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It was Tuesday, March 10, 2020. I’d just returned home from a class at the University of Cincinnati Law School when my phone chirped out an alert around 5:00 p.m. An email update from the provost and a follow-up from the law school stated, “Effective Saturday, March 14, 2020 UC will suspend face-to-face instruction.” After an extended spring break—an attempt to give professors as much time to convert to remote instruction as possible—we embarked together on a journey as a law school. Classes became Zoom meetings, lectures became “watch at your convenience,” going outside became a health hazard, and the world around us collectively seemed to hit pause.
Pandemic: Undertaking Challenges
Though professors at every institution did their valiant best to keep calm and carry on, the challenges of converting the law school experience into a comparable online learning environment became clear. Most, if not all, law schools nationwide converted their grading scales to account for the strange times. Cincinnati moved to a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grading scale—an unprecedented step. Final exams for the spring 2020 semester were completed from home; many were open book and without time limits. As students, we did our best to simply get across the goal line in one piece.
Summer was hit or miss for many of us. Some of my colleagues worked fairly normal summers for corporate firms, primarily from home. Some of my colleagues lost their internships in May and scraped together what legal experience they could, while others risked exposure to the virus in retail or food service jobs. Many of my rising 3L colleagues had limited legal licenses and hoped to argue their first motions or perform their first cross-examinations—but instead spent the summer writing and researching from home. And still others decided to defer a year of law school in order to avoid further online learning.
For the foreseeable future, young attorneys in both Ohio and the nation are going to graduate having completed some portion of their education in a learning environment impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The class of 2020 faced a delayed and altered Ohio bar exam, and the classes of 2021, 2022, and 2023 will eventually graduate having completed at least one entire year of law school in an online or hybrid format. It is not overdramatic to infer that the law learning community will be impacted by these changes for the next four or five years.
Pandemic: Learning Lessons
But, similar to the rest of the world, we have learned a few valuable lessons from the pandemic. Along with my peers in institutions around Ohio, I’m both excited and anxious to enter a legal profession that has been altered by the circumstances of 2020. Likewise, the legal community is waiting to see how we stack up as employees when we make our way out of our unusual law school experiences. Below are some of the lessons we’ve learned so far when it comes to entering the job market.
First, it will be essential for employers to provide us the opportunity to paint a complete picture of our journey through law school in a pandemic. Now, more than ever, understanding an applicant’s entire context is the only avenue toward an equitable hiring practice. Law students are a diverse group and, as we’ve seen, the effects of the pandemic have been anything but egalitarian. An examination of transcripts gives a partial picture but doesn’t examine the context of at-home law school, and there are a great number of students and graduates who will make fabulous attorneys despite the many challenges that stood between them and a more prestigious law school record. These challenges include things like childcare; caring for elderly parents; sacrificing safety to work to make ends meet; and contracting, surviving, and living with the repercussions of the coronavirus. The impact of COVID-19 has been grossly inequitable, and failure to grasp a student’s or graduate’s entire context could risk overlooking some quality employees.
Second, many professionals around the world have experienced the elimination of the work-life boundaries essential to maintaining a healthy career and healthy home life, and law school students have fallen victim to the same dynamic. The very nature of at-home law school leaves a balanced model in the dust. There is constant work to be done, and, through some magic, the elimination of commutes and most social gatherings has resulted in bloated study hours and an endless need to be “on.” Given these difficult circumstances, employers would be wise to consider the lure of a true work-life balance when bringing on new team members. Young or old, all lawyers will need a little help recovering from this experience.
Third, employers should utilize our unique experience to their benefit. The four graduating classes of 2020–2023 will include the only law school graduates in the last few decades with a high-level of knowledge of online engagement and digital relationship maintenance. Put us to work exploring new digital tools that might save your practice money or time. Allow us to bring in our expertise—in Microsoft Teams, in Cisco’s Webex, in Zoom, and in Google Meet—and create a legal community that is savvier, abler, and more efficient. Let us put all this knowledge to good use for you and for our future clients.
And finally, please know that we hate electronic interviews about as much as everyone else. Setting aside the dilemma of whether to wear sweatpants with a nice top, the entire process is exhausting and prone to technological hardship—be it internet woes or microphone unmuting and muting. We will do our best, but as we’ve learned in the world of at-home legal education, a little grace goes a long way.
Truly, the entire theme of this article could be summed up in that one concept: grace. Whether it be the hiring and recruitment practices of the legal community or the way in which we communicate with colleagues whom we rarely see these days, we could all use a little extra grace right now. In fact, the very excellence of our future legal community may just depend on it.
Wynn Horton is a 3L at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Law and president of the UC Law Student Bar Association.
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