As written By Ron Cichowicz in the ACBA Lawyers Journal on January 29, 2021
The Hon. Thomas Agresti and the panel discussed the CARES Act and its impact on bankruptcy cases during the 33rd Annual Bankruptcy Symposium’s afternoon breakout session “How COVID-19 Changed the Landscape of Bankruptcy Practice” last month on Dec. 11.
Faced with the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ACBA Bankruptcy and Commercial Law Section opted to offer its 33rd Annual Western District of Pennsylvania Symposium as a virtual program in 2020, with no benchmark to predict how well it would be received. Understandable, then, that the program committee, led by Abagale Steidl, an attorney with Steidl & Steinberg who serves as Vice-Chair of the Section and Chair of the Symposium, would begin its planning with a little trepidation.
In hindsight, any challenges, along with any trepidation, were overcome with energy and hard work on the part of Symposium volunteers producing results for the December 11 event that were, in the words of Section Chair Alan Patterson of Gross & Patterson, LLC, “over the top.”
“It was absolutely unexpected we would be able to pull this off without any major snafus,” Patterson said. “Yet, except for a couple of smaller issues, the Symposium went off without a hitch. The Symposium had the support and participation of all four judges from the Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of PA, as well as judges from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of PA, Bankruptcy Courts for the Eastern and Middle Districts of PA, the Southern District of Ohio and the District of New Jersey.”
“Our sponsors came through in a big way. And everything we heard from attendees showed that considering we had no choice but to go virtual, they loved the content and the format.” Using the OpenWater virtual conference software, the committee was able to offer its approximately 164 participants the expected high-quality programming and up to six CLE credits, including five substantive and one ethics.
“The folks at OpenWater were great to work with,” Steidl said, “and they provided a tech person in case any issues came up. We had 87 panelists and they were well received. They all kept their presentations conversational, they kept a nice focus and participants could type questions and get real-time answers.” Steidl noted that participants can access recordings of the panel discussions over the next year at the ACBA Online CLE Center at cle.acba.org.
The committee also built in social time in the morning, at lunch and afterward at a happy hour. “We were surprised that some participated from beginning to end,” Patterson said. “About 30 or 40 people stayed on and had a good time.” Steidl noted that because the Bankruptcy Symposium was the first ACBA event offering 6 CLEs that was held virtually, how well it was conducted potentially would impact other offerings during the pandemic and possibly beyond.
The Bankruptcy Symposium is usually the ACBA’s second biggest annual event in terms of attendance behind only the BenchBar Conference, which was cancelled in 2020 in response to virus concerns. “We learned a number of lessons from this experience,” she said. “The first is to start earlier for everything. We had a playbook and we stuck to a schedule. I also learned that even if you are going virtual you can’t have a moving deadline. For example, people who need to submit materials must do so on time.”
And, while Steidl admitted that it is natural to worry that something will go wrong when working with a new format, the Symposium went “shockingly well.” “We didn’t receive a single piece of negative feedback,” she said. “That’s because the people at the bar association were fantastic. It’s good to have friends. Without Alan and Keri Ebeck (past section chair), we wouldn’t have had the level of sponsorships we did. Everyone on the committee worked extremely hard. I’m just so incredibly grateful it went so well and am grateful for the support of everyone who made it so.”
Patterson agreed, adding, “From a virtual perspective, the Symposium wasn’t quite the same. For example, judges from outside the region couldn’t be here in person to socialize, but the virtual nature of the event allowed people from across the state and even out of state to attend for the first time. Everyone who participated was impressed with how well we pulled it off. It can serve as a blueprint for the future.
“But for a herculean effort by all parties involved, this couldn’t have worked. One thing about the Western District of Pennsylvania Bankruptcy Bar, they are a friendly group and always willing to lend a hand. Outside of the courtroom everyone, including judges, court staff, the Trustees’ office, the debtors’ attorneys and creditors’ attorneys, gets along.”