Law school deans discuss the pandemic’s impact on learning, community, and 2020-21

May 1, 2020Latest News

In the “wink of an eye” this spring, law schools around the country completely transformed the way they operate. They had to rapidly train faculty to teach online; support staff in adapting to work at home; assist students with urgent needs not only related to learning online but also travel, housing, access to food and health care; quickly adjust budgets and plans in the face of a massive economic downturn; and much more.

In Episode Three of Coping with COVID — a video and podcast series jointly produced by the Bolch Judicial Institute and the American Law Institute and hosted by David F. Levi — six deans from top law schools spoke about the changes they’ve made and what they expect for the summer and year to come. Joining Levi in the discussion were:

  • Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law at Duke University
  • Vikram Amar, the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law
  • Heather Gerken, the Dean and Sol & Lillian Goldman Professor of Law at Yale Law School
  • John Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School
  • Jenny S. Martinez, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School
  • Jennifer Mnookin, the Dean and David G. Price and Dallas P. Price Professor of Law at UCLA Law

Watch the video    Listen to the podcast

The deans agreed that faculty and students rose to the challenge of a quick shift to online learning. Faculty learned new software and adapted their courses to digital platforms; students found ways to connect and support each other online; and courses, exams, and even social activities proceeded remarkably well in a new Zoom world.

“For a lot of our students, class became the social highlight of their day,” said Abrams. “So our students were quite anxious about class ending — not just because of exams but because that tie to each other in a structured environment would be gone suddenly.” Abrams said that once classes ended for the semester in late April, many Duke faculty began hosting Zoom sessions on everything from how to make biscuits to doing the New York Times crossword puzzle together to continue provide that sense of community and connection.

The experience of remote teaching has been interesting for professors, many deans agreed. Manning said a number of Harvard professors began to use polling and chat features to deepen student engagement and thought differently and perhaps more intentionally about the structure of a lecture to ensure that the content and discussion were coherent in the digital platform.

The pandemic hit at the height of the law school admissions season, when students who’ve been accepted to begin law school in the fall are making final decisions about where to attend. In lieu of traditional campus visits this spring, the deans said their schools’ admissions offices are facilitating Zoom calls between admitted students and current students, producing Instagram tours and other videos to showcase campuses, and connecting faculty and students for personal conversations. “I think it is going to be different looking forward to next year and an admissions cycle where travel will be impacted for a while,” Martinez said.

The deans also discussed the financial impact of the pandemic on universities and law schools; planning for the 2020-21 academic year; students’ job prospects for summer and beyond; and the things they’ve learned that will benefit law schools in the future — as uncertain as that future may be.

“I think we can make it work,” Mnookin said. “All of the creativity we’ve been hearing about and all of the learning of this past month we can put [toward doing] what we have to do. What is challenging as an academic leader right now is it feels like we’re operating on six pathways at once. We’re imagining such a substantial range of possibilities, and yet trying to imagine them thoroughly and thoughtfully and in creative ways. And, of course, we’re not in control of it. But this spring does show us that we will be able to do it and to give our students a strong education even if that which has to happen is not at all what we hope would happen.”