This year’s law graduates won’t have to worry about tripping on their gowns as they get their  diplomas or mugging for the camera as they shake the dean’s hand.

Law schools have been forced to ditch the in-person pomp and circumstance routine, with many holding “virtual” affairs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first digital ceremonies are slated to begin this weekend and will continue through mid-June as new lawyers wrap up their studies and launch their careers at an unprecedented time. Many law schools have said they plan to hold an in-person celebration at a later date, but, for now, ceremonies will be online.

“We saw this as both a challenge and an opportunity,” said Michael Patullo, assistant dean for communications and faculty affairs at Columbia Law School. “It’s a challenge in the sense that the format of what we’re used to—caps, gown and walking across the stage—wasn’t going to be possible. But it’s an opportunity to adapt what was already going to be a fantastic ceremony to a new format.”

Law school commencements typically draw a few marquee legal names each year—usually one or two U.S. Supreme Court justices each year addresses law graduates, as do high-profile government attorneys, general counsel of major companies, well-known public interest lawyers, and judges.

It’s unclear whether this year’s virtual ceremonies will draw the usual amount of legal star power, since many schools haven’t offered many details about their events. But a handful of schools have unveiled big names as keynote speakers.

Former Vice President and presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is slated to address Columbia graduates at its May virtual commencement. Patullo said that Biden had committed to speaking in-person at the law school’s ceremony shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States and was amenable to switching to prerecorded comments. All of the 30- to 40-minute ceremony will be prerecorded and posted to the school’s YouTube channel, Patullo said, though some other schools are making their virtual commencements live. Columbia is not reading off graduate names during its ceremony, but there will be plenty of surprises in store for them, Patullo added.

“They will come in different forms, not just video, and we think it will make the occasion maybe even more special for the graduates and their family than in the typical year,” he said.

Harvard Law School announced this week that Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, will deliver commencement remarks to Harvard Law graduates May 28. Stevenson is the author of the best-selling book Just Mercy, which was recently made into a feature film.

And former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will deliver the keynote address during the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law’s virtual ceremony May 15.

It looks as though many virtual graduations will feature the standard remarks from deans, faculty and student speakers. But some law schools are getting creative with the new format. The University of Wisconsin Law School, for instance, is letting students customize a “slide” that will appear during the ceremony with a photo of their choice and a personal message. The slides will appear during the “roll call” of each graduate’s name.

George Washington University Law School plans to create a “virtual student yearbook” and has asked graduates to share a photo, a quote, their favorite memory from law school, and any messages of gratitude to family, friends and teachers. The yearbook is in addition to an online diploma ceremony May 17.

The University of Michigan Law School was to hold its graduation ceremony—which it calls Senior Day—on May 8. Instead, the school is using the day to pay tribute the graduates on a special website and on social media sites.

Despite the effort by law schools to make graduation special amid the coronavirus outbreak, uncertainty surrounding the bar exam and entry-level law job market, it won’t be the commencement experience 3Ls had initially pictured.

Zach Faircloth, who is graduating from Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, said in late March that he’s sad about the cancellation of an in-person ceremony, but that it’s the right thing under the circumstances.

“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,” he said.


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