Law School Moves Online, Students Express Doubts

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COVID-19 has suddenly and dramatically reshaped all of our lives and upended previously unshakable norms. Among those norms, “a good legal education must be obtained on-campus.” Distance learning has been available for decades—some will remember the existence of pre-World Wide Web “correspondence” law schools. But, until a global pandemic drove law schools to close their doors, it seemed unthinkable and impossible for elite institutions like Harvard Law School to go fully online.

As recent events have demonstrated, it’s indeed possible to deliver a T14 legal education online. However, TestMax’s recent survey shows students are deeply divided on the value of suddenly-remote legal education. Many are even reconsidering pursuing a legal career entirely. These findings should be of great concern to any attorney who hopes to see our profession attract the best and brightest young people.

Survey Background and Methodology

TestMax is the company behind LSATMax, 1L, and BarMax, the most downloaded and highest rated apps in the Apple App Store for the LSAT, law school, MPRE, and the Bar Exam, respectively. Recently, more than 1,700 current law students using TestMax apps were surveyed regarding the effects of COVID-19 on their legal education and career prospects. Respondents were recruited via email and mobile app push notifications.

Respondents represented a broad sample of TestMax users, and are attending law schools across the United States.

Survey Results: Law Students Find Online Education Overpriced, Less Effective

Law students are divided on many issues, but the cost-effectiveness of remote law school isn’t one of them. Nearly nine out of ten law students surveyed—86.71%, to be precise—would consider their legal education to be overpriced in the event that distance learning continues into multiple future semesters.

Not only are students upset about tuition costs, more than half (56%) say the education they received this past semester was “less effective” than on-campus learning. More than one-third (37.2%) felt the effectiveness of their education was unchanged. Less than 7% of law students considered their education this past semester to be “more effective” than on-campus learning. More than three-quarters of students would prefer to return to campus as soon as it’s safe, with just 24.6% saying they’d prefer to stay online.

Continued Remote Education Could Drive Some to Leave the J.D. Track

Law students aren’t just expressing fleeting concerns about the cost and effectiveness of law school during coronavirus. Some are reconsidering their career plans entirely. In fact, 31% of survey respondents say they’d reconsider their legal education if COVID-19, social distancing, and remote learning were to continue into multiple future semesters. A further 29.8% would, in that scenario, consider taking a hiatus from law school. And more than one in five respondents say they’re already considering taking a different career path, given recent fundamental changes in the world.

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Students’ Woes Reflect Deeper Issues

COVID-19 presents an unexpected and unprecedented set of circumstances, but it’s not the only cause of law students’ current dissatisfaction. The pandemic may be the bullet that killed some law students’ enthusiasm for the legal field, but rising debt and stagnant wages loaded the gun.

Today’s law students will already take on an inflation-adjusted 77% more law school debt as compared to the class of 1999-2000. Meanwhile, also after adjusting for inflation, entry-level salaries even in Biglaw haven’t yet rebounded to their pre-Great Recession peak. With the global pandemic stoking fears of another recession, many law students fear that they’ll graduate into a market where entry-level salaries are falling just as their loan payments begin to come due. In this scenario, law students would find the common “three-and-out plan” for paying down debt and gaining early-career experience far less feasible.

Cost isn’t the only problem, either. COVID-19 caught many law professors unprepared for the transition to distance learning, even at top-tier institutions. Anecdotally, students report that some faculty members struggled much more than others to get up to speed with online teaching tools.

There are a few confirmed Luddites on every law school’s faculty roster—and, in the classroom, they often perform exceptionally. But COVID-19 has taught us that even the most tech-averse professors must be prepared to teach online at a moment’s notice. In the future, law schools would do well to provide more training on remote teaching before those skills are needed. Investing in an ample I.T. support staff would also be wise.

How Legal Professionals Can Help

It’s all well and good to make high-minded recommendations for how law schools can do a better job of handling this crisis. But working attorneys have a role to play in supporting the “Class of COVID-19,” too. All those who care about the future of our profession should be looking for ways to help. A few recommendations:

  • Hire an extra student. Currently, 63% of survey respondents say COVID-19 has affected their internship or career plans. If you have the workload and the budget to offer one more part-time internship or remote summer associate position, now is the perfect time to hire a talented student—and they’ll be more grateful than ever for the opportunity.
  • Make yourself available as a guest lecturer or workshop facilitator. Are you an expert in an area that might interest current law students? Check in with your alma mater and with local schools to see how you can support their Fall 2020 program offerings. An hour or two spent on Zoom or Skype could inspire and reinvigorate a classroom full of weary law students.
  • Mentor a future lawyer. If you’ve been putting off getting involved in mentoring because you don’t feel experienced enough or you’re too busy, get off the fence and give it a try. Especially if you weathered the Great Recession as a law student or attorney, students can learn from your resilience and dedication.
  • Support the most vulnerable students directly. Most law schools already have a Student Emergency Relief fund. During COVID-19, these funds have focused on helping students with medical costs, housing insecurity, hunger, and more. Many students are dealing with not just a fundamental change in their education, but illness, bereavement, and/or job loss as well. If your firm is able to direct a contribution towards one of these emergency funds, it’ll go to good use.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ways to help. Rather, this list is meant to encourage and empower attorneys to make a difference in the lives of law students whose education has recently been disrupted. Pick one or two things you can do, and keep doing them until this crisis fades in our collective rearview mirror.

Not only will you be helping to ensure a bright future for our profession, leading experts in well-being say helping others is the best way to stave off anxiety and depression during the current pandemic. In extending a helping hand to today’s law students, you’ll be handing yourself a valuable survival tool as well.

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