Since I joined the Law School Admission Council, based in Newton, Pennsylvania, three years ago as its president and CEO, I’ve been able to champion the importance of law and legal education in building a more just and prosperous world. Now, as we all grapple with the realities of COVID-19 and its effects on our society, the role of lawyers and leaders is more critical than ever. This crisis underscores how vital it is that we continue our work of expanding and diversifying the legal education pipeline and the profession. We are going to need lawyers, policymakers, and advocates from all walks of life as we emerge from, respond to, and rebuild society from COVID-19’s enormous impact.
Four years ago, when I was still a law school professor and dean, I had the honor of serving as the president of the Association of American Law Schools. In my annual meeting address, I said that law is like the air we breathe: We need it to survive, but we often only notice it when it’s not there. For too long, many people in our society have narrowly viewed the legal system as a means to resolve conflicts rather than a comprehensive framework for helping human beings flourish. And much of the public still views law as either a shield that protects the privileged or a sword that cuts down the less fortunate—or both. Throughout my career, I’ve worked to promote a fuller appreciation of the law and the societal benefits of having a diverse, inclusive, and fair legal system.
Our legal health and our physical health are entwined. The effects of COVID-19 on our daily lives grow more noticeable by the day. Schools and businesses are shuttered; tens of millions of Americans are either unemployed or getting used to working from home; and increasing numbers of our fellow citizens, some of them our friends and family members, are falling ill or losing their battle with the virus.
How, then, does law fit into this equation? Although this virus is deeply personal, it’s also having indelible systemic and structural effects. For example, early statistics seem to indicate that Americans of color are at a much higher risk of dying from COVID-19, likely because those groups are less able to access quality health care than white Americans. As COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and treatment become larger parts of our daily lives, who will fight for these underrepresented citizens to ensure they get the care they need? Who will help balance privacy concerns with public health risks for everyone, but especially for groups we know are often the target of policing?
Then there’s our elections system, which likely will need to evolve in the face of this pandemic. The April election in Wisconsin demonstrated that voters were forced to choose between risking their health and giving up their right to vote. The rule of law is essential to making sure future voters aren’t put in the same situation and can vote safely and securely. Our democracy depends upon the rule of law, and nowhere is that more evident than when it comes to voting rights.
Finally, as some Americans push for a lifting of quarantine orders and a “reopening” of our economy, new legal questions emerge. For example: Suppose a business reopens earlier than public health officials advise, and an employee subsequently falls ill with COVID-19 while on the job. Who should be held responsible? The legal system will have to decide. How do we balance the need for fast action for new tests and vaccines with protection of the public—and again, especially groups that we know have often borne the brunt of risky scientific experiments?
This is a challenging time for all of us, and there will be new problems to solve as we emerge from this pandemic. But one constant is the fact that the rule of law is the foundation of our changing society. As we overcome the many obstacles we’ll encounter in the months ahead, our legal system—and the dedicated, hard-working lawyers and legal professionals who serve in it—will be there to help us flourish once again.