from Friday. The next Representative Assembly Meeting will be a Zoom conference as well. It’s been really — it’s like a lab to test all of the things that we have been talking about in theory for the last week. So when we turn our attention very soon to wrapping up the work of the Governance Committee, I think we will have firsthand knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge of what we hope to accomplish, what we can accomplish and what we ought to accomplish.
Let me add one more thing. I would like to give a shout out to the State Bar staff including JoAnn and Tish, you are all working from home. Everybody is working remotely and it’s just a credit to the flexibility, the creativity, the industry of State Bar staff to see through all of the disruption and everybody working remotely. I have noticed no drop whatsoever in the quality, timeliness, usefulness of the content that’s been generated from State Bar staff. In fact, I think it’s been enhanced and increased in so many ways.
The staff are doing an amazing job and all of the lawyers that contribute to what the State Bar does are doing the same thing. I am amazed that with among all the disruption, the productivity has not suffered a bit as far as I can tell. The flow of information coming out of the State Bar — coming into and out of the State Bar right now is more robust than ever and more needed than ever. It’s really remarkable and really, really inspirational.
JoAnn Hathaway: Thank you Dennis. Beyond the way the State Bar has been doing business, have there been any changes to the substance of what the Bar does?
Dennis Barnes: Well, I don’t think the role of the State Bar has changed at all. I mean we are focused on serving the public by promoting the professionalism of lawyers, promoting improvements in the administration of justice and advancements in jurisprudence, advocating for an open, fair and accessible justice system, providing services to members that help them best serve their clients and that’s all what we do according to the Supreme Court rules concerning the State Bar of Michigan and our strategic plan, those things haven’t changed. But the ways and means of fulfilling that mission in this COVID environment have been changing every day.
On top of keeping the trains running on time as to all of the many operations and initiatives we have really been retooling and refocusing in so many ways in the last three or four weeks to address all the challenges of this new COVID pandemic environment.
We have been focused on two big questions; what do members need most in this pandemic environment and what does the public need most and once we identify those, we jump in and see what we can do to help and address and overcome some of these challenges.
JoAnn Hathaway: So let’s talk a bit about lawyers, what do they need?
Dennis Barnes: Well, what they need is reliable information, which is pretty hard to come by in this turbulence, practical workarounds for carrying on in a quarantined environment, just reassurance that the workarounds that we have been adopting have been and will be acceptable to courts and to the public and to others.
Some community and comfort, I mean lawyers are used to working with each other every day and we have to find those in different places. Lawyers are problem solvers, but we still like to solve problems in a familiar world, with familiar tools and suddenly we are not in that world. So the bar can help us all feel a little less uncomfortable with what and how we are doing it.
So as I mentioned earlier, the communications facet has been integral to that. We are keeping around-the-clock watch on developments in the primary sources and making them quickly and easily available to lawyers. Those are the sources like the executive order and administrative orders out of the Supreme Court of Michigan and each of the individual trial courts across the state.
We have been working very hard to bring emerging problems to the attention of the decision makers in the judicial and executive branches and other areas. We will advocate to the judicial and executive branches on solutions and try to help lawyers practice.
So I think if you go to the State Bar website, I have always been somewhat daunted because there is so much information available on the website and over the years it’s been made more easy to navigate, but if you look at it now, right on the front page, on the home page, there is like a Pandemic Central, it’s like one-stop shopping for all the information that we are aware of that a lawyer might need from like I say the primary documents, the administrative orders, ethical guidance for lawyers, frequently asked questions, with all kinds of helpful information, from specific guidance for practice areas, guidance on working from home, little things like Video Conferencing 101, this is all new to many of us, and security tips and on top of that, and probably more importantly pro bono opportunities.
JoAnn Hathaway: I want to talk about pro bono more in a minute and right now we have been talking about what lawyers need at this time what do you see their needs are in the future?
Dennis Barnes: Well, that’s a great question because — and it’s the other facet of what the State Bar is engaged in now as much as anything behind the scenes, but it’s going to come to the floor very soon.
Lawyers are going to need help managing what comes next so the bar — at the bar, at the Board of Commissioners, the RA and certainly internally, we are trying to think over the horizon, what happens when the quarantine ends? We are going to have to work together with the courts to figure out how to manage our serious backlog of cases that’s building up day by day. We are going to have to work through with the community how to steal with a damaged economy. It’s going to increase legal needs and decrease capacity for those paying for those needs. The bar is going to be at the center of figuring out how to move forward in that environment, and I invite all your listeners to think about that and to send me feedbacks and send it to Janet Welch. There’s all kinds of ways to provide feedback, but I want to know, I want to hear because we are thinking seriously about that every day.
JoAnn Hathaway: How about the public, how has the Bar been addressing the public need?
Dennis Barnes: Well, in so many ways addressing the lawyers’ needs addresses the public’s needs, what the public needs as much as anything is a continuity and access to legal services as much as possible during the crisis. And for the law to work in this strange environment I think we are seeing sections step to the forefront to provide expertise to deal with some of the more urgent problems of the quarantine.
For example that the governor came out last week with an executive order removing barriers to remote transactions and estate planning, what that means is — we have got a problem of how to validate critical legal documents in a quarantine environment, how do we do — a notary is typically got to be present. So how do we remote-notarize and remote-witness documents?
