Tuesday, April 28, 2020
Has there ever been a U.S. law school class subject to more stress and uncertainty than the class of 2020? Okay, not every student across the country has suffered equally, but here in New York our students were told all of their classes would abruptly be online, that they would not get to see their classmates for the rest of the year, that their bar examination would be postponed indefinitely, that a bizarrely deadly disease racing across the state, that their bar examination would be rescheduled for September but that there was no guarantee there would be space for them to take it, that the economy was collapsing and some of the jobs they were counting on could disappear, and that they would probably get to take the exam in September if there were an exam in September but nobody can really tell them how it's going to work yet anyway. All of this in less than six weeks. Plus now they have to do all of their classes and meetings via Zoom, which fosters so much lack of eye contact and awkward silence it reminds me of a sixth-grade dance. No wonder our soon-to-be graduates are so weary.
Like a lot of us, I am weary, too, trying to be there for my 3L students, putting new resources in place, thinking ahead about how to contend with the changes to the bar exam. But when things slow down (later and later in the evening) and I have a moment to stop thinking about my bar prep class and the latest news from the Board of Law Examiners, that's when I think about next year, when maybe things will be "back to normal". And that's when I get really anxious.
Our current 3L students are stressed, but also super motivated. They were 92% of the way through law school when things went whack, and they are not about to let that last 8% stand in their way. Everyone with an interest in this summer's bar exam -- law schools, the state, employers -- wants to see these students get through the disruption and get into the workplace, and if that means relaxing some rules or changing some procedures well then so be it. Sure, it's going to be an unusual summer, but there's a potential for six additional weeks of prep time for the bar exam. It's possible that some students will be better prepared for the test. It's my job not to assume that, but it could happen.
The students I actually worry about -- when I can, because our imminent graduates require so much immediate attention -- are the current 2Ls. Many of them have seen their summer job or internship plans interrupted, and I know our careers services office is hearing from them about those issues. But I am barely hearing from them at all about academic concerns, and my attempts at general outreach have generated very little response. I do not doubt that most 2L students have simply made a successful transition to online classes -- a transition made easier in many schools by a move to mandatory pass/fail grading and by a general and humane understanding that this change has been fast and novel for all of us and that, considering the background stresses of illness, isolation, and finances, it is appropriate to give students a little slack.
But I also fear that there is a portion of the class of 2021 that is not handling the transition as well. There could be some -- hopefully a small number -- directly affected by this crisis, dealing with their own illness or that of a loved one, or with financial difficulties, any of which could in turn affect their performance in school. Others might just not be doing as well academically as they would be in a live classroom, with the opportunity to study with classmates every week. Those students just might not be getting everything they otherwise might have from their classes, even though they feel like they are making the same effort. And then there are sometimes a few students whose inclination is to do less work, when possible, and this is in many ways a situation in which that is possible.
All of these subsets of 2L students might learn, understand, and be able to correctly apply less of what they are learning in their spring classes now than they would have if the world had not shifted so radically. And we might not know it now, because it is so hard to make contact with them under these new conditions. What's worse, without thinking ahead about this, we may not even find out who these students are and where they have developed gaps (Evidence? Criminal Procedure? Wills and Trusts?) until the start of next year's spring semester, if they just get "Passes" in all their classes this semester. And by that time, I am sure we are all hoping, things will be "back to normal" -- classes back in the building, bar exam scheduled for ten weeks after graduation, employers expecting practice-ready students on August 1. They won't be the beneficiaries of relaxed procedures or of extra study time, or of any other kind of leeway.
So this is what I think about when I can. How can I reach people who seem perfectly comfortable not being reached at this moment? How can I, sooner rather than later, identify and help these students who might otherwise not manifest the effects of the spring of discontent until the glorious summer of 2021?
I think the fall of 2020 is going to be incredibly consequential to those students, and I think we need to be prepared for it.