Trial Briefs

Silver Linings of a Year Spent In the Ether Of the Cloud

June 02, 2021   |   David Henson

As I sit and write my final column as your 2020-2021 president, it is not lost on me that my entire term has been virtual. A modern-day Max Headroom. No shaking of hands or hugging friends at Convention or Mountain Magic. Not one single Board of Governors meeting in person. No face-to-face committee or section meetings. No in-person seminars. Nothing real. It has all been in the ether of the cloud.

What is truly amazing is how well we all have been able to adapt and change — all of us: our community at large, our children, our schools, our businesses, our judges, our court system. The changes to our world are innumerable. Just a short time ago, none of us would have ever believed this possible. This is arguably the era in which how we live our lives and conduct our business has changed the most in the last 50 years. While the technology already existed to allow us to FaceTime our friends and family, and to even take depositions if we didn’t want to travel, the utility of this technology and further advancement has ballooned since March 2020, minimizing our reliance on transportation and resulting in immense time- and cost-savings to all of us. My prediction is that there will be no turning back from the change.

There are few things in this world that a room full of lawyers can agree upon, but I feel safe in saying that we all wish that COVID-19 had never reached the United States. However, as horrific and damaging as this virus has been for our country and the world, it has forced us as lawyers to innovate — to get out of our comfort zones, to stop doing things the way we always have just because, well, that’s how we’ve always done it, and to learn. It has forced us to become more efficient. We are signing clients up electronically through platforms such as Docusign or Adobe. We are videoconferencing with clients. We are investing in check scanners from our banks to eliminate the need for in-person banking. We are accepting Venmo and other electronic payment forms like never before. It has forced us to become better prepared. Depositions, mediations and hearings are being held remotely and, so far, they have been just as effective. But that has required us to ensure we are prepared, so that our exhibits are uploaded, pre-marked and sent to the judge in advance. We are working from kitchens, home offices and back porches, and no one gives it a second thought.

A New Age for the Courts

Our court system is helping to lead the way. In early 2020, then Chief Justice Beasley assembled a diverse group of court personnel including superior and district court judges, court clerks, district attorneys, public defenders, representatives from NCAJ and the N.C. Association of Defense Lawyers, and others, in a COVID-19 Task Force, all with the goal of helping the judicial system assess and plan for a safe reopening of courts across our state. That group worked for months to lay out a plan and vision for the state. More recently, newly elected Chief Justice Newby has reconvened that task force with the explicit goal of pushing innovation in our courts; ideas include replacing the antiquated calendar call system, overhauling the use of county-specific local rules and considering six-person juries for civil jury trials. Hearings in many counties will likely continue to be remote, and virtual judges will become commonplace. Innovation and efficiency in our courts is progressing. A handful of counties are already in the process of implementing e-filing, and over the next several years, all 100 counties will be included. A newly envisioned court system is on the horizon.

Likewise, NCAJ is in the midst of re-envisioning its own direction and embracing this new normal, which truly has allowed us to meet our members where they are. All CLE and membership offerings have been virtual, making it easier than ever for lawyers in remote parts of the state to access the opportunities NCAJ has to offer.

In addition, NCAJ has overhauled our internal operations, created policies and procedures that never existed, reorganized our financial accounting methods and oversight, and reconfigured our various corporate entities to prepare for the future. These changes will strengthen accountability for our leaders and staff for many years to come.

As we go forward, we have even more to look forward to. Pursuant to our Strategic Plan, NCAJ’s new website will be launched this summer. We have launched a new Advocacy Strategic Plan, and we are moving into a new home for NCAJ, one designed with the new worldview of technology and virtuality in mind.

Over the past year our Special Events Committee has also spent a tremendous amount of time re-envisioning what our Annual Convention and Mountain Magic events could look like. New events in new locations will be the future of this organization. The times are a-changing.

New Partnerships Formed

The pandemic has also encouraged us to reevaluate the relationships that we have with other legal groups in the state. In March of last year, Kim Crouch took the unprecedented step of inviting the N.C. State Bar, the N.C. Bar Association and the North Carolina Association of Defense Lawyers to participate with NCAJ in quarterly meetings to discuss a joint COVID-19 response. We have thus far collaborated on topics such as professionalism, reopening of the courts, vaccination priorities for lawyers and court personnel, joint CLEs and presentations, and more. In a first, NCAJ and the NCADA jointly hosted events featuring Chief Justice Beasley and most recently Chief Justice Newby.

At the same time, NCAJ has worked to strengthen our relationships with our national affiliates, the American Association for Justice and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. More work will continue to improve information flow and support between these affinity groups. With all the change going on around us in the world, however, one thing has held constant — our amazing NCAJ professional staff. In fact, the pandemic has very clearly shined the brightest of spotlights on how truly lucky we are. As president, one of the responsibilities and privileges I have in serving is attending all section and committee meetings, strategic planning meetings, rapid response advocacy and legislative meetings, weekly executive director/president/president-elect meetings and many, many more. I am continually impressed and humbled by the dedication and passion of our staff. Unfailingly, they are mindful of our organizational mission, and they consistently push toward that goal with absolute conviction. And when the cards are down and tough decisions have to be made, they pull together and deliver as they are asked. Quite simply, they are rock stars. They have our collective trial lawyer backs as we work to protect the rights of our clients.

And so, as my presidency comes to an end, I think it is important to remind ourselves of the silver linings that have come to us during the last year: new relationships and friendships, greater leveraged technology, more professionalism and increased opportunities to get involved and make a difference in the world around us. We must recognize and acknowledge the negatives, embrace the positives and do everything we can, every day, to make the world a brighter place. And while much of the last year seems like a relative blur of what is real and what is not, I hope that we are able to find new human connections with one another moving forward. Whether those connections are real or virtual, the world continues moving forward, and we must meet those challenges and changing times.