[This post was a collaboration written by Julie Macfarlane, along with NSRLP research assistants Katie Pfaff, Negin Shahraki and Arathi Arit.]
How are students in law school coping with the impact of the lockdown on their studies, their lives, and their feelings of well-being and optimism?
I asked our NSRLP research assistants for their thoughts and reflections on what it was like to finish out last semester – and anticipate beginning next semester – in a virtual learning space. Below, three 1Ls share their hopes, their challenges, and their ongoing questions about what happens next.
When the announcement was first made that the law school would be closed because of COVID-19, I did not really understand the full implications. With no COVID cases yet confirmed in Windsor-Essex, all I felt was robbed that our formal dance was cancelled, and elated at the thought of not having to come to class – as many other tired, stressed, and overworked law students were!
I saw online classes as a break, but that quickly fizzled out. I missed my friends and classmates to lean on. Being at the end of the semester, I was lacking that spark, and needed my friends. The harsh reality of COVID-19 set in as we realized we were in it for the long run, and the immediate glow of not having to go to campus quickly wore off.
Friends and classmates are a cornerstone of the law school experience. Being in 1L, you are used to travelling from class to class with the same people, familiar faces, and can strike up a conversation with almost anyone, since you have all been in it together for eight months. You can share your hardships, laughs, and experiences that only a fellow law student would understand.
When I first came to law school, I wanted to make friends, but did not see new friendships as that important. I was there to focus on my studies, and entered school with a support system that I was confident in. I was (and am still) living at home, and had my family; I had (and still have!) a deeply supportive partner, and my hometown friends. What I didn’t anticipate was how quickly law school becomes part of your identity. And though my pre-existing support system is amazing, I quickly found myself becoming unrelatable, and had to work hard to share parts of my life that weren’t (insufferably) about being a law student.
Enter, law school friends. As the year went on, I did not realize how much I loved and became reliant on my fellow classmates. One of my favourite aspects of law school are the people I have met and learned alongside of. I wonder what this will mean for incoming students? My heart goes out to future students who may now feel alone, overwhelmed, and with no one to talk to about the great changes – of focus, of consciousness – that law school brings to their life.
In the first few days of law school, I realized I could not go through this journey on my own, without the support and help of my peers. Seeing their smiley faces and hearing about their perspectives on the challenges that we faced in school was something that I looked forward to every day. Losing that support has been one of the biggest downsides of the transition toward remote classes. This pandemic has altered our lives in all areas.
Moving out, relocating, adjusting to an online education, giving up a social connection to classmates: all these rapid transitions are a source of anxiety and stress for many of us. Hearing negative news on every corner, dealing with isolation, and on top of that entering the exam period, all put us in an extreme state of anxiety. Not being able to go through these challenges as a community has made it even harder.
The quarantine imposed on law schools by COVID-19 demonstrates that legal education can be transformed into a remote format delivered through software programs allowing the setting up of live online classes. However, the remote format can raise a feeling of disconnectedness from their peers and faculty members in incoming and current law students .
What makes law school memorable is not just learning in class, but what students learn from the life experiences of their peers and instructors. This form of learning occurs during class discussions, offering students the opportunity to benefit from the expressed lived experiences of their peers and instructors. Learning in a large classroom setting that does not facilitate discussion can cause a disconnect similar to the experience of remote classes.
COVID-19 also raises concerns about articling among law students, especially upper year students. Will articling students have to complete their articling remotely? This will require clear guidelines from the law societies of each province to ensure that articling students are able to develop the standard competencies required for their lawyer licensing process.
The social distancing measures imposed on employers also raise concerns about the availability of sufficient articling opportunities for law students. This raises the question of whether alternatives to articling, such as the Law Practice Program, should become more accessible and financially supportive of law students, and equally acceptable to their legal employers.
Back to me (Julie)
As a teacher, I have a further concern to add to the thoughts and preoccupations of my students. In this new context, I don’t know how we do a good job of something that we are already barely teaching adequately at law school, which is working with clients as human beings. Much of what lawyers do in relation to knowledge is commodified and systematized, and can be presented online – what the process misses is, as these students say, the human contact and support that makes learning a pleasant and meaningful experience. But what is also missing is the ability for teachers to present students with simulated opportunities to think through working with a real person – how to talk to them, what to do to manage their anxiety, how to explain complex legal choices while respecting their preferences. How should a lawyer work with a client who is especially vulnerable, or has a health or mental health issue? What are the unique needs of victims of sexual violence? Or Indigenous clients who profoundly mistrust the legal process? Or racialized clients who have experienced abuse in the “justice” system?
I am grappling with how to bring these realities of legal practice in an Access to Justice frame to my online classes in the fall. In addition, I am aware that all my students will be feeling the lack of community and isolation that is so well described above. We are still waiting for our provincial regulators to show some leadership and encouragement to inspire the next generation of lawyers – or lose them altogether.