Young lawyers from across the State gathered (virtually, of course) for the 13th Annual YLS Summit on November 13, the last day of the MSBA’s 2020 Legal Excellence Week. This year’s theme, North/East/South/West: A Conversation with Young Lawyers from the Four Corners of Maryland, offered section members some insight into the professional lives of young lawyers outside the central Maryland population centers, and a few geography lessons. The roundtable discussion, facilitated by YLS Section Chair-Elect Jessica M. Gorsky (Whiteford Taylor Preston, Columbia, Maryland), included topics ranging from location as a barrier to MSBA participation to lessons learned during the COVID experience that might facilitate the integration of lawyers from more remote jurisdictions into the MSBA. The ultimate goal, Ms. Gorsky said, was to increase communication and interaction among lawyers everywhere so that YLS can better fulfill its role as a resource for younger attorneys to grow in the profession. Approximately 20 young (and several not so young) lawyers participated in the 90-minute program.
First up was Allegany County attorney David A. Arnold (Kazary Hare & Walsh, P.C., Cumberland, Maryland), who explained to those unfamiliar with the region that Allegany County is more a sibling of Garrett County to its west than of Washington and Frederick counties, its neighbors to the east. The young lawyer population in the State’s westernmost jurisdictions, he reported, is “tiny.” Mr. Arnold said that in a geographically isolated community, a small lawyer population and the ever-present potential for conflicts limits his opportunities to discuss case specific issues with other lawyers. The YLS allows him to network with a broad range of attorneys with whom he can discuss an issue, toss around ideas, or refer a client. Mr. Arnold and others also viewed their YLS participation as a way to get their names out to attorneys in other regions of the State so that they get the call when there is a need to refer a matter to an attorney in their neck of the woods.
Southern Mayland was represented by Charles County attorney George B. Vaughan (G.V. Law Group, Waldorf, Maryland) and Calvert County’s Sierra B. Mitchell (Meng Law, Prince Frederick, Maryland), who agreed that attorneys in Charles, Calvert, and St. Mary’s and, to a lesser extent, Prince George’s counties identify as a singular “local” bar. Attorneys that practice in one of these jurisdictions are likely to practice in all of them. Echoing a common theme, Ms. Mitchell said that her participation in the YLS has helped her statewide networking efforts. It has resulted in referrals from attorneys from outside the area who think of her when they need a family law attorney in Southern Maryland, and has facilitated her efforts to locate attorneys and other professionals for her clients outside of her area when needed. Mr. Vaughan noted that MSBA participation has provided opportunities for mentorships that are otherwise limited in smaller jurisdictions, and has fostered familiarity with the bench, positive impacts that he looks forward to capitalizing on in the future. He said that has been encouraged by the recent proliferation of virtual events, a topic that the group returned to later in the discussion.
Moving across the Bay (after participants were reminded that Calvert and St. Mary’s were actually on the western shore of the Chesapeake), Ms. Gorsky welcomed Spencer Ayres Cropper (Ayres, Jenkins, Gordy & Almand, P.A., Ocean City, Maryland), representing (with a primer on the pronunciation) Worcester County and, by extension, Somerset and Wicomico counties, commonly viewed as comprising the lower Eastern Shore bar. As with their western Maryland counterparts, there are only a handful of young lawyers in the area. New to private practice after completing a circuit court clerkship, Mr. Spencer is looking to the YLS to help him learn “who does what, and where” outside of his tri-county area. Like the other speakers, he understands the importance of knowing to whom he might refer matters, and who might serve as local counsel or a source of local information when his clients have multi-jurisdictional issues, and the reciprocal opportunities that these relationships can provide.
Rounding out the tour was Harford County’s Eleni vanRoden Bickley (Law Offices of Christopher R. vanRoden, P.A., Bel Air, Maryland). Ms. Gorsky asked her to take the discussion away from what the YLS had been doing well to what it could be doing better. Ms. vanRoden noted the importance of having the ability to reach instantly a broad network of attorneys by practice area, initially through the MSBA’s legacy Lyris listserv system, which recently gave way to the Connect platform. Ms. Bickley and others acknowledged that, as with any new technology, Connect comes with a learning curve. In a welcome generational transposition, attorney George E. Meng, an early adopter of technology who admitted having aged out of the YLS more than a few years ago, defended the new system and noted that the key to using Connect effectively was in its settings. An MSBA representative reminded everyone that information regarding Connect, including instructions for customizing its settings to mirror Lyris and a series of “how to” videos, can be found here, and that MSBA personnel are available to assist with the transition.
The four-corners representatives were unanimous in their appreciation of the MSBA’s efforts to offer opportunities to engage remotely during the pandemic, and were hopeful that this trend will continue after the COVID restrictions are lifted. All of the speakers agreed that their geographical distance from central Maryland, where MSBA programs have been historically held, has discouraged many of their colleagues from participating in MSBA activities and limited leadership opportunities. While Ms. Bickley and Ms. Mitchell noted the importance of establishing personal connections through face-to-face contact, they and others thought it equally important that remote participation remain an option for attorneys whose location or schedule constrain their ability to attend events and programs in-person.
As if on cue, MSBA Executive Director Victor Velazquez joined the meeting to greet the YLS Summit participants and thank them for their participation in Legal Excellence Week. He reported that even before COVID, the MSBA realized that it was becoming increasingly difficult to get people from around the State to attend association events, including its CLE programs. Since COVID hit and the MSBA switched to all-virtual programing, and for a time opened its entire CLE library to Maryland attorneys for free and on-demand, the bar consumed 30,000 hours of content, 90% of which was accessed by attorneys who had not viewed even a single hour of MSBA-sponsored content during the previous year.
Mr. Velazquez also reported that the MSBA surveyed the 850 lawyers who participated in Legal Excellence Week to determine their preferences for virtual, rather than in-person programming in the future. The results, he said, were revealing: 40% of the respondents expressed a preference for live attendance, while 60% wanted to retain a virtual option. One challenge going forward, he said, was to find ways to accommodate both preferences. The MSBA intends to do so, hopefully beginning with the 2021 Annual Meeting in Ocean City, which is currently planned as an in-person event.
Ms. Gorsky asked her speakers what they saw as the future of technology in the practice of law now that COVID has brought it to the fore. There was broad consensus that many of the changes are permanent, even in the more sparsely populated jurisdictions which, like their larger counterparts, have seen their courts pivot to remote proceedings, particularly for pretrial and uncontested matters. Everyone agreed that the introduction of remote pretrial conferences, for example, has proven beneficial to attorneys, who now spend less time traveling to and from court or waiting for their cases to be called, and to their clients, who have to pay the attorneys for that time. Many expressed the hope and belief that the use of technology, and the efficiencies it can bring, will continue to expand in the future.
Picking up on that thought, Ms. Gorsky observed that with thousands of members, the YLS is the largest MSBA section. By virtue of their numbers and age, she said, “we are the future, and we have the opportunity to help guide what the practice of law will look like in the future.” Bringing together young lawyers from the four corners of the State, and all regions in between, was a good place to start, as young lawyers everywhere begin to imagine what the post-COVID legal world will look like.