Law school clinics and programs across the country, including New York’s Fordham University School of Law and Cornell Law School, have pivoted in recent weeks to focus on legal matters involving COVID-19—even as their own operations have transformed from in-person to online formats.
Their efforts involve advocating to protect the health of prison inmates and immigrant families in detention, executing wills remotely, helping small businesses buffeted by the crisis and much more.
“No matter what your subject matter is, there are COVID-related issues, so you don’t need to start a COVID clinic,” said Michael W. Martin, the director of clinics at Fordham Law. “In many ways, the COVID issues will come to you regardless of what you’re doing because it’s affecting society on such a plenary level.”
Here’s a sampling of how New York law school clinics and students are pitching in.
Fordham University School of Law
As coronavirus became a serious threat in U.S., Fordham’s Federal Litigation Clinic sprang into action. The three professors and 12 students in the clinic immediately began reaching out to clients in prison, as well as their families, to determine whether they have any underlying conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the COVID-19. That work has been made all the more difficult as prisons have closed to all visitors, including lawyers, and prisoners have had increasingly less access to phone calls, said clinic director Michael W. Martin.
“COVID, in and of itself, has not been deemed worthy of emptying the prisons,” Martin said in an interview Thursday. “You are going to need COVID-plus, which goes to increased susceptibility for a particular person, or the circumstances are such that the person is so close to release that we should consider releasing they early.”
Since then, the clinic—like other federal litigation clinics—has been petitioning for bail, compassionate release, or early release for at-risk clients. Part of that work involves reaching out to prosecutors to determine whether or not they will oppose those measures. The clinic has enjoyed some early success in those efforts.
“There is no question that our students are engaged in this topic,” Martin said. “They are trying to get people out of prison and they feel like life and death is at stake.”
Cornell Law School
Cornell law school’s clinics are tackling myriad legal aspects of the coronavirus outbreak, from helping business owners and advocating for the release of immigrant families held in detention.
The work of the school’s Estate Planning Practicum is especially timely, given the mounting death toll of COVID-19. The practicum’s three adjunct professors and students scrambled to create a system to execute wills remotely for low-income clients in Tompkins County, where Cornell is located. Not only can clients not come in person to the clinic, but the professors and students are now scattered across the country with the university shut down.
“They could have said, ‘Sorry, we can’t finish your will and we’ll call you when this is all over,’” said Beth Lyon, the school’s clinical director. “But they know that having a will is especially important at a time like this, so the faculty, students and community partners are bending over backward to get this done. As lawyers and lawyers in training, we have a privilege and a special responsibility to extend our efforts to mitigate inequality as this crisis unfolds.”