Well, the probate and estate planning session and the Elder Law and Disability Rights sessions were just incredible stepping to the forefront proactively raising this critical issue, using their subject matter expertise and their insights and offering a solution and they work tirelessly spending a lot of time with the governor’s staff identifying those needs, identifying a workable solution, all on very short notice, all for a very significant public good, and it seems to be working and if it needs to be tweaked and those same people are going to be there providing the feedback, beyond that the Bar is as a whole has stepped up to address providing access to legal services and in so many ways, it’s just really encouraging to see a good example.
Last week the State Bar launched an initiative in response to the crisis to provide pro bono services to first responders saying people in the hospital, people out there on the front lines taking care of our health. They as much as anybody need estate planning documents, wills, powers of attorney, things like that.
We established a first responders helpline to get pro bono legal services to first responders on an expedited basis. So we are publishing that information in the court, we have got a whole cast of volunteers who have already volunteered and they are ready in action.
There’s another similar initiative is the first responders Rapid Response helpline, not the first responders, it’s the COVID-19 Rapid Response helpline, it’s really a referral service, part of our — it’s much like our normal lawyer referral service only without the fees that would normally be associated with it, but we have mobilized a group of volunteers of lawyers to quickly connect with members of the general public who have legal needs related to the crisis.
In other words there are some target areas of practice that are acute these days, a state and disability planning, guardianship, custody and parenting time issues, labor and employment issues, unemployment, garnishment defense, consumer matters, those needs don’t stop during this pandemic and in many ways they are even more acute, and there’s an acute need to put lawyers in touch with those that need the services.
So this COVID-19 Rapid Response helpline has got lawyers ready and willing to contact a referred caller within four hours of receiving an email or a phone call, or by 10:00 a.m. the next morning if it’s late afternoon or evening call, like I say across the State lawyers have been rising to the pro bono challenge, the State Bar has really been putting initiatives in place to allow and facilitate those efforts, and I am very proud to say that we have really seen an uptick in pro bono service. With all this disruption the needs are certainly there and lawyers are answering the call, and if there’s anybody listening that’s just now thinking of it or finds himself what time or I tell you how to help, there’s an application to volunteer for pro bono legal services right on the State Bar’s website.
The State Bar staff will provide a list of ways that you can help, they will align your skill set with the needs in your area, you can search by county — there’s ways to find opportunities or contact Rob Mathis at the State Bar, [email protected], plenty of ways and opportunities to help.
One more thing it would be remiss to say we are all worried about our economic futures but the access to justice campaign is a really important vital part of finding opportunities to help people with real legal needs in the State of Michigan. Let’s not forget about the access to justice campaign, it’s administered by the Michigan State Bar Foundation in partnership with the State Bar, and the goal of course is to increase resources for regional, statewide, civil, legal aid programs in Michigan, if you can go online or send them a check because the needs are acute.
Tish Vincent: Well, thank you, Dennis. In closing, do you have anything you would like to say to State Bar of Michigan members?
Dennis Barnes: Well, I guess, I would just like to say keep up the good work. We are all so isolated sometimes. Our communications are more limited. I hope we are not getting cut off from each other, I hope we are finding strategies to effectively communicate with each other. Wherein not on this podcast I might be writing a President’s column or something, but this is easier.
But, the State Bar is probably now more than ever seems to have become a hub of so much lawyer activity. It gives me a perspective of all the good things lawyers are doing for their clients, for the public, for each other out there.
So it’s just really gratifying to see that the patience, the commitment, the client’s perseverance, the creative problem-solving that attorneys always seem to show in difficult situations, it’s going on now. It’s really remarkable how quickly so many have been able to adjust to working very effectively from home to the maximum extent possible.
In the end, I guess the only other thing I’d like to mention, and this is very important — maybe I should have mentioned it at the beginning. Take care of yourselves to lawyers and anybody else that’s listening. Our lives have been so disrupted in so many ways, that these changes are difficult and change leads to stress. The disruption itself and just the pace of practice can be stressful and stress seems to creep up on you.
So it’s important to stop, take some time to self-assess, just to be aware of your circumstances, so you’ll recognize the stress and the ways that it impacts your life and then deal with it. If you recognize it you can deal with it.
So now the State Bar websites got tips on lawyer wellness, those are things that we really need to keep on the forefront of our minds right now and there’s of course a Lawyers & Judges Assistance Program with all the details on the Bar website.
Take care of yourselves, we are in the business of taking care of others to do that, we need to take care of ourselves.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it looks like we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Dennis Barnes, for a wonderful program.
Tish Vincent: Dennis, if our guests would like to follow up with you, how can they reach you?
Dennis Barnes: Well, they can contact me by phone. My direct dial that’s queued right through to my cell phone these days is (313)596-9329. My direct dial, you can call me or email me at [email protected] remotely and virtually available, and look forward to feedback, helpful information.
So thank you so much for having me. It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for what you do and keep up the good work.
Tish Vincent: Thank you, Dennis. Thank you for being our guest today and for everything you do as the President of the State Bar of Michigan this year.
Dennis Barnes: I’m happy to serve.
Tish Vincent: This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan On Balance Podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I am JoAnn Hathaway.
Tish Vincent: And I am Tish Vincent. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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