Law Schools Retool LL.M. Programs for the Pandemic World

The coronavirus heralds fresh demand for new insights and skills, forcing changes to the curriculum and delivery modes

The pandemic is changing the legal profession quickly, forcing law schools to adapt the content of their LL.M. courses.

One area of change has been travel, with new migration restrictions around the world. And amid a crackdown on immigration in the US, Georgetown Law’s Madhavi Sunder, associate dean for international and graduate programs, highlights the anxiety that overseas students face amid the uncertainties of the pandemic.

There are students from over 70 different countries in the LL.M. program. To convey how much Georgetown Law values diversity, the school created a new program for international students this year featuring walking tours of Washington D.C. legal institutions such as Congress and the Supreme Court.

For students tuning into classes remotely, lectures are scheduled at times that work across multiple time zones so students can participate “synchronously”. In addition, the school has designed a number of academic, social and career-related events to help students connect outside the Zoom classroom and get to know peers, faculty, alumni and prospective employers. 

How the LL.M. curriculum is evolving in response to the pandemic

Meanwhile, Sarah Roache, director of Georgetown Law’s Health Law LL.M. programs, says the curriculum continues to evolve in response to the pandemic and development of novel health technologies. This year the school has added to its more than 40 courses in health law. There are fresh modules addressing pandemic preparedness, including biosecurity and a simulation in which law and medical students respond to a public health emergency. 

The coronavirus pandemic heralds fresh demand for new insights and skills. “We expect more demand for lawyers with expert knowledge in international and domestic laws and policies addressing pandemic preparedness and global health,” says Roache.

“The pandemic also highlights the need for lawyers who understand regulatory processes for drug and vaccine approvals, and who can advise companies and governments seeking to rollout these products quickly and safely,” she adds. Additionally, the post-Covid world will demand lawyers who are comfortable working with scientists, public health experts and technologists to prepare for future crises.

Consequently, the pandemic is changing student demand for content. “We are seeing lots of student interest in courses that address balancing civil rights and public health measures, courses on the development and approval processes for vaccines and other drugs, and courses on international law addressing the spread of infectious diseases across borders,” says Roache.

Bringing Covid into the classroom

At Fordham Law School in New York, professors are bringing Covid-related questions into the classroom, from the data privacy concerns raised by contract tracing, to the visitation challenges for parents whose children are in foster care.

But Clare Huntington, a professor of law, says it remains to be seen just how much coronavirus will change the legal profession. “Most legal practices and courts are operating remotely, but it is too soon to tell how the practice of law may or may not change in the long-term.”

Law schools that offer a comprehensive curriculum in areas of law that are directly impacted by the pandemic will be more attractive to students. “For example, intellectual property law has transformed into a highly complex and globally important field, playing a major role in the socio-economic wellbeing of countries around the world,” says Val Myteberi, associate dean of graduate, international and online programs at the Cardozo School of Law in New York.

And the pandemic has only made IP law more relevant as businesses are pushed to innovate in order to survive. The law school has just launched a new Online LL.M. in Intellectual Property course that provides the flexibility and affordability students need during a time of global upheaval.

The challenge of adjusting to remote work and learning is a prominent theme among law schools. “Prior to Covid-19, it was unimaginable that lawyers in New York could work fully remotely for months without some damage to their firms,” says Myteberi. “But lawyers are resilient, and technology has made it possible to serve clients with care and efficiency from anywhere in the world.”

She believes remote work is driving long-term changes for the legal world, which is often viewed as having a culture of long hours. “I remain optimistic that the pandemic has taught us all a lesson about the importance of having a healthy balance between our well-being as humans and our career goals as professionals,” she says.

“I hope that this pandemic brings about long-term changes to the delivery of legal services, so that lawyers can benefit from a meaningful work/life balance.”

Lawyers need new skills

The pandemic is also bringing about changes to the types of skills that lawyers need to succeed in a changed world. “In addition to sharp analytical and problem-solving skills, the need for lawyers to communicate clearly and concisely is only becoming more important,” says Myteberi. “Effective communication skills give lawyers a competitive edge, helping them make new professional connections and expanding their networks.”

Two major lessons that law students learned before the pandemic, but are now more relevant than ever, are adaptability and perseverance, according to Amit Schlesinger, executive director of bar prep programs at Kaplan. “In just a few short weeks, law school students went from learning inside a classroom to learning purely online, which is something that very few of them had much experience with. It certainly wasn’t what they signed up for,” he says.

Many students who had summer internships lined up saw those opportunities withdrawn because of the crisis, while the bar exams in most parts of the US have been disrupted. “We are starting to see Big Law begin to downsize. We’ve also learned that many law firms, even the most lucrative ones, have cut the salaries of many of their associates, as a temporary cost-saving measure,” says Schlesinger.

Employment is being hit, with the US legal sector shedding 70,400 jobs in March and April but increasing them by 7,300 from May to June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “It’s going to take a long time to regain those lost jobs and the reality is that not all will return. As a result of the pandemic, there is likely to be a rise of individuals starting their own firm,” Schlesinger says, so we can expect more entrepreneurial classes at law schools.

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