What Incoming First-Year Law Students Should Know Amid COVID-19

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is posing challenges across the board for law schools, but student affairs professionals are dealing with particular challenges as they communicate with incoming first-year students. To gain some insight into what these students should know as we approach an uncertain fall semester, I recently hosted a webinar with three student affairs professionals: Stephanie Carlos, assistant dean for student affairs at University of San Francisco School of Law; Bayrex Martí, assistant dean for student affairs at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law; and Ethan Rosenzweig, associate dean for enrollment management and student services at Emory University School of Law.

At the beginning of our session, the panelists commented on recent events surrounding George Floyd’s death and protests of police brutality and systemic racism in America. They agreed that it’s important in this time to connect students with resources for self-care and activism, to help them use the energy of this moment to effect positive change, and to work with student governments and recent graduates on what they can do to move things forward — for example, by working with protesters who have been arrested or seen their rights violated. As Carlos noted, “Many of us are not okay, and that means many of our students are not okay.” Having a mirror held up to our shortcomings, and to the pain that our institutions may have caused, is difficult, she added, but also a great opportunity for growth and change.

We then delved into our topic discussion. Below is a recap of the issues we addressed.

Do schools have an idea of how the fall semester will unfold?
Our panelists said their schools are planning for a number of possibilities, but the goal for all of them is to have some sort of on-campus learning. That said, some other classes will be completely online, while some will be a hybrid between in-person and online. As Rosenzweig put it, schools must ensure the fundamental interactivity that a legal education is supposed to provide, and the education must meet a high standard, both for each individual school and for the American Bar Association. Of course, health and safety, both for students and for a school’s faculty and staff, will be a priority.

What should admission professionals be discussing with candidates and existing students right now?
Our panelists said these professionals should collaborate with their student affairs colleagues to get an idea of what is on candidates’ minds so that they can have honest conversations with them. Once schools have an idea of what the campus experience will be like in the fall, they should share this information with students and emphasize that the experience will be valuable and rewarding. Admission professionals should put themselves in the students’ shoes — especially in the case of 1L students, who have no idea what law school is going to be like — and try to understand these students’ motivations for the questions they’re asking. Financial concerns, especially related to housing, are likely to play a large role for many of these students.

How are you navigating planning for a potentially online fall semester, given the ABA’s limitations on online classes?
Schools are awaiting guidance and decisions from the ABA, but also from state bars, which have their own requirements. As Martí said, schools are hoping for flexibility and realistic standards, given the unprecedented nature of this pandemic. Interactivity is critical, particularly for 1L students, and the challenge will be to deliver a class that is both sufficiently interactive and safe for students and staff. Health and safety mandates from local governments will force many of these decisions.

How will students who do come to campus for live classes be kept safe?
Plans vary by school, but Rosenzweig said his school is focusing on contact tracing —monitoring students who had contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19 — and requiring face masks. Emory also plans to ask students to affirm a pledge of best practices, such as wearing masks, physically distancing, and staying home if they are sick. The panelists also said that it’s important to have a process in place ahead of time to deal with a student who refuses to wear a mask or take other precautions because of their political ideology or beliefs. The school’s legal counsel would have to be involved in crafting such a process, and the process would have to be clearly communicated to students in advance.

How is the pandemic changing your plans for orientation?
Carlos said USF typically has a comprehensive weeklong orientation, and that it simply isn’t reasonable to expect students to sit for a week of Zoom sessions. It’s likely that this year’s orientation will be broken up into more manageable pieces and started sooner. The bigger issue with orientation is how to create community, and schools will have to be very intentional in doing so, since they won’t be able to assume that students will meet in the hallways or at mixers. Additionally, students who don’t show up at in-person orientation can provide a gauge of how much last-minute “melt” will occur. (Melt occurs when students commit to attending a particular institution, but then, over the course of the summer, decide against attending that institution in favor of a different one.) Rosenzweig said schools will have to set up tracking mechanisms and follow up with students to get a better idea of melt from online orientation.

In closing, our panelists emphasized the importance of partnering with other departments within their law schools to make expectations clear for students who will be learning virtually. It’s also critically important, in this moment in our country’s history, to think about how to start conversations about diversity and inclusion in an era of online learning.

My sincere thanks to these panelists for participating in this engaging session. We’ll continue to host webinars all summer as we tackle this unprecedented pandemic in partnership with our member law schools and candidates.

 

Member law schools and prelaw advisors may view the full webinar at the member log-in site.

About Gisele Joachim

Director of LSAC Ambassadors
Prior to joining the Ambassadors team at LSAC, Gisele Joachim was the dean of enrollment management at Seton Hall University School of Law.