Third-year law students should be coasting toward graduation at this point in the academic year.
Instead, the current crop of 3Ls are trying to figure out how to navigate classes that were abruptly shifted online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; wondering what will become of the jobs they have lined up, or how they will find jobs if the outbreak persists for months; and fretting about the fate of the July bar exam. That’s on top of the stressors that everyone is feeling over their health and financial security.
In short, this is not how third-years expected to wrap up their law school careers. Many law schools have already told students they won’t be back this semester, and have canceled or postponed commencements. Law.com caught up with three third-year students to find out how they are coping with all the changes and what is keeping them up at night.
Molly Coleman, Harvard Law School
Molly Coleman spent last Thursday packing up her apartment in preparation for the next day’s long drive back to her hometown in Minnesota, where she will spend her final weeks as a Harvard law student.
Instead of looking forward to the Barrister’s Ball or wondering what big name the law school would secure as a graduation speaker, Coleman—like third-year law students across the country—was contemplating what the coming weeks and months would bring and mourning the abrupt end to law school life as she knew it.
“There are so many end of year rituals we expected that won’t happen,” she said. “For a lot of 3Ls, we were finally taking the classes we had been waiting to take all of law school. Those are going to look really different now, and people don’t have the same ability to focus on them. There are all the big, structural things. But for me, I’m also just kind of bummed. I think that’s something people, are grappling with too in the midst of all of this.”
Coleman knows she is among the lucky ones. She has a safe, stable home to return to and reliable Internet access that will allow her to finish out her classes online, which a situation much different from classmates who were abruptly kicked out of their university housing and international students ordered to return to their home countries. And she knows that canceling in-person campus activities is the right thing to do amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But that doesn’t make the transition or the uncertainly much easier.
“The nature of this crisis is that it’s so day-by-day,” she said. “Every single day has brought something new.”
She’s disappointed in the response from university and law school administrators to the pandemic, which she said has been piecemeal and at times counterproductive. The sudden evictions of those in university housing caused chaos and anxiety among students, she said, as did the law school’s adoption of a new grading scheme that enabled students to opt for pass/fail grades or stick with the traditional grading system. (The law school has since changed course and adopted a mandatory pass/fail system after students argued that forcing them to choose disadvantaged those experiencing the most upheaval.)
Coleman is also skeptical about the faculty’s ability to quickly move online and the effectiveness of online learning.
“Some of what law school about is having a rich discussion and being able to engage and tease out ideas and learn from your peers,” she said. “I think that’s going to be much harder to facilitate online. It’s not the learning experience that we all came here for. We all understand that had to happen. It’s nobody’s fault. But in terms of how the law school moves forward, we’re not getting the same caliber of education.”
Coleman said she and her classmates were mentally prepared to hole up at home through June and July in order to study for the bar exam, but starting that isolation several months ahead of schedule is weighing heavily.
“I just think everything feels a lot more daunting right now,” she said.
Zack Faircloth, Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law
Ask Zack Faircloth about what’s weighing most heavily on his mind right now, and there is no hesitation: The July bar exam.
After three years of law school, he and his fellow 3Ls are keenly aware that the upcoming attorney licensing test may not take place as usual. The National Conference of Bar Examiners said this week that it is working with jurisdictions on alternative plans, including postponing the test. Faircloth knows there’s little he can do but watch and wait.
“The unpredictability of it is the worse part for us,” he said. “I think that’s what giving us most of the anxiety right now, at least in my class. For the 2Ls and 1Ls, it’s a whole different set of unpredictable circumstances. They are unsure if their summer associateships and summer internships are going to work out as planned.”
For Faircloth, the bar exam feels like a gamble. He has registered to take the test in Washington D.C., while many classmates are taking it in Texas. It’s possible that Texas may move ahead with the exam while other jurisdictions don’t, potentially leaving him out of luck.
“I could have made the wrong choice,” said Faircloth, who is slated to clerk for a federal judge in Dallas next year—a job that gives him a little more breathing room should the bar exam be delayed.
He’s now taking classes online, like every other law student in the country, and the abrupt end of campus-based law school life has been jarring. On March 9, most SMU law students expected to be returning to campus after spring break the following week. By March 10, they seemed unsure. Moving online appeared likely by March 11, Faircloth noted. And then the following day—a Thursday—students got an email informing them that all law school activities were moving online. With spring break just a day away, that meant very few in-person classes were held when students knew it would be their last of the year.
“It was sort of surreal last Thursday to sit in on a class and think, ’After 20 years of school, this is my last class,’” he said.
But Faircloth said he’s optimistic about online legal education and the ability to recreate many campus activities in the virtual sphere. For instance, the law school is looking for ways that he can continue to mentor about 40 first- and second-year students online. And today’s law students are accustomed to staying connected through social media, though Faircloth said he has been making a point of picking up the phone at least once a day to call someone with whom he hasn’t spoken recently. Still, Faircloth knows some aspects of law school are impossible to recreate from behind a computer screen.
“I’ve thought about commencement. I’m sad about it,” he said. “We wish we could do it, but we understand that under the circumstances, it’s probably going to be too much to ask. It’s a little bizarre to know that I won’t be able to shake a professor’s hand at graduation and thank them for everything they’ve done for me.”
Farrah Bara, Duke Law School
Never has Farrah Bara been more grateful for the extensive trail system in Durham, North Carolina.
The third-year law student at Duke has been taking plenty of walks outside—an escape from the isolation of her apartment, which she shares with her two cats. She’s also doing more cooking amid her social distancing, and she has been watching the Netflix show Love is Blind—which came recommended through the 3L class’ group chat as good escapist entertainment. Talking about the show with classmates has provided a welcome opportunity for social interaction, she said.
But those distractions haven’t erased the sadness she feels about her law school years wrapping up amid a global pandemic and the stress about what is yet to come.
“Realizing that I had my last in-person class at the law school without knowing it was the last in-person class was really sad,” she said last week. “Law school has been a big part of my life. We knew that graduation was coming and that law school was coming to an end. But I never thought we would not be allowed back at school and see all our friends and professors. It was shocking. It was so sudden. And it happened over spring break.”
But Bara said students and faculty are attempting to make the best of the bad situation. Her online classes, delivered via the video conferencing app Zoom, have been mostly going well despite the occasional connectivity issue. And her professors are doing what they can to be available to students.
“Our professors are angels,” she said. “They are doing a phenomenal job of making us feel like things are as normal as they could be. They are encouraging us to do virtual office hours and talking about where we are and how we’re doing. That has been really nice.”
Staying at home for classes and to study has highlighted for Bara how important the small, daily campus interactions with classmates and professors in the library or in the hallways have been to her well-being and sense of social connections throughout law school. She has been using FaceTime to talk to friends, but it’s not the same as catching up in person, she said.
For now, Duke has said only that commencement is postponed instead of canceled outright. It’s a disappointing but necessary move, said Bara, who has a job lined up in Washington, D.C. For now, her primary concerns are the health and safety of her family, and the many unknowns that lay ahead concerning COVID-19 and its impacts.
“I’m most worried about things getting bad in ways we can’t imagine yet,” she said. “We just don’t know. In a few weeks, things could be back to semi-normal. But it could also be far worse than it now. That’s what’s worrying me most.”