Law Schools Adapt to Online Teaching During Coronavirus Outbreak

Typically risk-averse institutions, facing unprecedented challenges, are forced to adapt their LL.M. programs in profound ways

Law schools are often characterized as being bastions of tradition and resistant to change, but they are being forced to adapt to coronavirus in profound ways. 

In the short term, hundreds of law schools around the world are managing the disruption caused by the crisis by locking down campuses and moving teaching online to protect the health of students and staff. 

The coronavirus is quickening uptake among law schools, many of whom were slow to adapt to digital delivery of education pre-corona. They have scrambled to shift LL.M. classes online quickly.  

“The legal education landscape is rooted in traditions. Reform comes methodically and often slowly, but these unusual times are turning things upside down,” says Tammi Rice, vice president at Kaplan Bar Review. 

However, the virus has brought to a swift end many of the traditional advantages of law school, including the chance to develop a valuable network of personal and professional contacts on campus. What’s more, integral components of some LL.M. programs, such as legal clinics and study-abroad programs, have been postponed.  

Law schools have in turn received letters from upset students demanding tuition fee refunds or deferrals, while they are concerned about their job prospects following graduation after a degree that often carries a six-figure price-tag. 

“A few law students made the recent comment to me that ‘I did not pay my tuition for law school by Zoom’,” says Rice, citing the popular video conferencing system. “This is a big adjustment for both schools and students.” 

However, some institutions have refused to grant requests for fee reductions or deferrals, insisting that LL.M. candidates apply again for future academic years. Schools cite the sunk costs of teaching facilities and faculty, which can be high.    

Still, there is a sense this could be an acid test for online learning; a chance to prove skeptical teaching staff wrong. 

Law schools are adamant the corona crisis will lead to innovation in teaching methods that will leave a lasting impact on graduate education. However, the coronavirus is separating the online education leaders from the laggards, who may face financial difficulties if students cannot return to campus swiftly. 

Maintaining a sense of connection

Some law schools are racing to create digital learning environments that, in many ways, can mimic a physical classroom.

At Berkeley Law in California, for example, all teaching is being conducted via Zoom, which can host up to 300 students in a class. The system includes live visual images of participants, breakout discussion groups, and a written chat that runs parallel to the audio conversation. 

“I have received many messages from students praising their professors and expressing how much learning has continued uninterrupted,” says Berkeley Law’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky. 

“This new format is able to approximate the hallmark pedagogical experience of the traditional law school classroom, including group-based interactive problem-solving.”  

For students, the challenge is maintaining a sense of connection with classmates who may be in different time zones and countries. Virtual meetups are now commonplace in a discipline that is inherently collaborative.  

The specter of recession and unemployment is also a major concern for those graduating this summer. Law firm offices remain shut across the world; many courts have been suspended.  

“One has to wonder if students accepted for the fall semester will decide to defer enrolment until conditions fundamentally improve,” says Rice from Kaplan Bar Review. “Given the impact on the economy, some may delay for financial reasons.” 

She adds that many law firms have postponed the in-person recruiting season that typically occurs over the summer, reflecting concerns over safety but also the lack of hard data on which to judge students since many schools are now using a pass-fail grading system. 

Berkeley Law has adopted such a system, so as to protect students who may have been thrust into an unfamiliar online environment and are grappling with more tangible challenges caused by Covid-19. 

“Many in our community have been – or I fear will be – dislocated, or have unexpected family care responsibilities, or have health issues to deal with,” says Chemerinsky. 

“Also, the shift to distance learning has, understandably, caused anxiety. Changing all classes to Credit/No Credit will, hopefully, lessen stress at this difficult time, especially for those who are experiencing hardship.” 

Some uncertainty remains about bar exams and further disruption

Another concern for students is the bar exams that are a passport to practicing law in the US. Individual states run their own tests; many have indicated that they are willing to put on an extra exam in the fall, which would give students more time to prepare. An updated is expected soon, but with no firm dates in the diary, the uncertainty over the exam timetable has made it difficult for students to plan. 

Longer-term, law schools are bracing for logistical disruption and economic damage that could be substantial. Current travel curbs and potential immigration controls in the future could cut off higher fee-paying overseas lawyers, a vital talent pipeline for schools and law firms alike. 

Intakes are expected to be less diverse for the coming academic year, with financial implications for law schools. In the past two academic years a 10 percent fall in international enrolment at US universities overall cost the US economy an estimated $5.5bn. 

Law schools are, as a result, extending application deadlines to try to bolster their applications. NYU Law has lengthened its LL.M. application deadline to June 1, 2020, for US JDs only. UCL in London has extended scholarship applications until May 15, but not applications for its LL.M. 

Admissions requirements remain largely unchanged, since LL.M. programs do not usually require the LSAT or GRE admissions tests and instead rely more on work experience to assess applicants. 

Even during the pandemic, it might be the right time to apply for an LL.M.

Megan Carpenter, dean of UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law in New Hampshire, says it could be the right time to apply for an LL.M. Historically, economic downturns have boosted law school applications by lowering the opportunity cost of full-time study. With layoffs a real possibility, lawyers may enroll in order to become more marketable once the economy recovers. 

However, during the Great Recession, the sharp increase in law students meant there were not enough jobs for them in the legal sector when they graduated, leaving thousands mired in debt. 

“Law schools will want to be careful about not repeating the same mistakes that were made 10 years ago by enrolling too many new students,” says Rice of Kaplan Bar Review. 

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