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From Harvard to Ole Miss, Law Students’ Lives Disrupted by Virus

April 14, 2020, 9:00 AM

Just weeks ago, Anne Karen Tolbert, a third-year student at the University of Mississippi’s law school, was looking forward to graduating this spring and starting the job she’d lined up. But then the coronavirus pandemic put that opportunity—and her future—on hold.

Now Tolbert is attending online job fairs, worrying about her lack of health insurance, and wondering when she’ll be able to take the Washington, D.C., bar exam, which was supposed to take place in July but was canceled on April 10. A decision about a possible fall exam date is due by May 4. “I’m just trying to see what’s going on with that and figure out, Do I need to move home with my family?” she says. “Do I need to just try to get a temporary or part-time job in between?”

As students graduating from the nation’s medical schools prepare to step into the front lines fighting the novel coronavirus, their law school counterparts confront a far more uncertain future. At the beginning of the year, they were looking forward to entering the strongest legal job market in more than a decade. Now, often with six-figure debt loads, they’re facing reduced hiring and major delays getting their careers under way.

Front of mind for many is that states are postponing bar exams because of social distancing guidelines. Last July thousands of law school grads took the New York bar exam in the hangar-like space of Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. It’s now serving as a 1,000-bed overflow hospital.

While New York, along with eight other states, has rescheduled bar exams for the fall, a movement is afoot to allow 2020 law grads to begin practicing without having been admitted to the bar. An April 1 letter signed by the deans of the 15 law schools in New York state warned that a delay in admission to the bar could cause students, especially those deeply in debt, “profound harm in a time already marked by suffering, intensifying financial hardship and exacerbating the unfairness of their plight.”

Molly Savage, a third-year student at Wayne State University Law School in Detroit, recently helped put together a petition asking the state of Michigan to waive exam requirements. “To me, it’s my ability to use this degree that I’ve spent three years working on,” Savage says. “I can’t get a law job if I don’t have admission to the bar.”

But it’s not just the graduating class that faces potential job woes. Large law firms typically recruit law students as summer associates after their second year, with a commitment to hiring them full time after graduation. Although top firms are largely sticking to that commitment for now, several have shortened their 2020 summer programs, potentially depriving rising third-years of several weeks of pay at levels equivalent to $190,000 a year.

“My roommate will be going to Cooley this summer, and they have already shortened their summer program, and she will have to take out extra loans because of that,” says Sara Fitzpatrick, a student at Harvard Law School, referring to the 1,100-lawyer firm best known for its work with tech companies.

While some firms are scaling back summer associate programs, others are trying to run them online. But that could limit students’ opportunities for mentoring and networking, says James Leipold, executive director of the National Association of Law Placement (NALP).

Andrea Rivers, a second-year student at American University’s Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., says she was recently informed by Axinn, the firm she’s scheduled to join as a summer associate in New York, that it was considering running the program remotely. “They told students to hold off making housing arrangements in New York,” she says.

Across the country, law students are already having to contend with the loss of informal interaction with professors and fellow students as a result of classes moving online. Jordan Berger, a third-year at New York University School of Law, is attending lectures remotely from her parents’ house in Indiana. “Some professors are throwing out their cold-calling methods, which some of us appreciate because it’s so awkward on Zoom,” Berger says.

Other students have encountered situations far beyond awkward on Zoom. “Our class got hacked, and they showed porn on our computer,” says Lekorde White, a second-year at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, La. “We had to end a whole class.”

As professors and students adapt to remote learning, many law schools, including the University of Mississippi’s, have switched to pass-fail marks rather than letter grades for the spring semester. Not all students are thrilled. “The policy that Ole Miss passed, I feel, is going to be detrimental to these 1Ls and 2Ls,” says Tolbert, who anticipates that classes below hers will have trouble landing jobs if they don’t have grade point averages to present to employers.

Leipold, of NALP, expects law graduates will have to wrestle with a difficult economy for years to come. Major firms laid off staff and some even closed their doors during the Great Recession. A few have already slashed compensation in response to the current crisis.

“I think people are all pretty conscious of what happened to lawyers in 2008,” says Laurel Raymond, a member of Yale Law School’s 2020 class. “We have no idea what’s going to happen this time, and no one can tell us.”

Beyond the uncertainties of grades and careers, this year’s graduating classes face more intangible losses. Fitzpatrick says she feels fortunate that the clerkship at the Alaska Supreme Court awaiting her after graduation from Harvard appears secure. Still, the thought of not donning a cap and gown to receive her degree makes her tear up. “My family was going to come for graduation, and it was going to be the first time we all saw each other in four years—and obviously, that’s not happening.”

Read more: Colleges With Empty Campuses Face an Uncertain Financial Future

To contact the authors of this story:
Meghan Tribe in Arlington at mtribe7@bloomberg.net

Bob Van Voris in New York at rvanvoris@bloomberg.net

Stephanie Russell-Kraft in New York at srussellkraft@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Anthony Lin at alin364@bloomberg.net

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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