Law schools are switching gears and going fully online this semester. Here's how it's impacting students and the future pipeline of lawyers.

Collin Binkley/AP PhotoThe John Harvard statue wears a medical mask. Harvard Law School was one of the most recent schools to announce a fully remote fall semester.

  • As many law schools are pulling u-turns on plans for in-person instruction in the fall – opting instead for either a hybrid or fully remote model – students are weighing whether they shoulddefer=”defer”until next year, or enroll as planned.
  • Learning styles, recruiting, and tuition are just some of the factors that students are grappling with.
  • Business Insider spoke with six students and two law school deans about how they’re thinking about the upcoming academic year amid the coronavirus pandemic.
  • “With law school, there’s a timeline, a structure… There’s a learning curve, and taking a break for a long period of time can hurt you,” said one student.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Leyland Reid wasn’t planning on deferring from law school. Like many of his fellow incoming classmates, he’d been looking forward to entering his first year at University of California Hastings and kick-starting his legal career, even if some classes would be online.

But as more law schools began to pull u-turns on plans for in-person instruction in the fall – including Hastings, which announced in July that they would be switching from a hybrid model to fully remote classes – Reid began to consider alternatives.

“It was a lot of back-and-forth mentally,” he said. Reid consulted acquaintances who were lawyers, scoured the Internet, and posted questions in forums. The overwhelming response: Defer if you can, because 1L is way too important.

The thoughts running through Reid’s mind reflect the anxiety and uncertainty felt by students nationwide, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend plans and job prospects. Georgetown University Law Centre and Harvard Law School were among the most recent schools to reverse plans for in-person instruction this fall.

Business Insider spoke with six law school students and two deans, who shared how they were thinking about the upcoming academic year.

The big question for 1Ls: Todefer=”defer”or not to defer?

Reid’s ultimate decision todefer=”defer”his enrollment for a year stemmed in part from his belief that his learning style and online classes are “like oil and water.”

Like many students, he thinks he performs better in a physical classroom, with fewer distractions and more natural interactions with classmates and professors. Reid also has a stutter, which tends to worsen when speaking over video chats.

The first year at law school is typically considered the most crucial since it’s those grades that count when students recruit for summer associate programs at the beginning of 2L – positions that almost always end with full-time offers post-graduation.

However, according to both Jennifer Mnookin, dean of UCLA School of Law, and Stacie Stewart, dean of Brigham Young University’s Law School, the deferral rate this year is about the same as last year’s.

Two other incoming first-years said they would stick with enrolling this semester. For Justine Chang, her decision boiled down to time.

“I’d already delayed law school for four years,” she explained. “There’s a time crunch. Deferring wasn’t really an option for me.”

Aashi Patel said that Hastings’ decision to go fully remote actually helped her choose to enroll. Both her parents have pre-existing health conditions, and in-person classes would have placed them at higher risk.

UCLA’s Mnookin also guessed that the lack of deferrals despite online instruction could be because people tend to see pursuing higher education as a way to advance their career in a time of disruption in the job market.

2Ls’ concerns over timing and recruiting

Upperclassmen also grappled with the possibility of taking a gap year, but the vast majority – already in the thick of their legal education – are returning.

“It’s not like in undergrad, where it’s easier to take a semester of year off during the middle of college,” said Waen Vejjajiva, who’s starting her second year at UC Berkeley Law. “With law school, there’s a timeline, a structure… There’s a learning curve, and taking a break for a long period of time can hurt you.”

Recruiting is another huge concern. Typically, if you land a summer associateship before your 2L year begins, that more or less means you’ve secured full-time employment upon graduation.

In New York, recruiting was originally scheduled to take place on July 29-31, Saaket Pradhan, a rising 2L at Columbia Law School, told Business Insider. Firms typically rent out a swanky hotel, with big law firms commandeering a suite each and handing out free swag. Afterward, callback interviews and a series of in-person final round interviews, known as a superday, would take place throughout August.

