Despite the significant amount of uncertainty the world continues to experience, not only are most law schools expecting enrollments to remain consistent this fall, but some, 26 percent to be exact, are even anticipating increased enrollments. There was also a one percent increase in applicants. Kaplan Test Prep executive director of legal programs Jeff Thomas says, “While this has arguably been the most unusual law school admissions cycle in decades, the stability, in terms of just the numbers, is remarkable.”
This may be partly because insiders have cautioned prospective law students against deferring applications, partly due to the expected stiffer competition next year.
The shift to online learning
With summer internships and summer associates programs canceled due to the pandemic, many aspiring lawyers found themselves without plans this summer. At least two law schools responded with an innovative approach: they launched their own online summer programs, aimed at helping students acquire the real-world skills they would have learned in their missed training opportunities.
National Association for Law Placement executive director James Leipold said of the solution, “Anything schools, employers or bar associations do to provide practical, hands-on active learning is great. Do they entirely replace a summer associate position or a summer internship with a federal government agency? No. But are they way better than nothing? Yes.”
These programs also incorporate legal training pertinent to the coronavirus in order to prepare participants for the transformed world they will be practicing in.
Meanwhile, different law schools have come up with different solutions for fall. While some will be fully remote, others will offer a mix of in-person and online coursework. Law schools acknowledge that creating a fulfilling law school experience is about more than teaching. Law school dean Song Richardson said, “We are hearing our 1Ls expressing a desire to see each other. If we can accommodate them and help build community that way, we’d like to try and do that.”
A panel of Duke Law administrators and faculty members also came together to address how the school would move forward. The discussion touched on everything from the paramount need for keeping community members connected during online learning to the pandemic’s impact on the admissions process.
Setting law students up for success
In today’s challenging academic landscape, law schools are doing what they can to help students succeed. Many adopted pass-fail grades with the move to online classes in March, which was met with mixed reviews from students. So while pass/fail grading may be maintained throughout COVID-19, most expect it will not remain after the pandemic subsides.
Additionally, Harvard Law School (HLS) recently announced it would offer its “Zero-L” course free to all law schools in the US, in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. Introduced in 2018 to ensure all students entering law school had foundational knowledge, Zero-L uses self-paced modules, which students can refer to throughout their first year. Zero-L faculty director and Harvard Law professor I. Glenn Cohen told The Harvard Crimson, “Knowing we had an excellent course with a demonstrated ability to help students start law school, making it freely available this year seemed like a small thing HLS could do for law students and law schools across the country to try to make fall 2020 just a little bit easier.”
On changing test and testing requirements
In response to COVID-19, the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) debuted a new online, remotely proctored version of the LSAT, the LSAT-Flex. Nearly 33,000 candidates took LSAT-Flex between May and July, and the LSAC has been focused on improving future LSAT-Flex administrations. LSAC president Kellye Testy says, “I think it has been going very well. We like to focus on the candidate perspective in this. I know it’s always hard to be first, and any time you’re first, there will be a few people who have issues. And we’re learning from that.”
Without the bar exam, meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Bar Association recently recommended recent law graduates be given “diploma privilege”. This would allow them to get licensed without taking the bar as long as certain conditions are met, including meeting all other requirements, and no previous bar exam failure.
Opportunities to address diversity and racism
The pandemic has heightened awareness of societal disparities, especially in terms of healthcare access for minority groups. The Law School Admissions Council recently joined forces with the Minority Network to host a webinar on strategies for addressing diversity issues during COVID-19 while simultaneously supporting the creation of subsequent generations of diverse law students and lawyers.
The Diverse Attorney Pipeline Program (DAPP), which is focused on rectifying the underrepresentation of women of color in the legal profession, has also stepped up to provide financial support of up to $5,000 to minority law students who lost their first-year internships as a result of the pandemic. DAPP called directly on law firms and businesses to contribute to the cause, dubbed the Displaced Student Stipend Fund. “This is not a time to give up on diversity and inclusion efforts; it’s a time to refocus our efforts on preparing the next generation of lawyers for the challenges they’ll face in a diverse, global marketplace,” says DAPP co-founder Chasity Boyce.
Meanwhile, there was heartening news on this front from the University of California, which reported its largest and most diverse first-year class ever admitted, with Latinos as the leading group of accepted prospective freshmen for the first time in history. In acknowledging this progress, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ called for ongoing efforts to support diversity on campuses. “Now, more than ever, we must not be complacent, and remain focused on building a campus community that truly represents the state we serve, and allows every student to experience a true sense of belonging,” she said.
One law school making noteworthy strides to address racial inequality is the USA’s George Washington (GW) Law, which unanimously passed a new antiracism resolution on Juneteenth holding itself and its faculty accountable for engaging in daily work to counter racism. Interim Dean Christopher A. Bracey said, "We cannot turn a blind eye to what is happening within our country, its impact upon our community members, or its connection to the multi-generational arc of justice that shaped our nation’s history. As lawyers, legal educators, scholars, and advocates, we have a duty to help eradicate racism in all its forms."
Building a pipeline of legal talent
Despite the pandemic, law firms in Australia are committed to maintaining their hiring plans through 2021 and likely into 2022. The goal is to ensure a strong pipeline of legal talent both during and after COVID-19. Most big firms state they will continue with recruitment plans for 2021 and many expect a similar amount of graduate hires for 2022.
What all law students should know
It’s nothing new for first-year law students to wonder what to expect as the school year approaches. These concerns may be heightened during the pandemic. An LSAC webinar brought together a panel of three student affairs professionals to discuss a range of topics relevant to incoming law students, such as possibilities for how the fall semester will unfold and how schools will keep students safe on campus.
While there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education, and law school, there’s also reason to be hopeful. Not only are many people and organizations working to ensure the best possible experiences for law students, but there may be no better time to enter the profession.
LSAC’s Kellye Testy concludes, “Lawyers are always at the table when important decisions are made in our society, and many of those decisions will be coming in the worlds of medicine and public policy in the months ahead. We need more smart, ethical, talented, and diverse people at that table.” Chief among them are today’s law students and graduates.