This year, however, many law schools have pushed their 2L recruiting events to January or February next year due to health concerns. And, they will likely be virtual.


Read more:
Top law firms are delaying their first-year associate classes. Here are 3 ways law school graduates can stay on top of their game in the meantime.

The postponement also places more emphasis on second-year fall semester grades, which employers normally wouldn’t consider, since recruiting takes place before the academic year begins. While most law schools switched to a pass-fail grading system in the spring, many are returning to a regular grading scale this year.

This stirs uncertainty over how much 2L grades will be weighed against first-semester fall grades.

“When you go back to a regular grading scale, you no longer have that safety net,” said Pradhan. “And you go back to having that competitive curve. There are just a lot of unknowns about recruiting this year.”

UCLA’s Dean Mnookin, however, thinks there’s a silver lining in the delay in recruiting.

Since the 1L curriculum typically consists of all required classes, students don’t have a chance to take electives until their second year, she explained. Now that students will have another semester to explore their interests, they can make more thoughtful decisions about where they seek employment in the spring.

It also means that there may be more employment opportunities for students. “Attorneys don’t need to eat up billable time to fly to Utah,” added Stewart of BYU, whose on-campus recruiting was changed from in-person this summer to a virtual event early next year.

Virtual limitations of remote learning

With many schools going fully virtual, 1Ls might have a harder time building relationships with upperclassmen and professors, which many students said they found invaluable.

But schools are working hard to counteract these virtual limitations. “We don’t have the luxury of counting on serendipity and casual engagement,” said Mnookin, explaining that UCLA is implementing mentorship programs and networking opportunities specifically for 1Ls.

Another concern is how the lively, in-person discussions driven by the notorious Socratic method of teaching can be translated online.


Read more:
We’re tracking which top law firms are delaying their first-year associate classes. Here’s what you need to know about new start dates, pay, and benefits so far.

“Professors will walk around the classroom, writing things on the chalkboard, calling out students in the classroom,” described Pradhan, who’s decided to return to campus this fall. Columbia is implementing a hybrid model in the upcoming semester.

“It’s difficult to translate that excitement on the screen, where people are less likely to raise their hands to ask a question on Zoom, and professors can’t draw diagrams and flowcharts on the board,” he said.

Money, money, money: The conversation about tuitions

Paying full tuition for an online, “skeletonized version of the curriculum” didn’t make much sense to Reid, and is something many students are uneasy about.

Sunyoung Hwang, a rising 3L at Harvard Law School, said that some of her classmates are deferring their last year because of this. At the same time, she knows others who are forging ahead to complete their degree for financial reasons as well.

“It cuts both ways,” said Hwang.

At Columbia, Pradhan said that the student senate committee, which he’s part of, is trying to get health and facility fees reduced, as it doesn’t make sense for students to pay for things they likely won’t be able to use. The committee is still undergoing discussions with the school.

Columbia is also giving every student a $US1,500 tech stipend for remote-learning essentials like a laptop or WiFi router, and an extra $US1,500 for those on financial aid, according to dean Gillian Lester in a statement.

Preparing for the year to come

Whether they have opted todefer=”defer”or not, law students said they’re using their time to try to best position themselves for school – and for future employment down the road.

Reid said he’ll continue working at his full-time job at a housing non-profit, while doing research and legal reading on the side. He’d already submitted his resignation letter, but was luckily able to reverse that and stay for another year.

Even though the more clerical work he does at the non-profit isn’t specifically law-related, Reid believes the attention to detail and investigative skills needed at the job will serve him well as a future lawyer.

Chang, who just began orientation at UC Hastings this week, said she spent her summer as productively as possible, networking, seeking out mentors, and doing a lot of reading and research.

“I didn’t take it as my legal education starting the first day of classes,” she said. “As soon as I knew I was going to make this decision, I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to learn everything I can in advance of that.”

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