In the 2020-2021 school year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced law schools to shift from deeply traditional in-person pedagogical methods to fully online learning. To say the least, students entering law school in 2020 (the “pandemic class”) had a markedly different law school experience than their pre-pandemic counterparts. From a lack of in-person learning to the challenge of blended work-life spaces, how did attending law school in a global pandemic affect the competencies of students in the pandemic class? Researchers will likely explore this complex question in the years to come. In the meantime, here are some reflections from one soon-to-be graduate of the pandemic class.
In-Person Learning Should Focus on Quality Over Quantity
The Federation of Law Societies of Canada National Committee on Accreditation recognizes that the practise of law is an interpersonal endeavour which requires effective in-person communication. The value of in-person learning is reflected in section C 1.2 of the National Requirement which states a law degree only meets the competency requirement if “the course of study consists primarily of in-person instruction and learning and/or instruction and learning that involves direct interaction between instructor and students.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federation interpreted section C 1.2 as requiring law students to attend in-person learning for at least one-full academic year (i.e., 30 of 90 required credits be in-person). However, without this generous interpretation by the Federation, a plain reading of the “primarily in-person” requirement indicates law students would not meet national competency standards if they do not complete at least 45 credits in-person. Despite any potential difference in educational outcomes between the pandemic class and pre-pandemic graduates, the pandemic-induced exception invites regulators to reconsider the underlying connection between interpersonal competency and various modes of learning.
In theory, in-person learning provides unparalleled opportunity for direct engagement between instructors and students. However, whether students sit behind their name and a black box on Zoom, or silently in the classroom, many choose not to verbally engage in discussion. In my experience, colleagues who ask and respond to questions do so whether online or in-person. The option of online learning may also help some students suffering from anxiety disorders, body dysmorphia, and other disabilities to better engage in the classroom. With these dynamics in mind, legal regulators and educators should focus on ways to maximize the quality of in-person credits over quantity.
Incorporating clinics, practicums, certain pro bono projects, and internships into in-person learning requirements would be an excellent way to increase the likelihood of direct engagement between instructors and students. The University of Ottawa’s first-year intensive January term dedicated to dispute resolution and professional responsibility is one such example of course work that builds interpersonal competencies. Rather than simply provide the opportunity to interact, these sorts of courses actually require direct interaction and therefore better foster interpersonal competency.
Future amendments to the in-person learning requirement should reflect that students do not experience the benefits of in-person credit hours equally. More in-person credit hours do not necessarily result in quality interactive learning. As we emerge out of “pandemic learning” a safe response to concerns about a lack of in-person learning would be to focus on the quality of in-person education over its quantity.
The Pandemic Class is Well-Suited to Champion Mental Health in the Legal Profession
Generally speaking, a defining feature of the pandemic class is students’ intimate familiarity with social isolation and uncertainty. Somehow our professors’ regular “take care of yourselves” reminders seemed to be informed by more than just the typical stresses of law school. Beyond being caring individuals, school administrators and professors were helping us be attentive to one traditionally overlooked aspect of competency – the connection between lawyers’ well-being and their capacity to serve clients. The pandemic class’s distinct experience grappling with mental health, work-life boundaries, and trauma place it in a unique position to understand and promote the importance of lawyer well-being.
Mental Health Awareness
Thanks to COVID-19, awareness of mental health issues may be at an all-time high for law school administrators, law societies and student associations. Being cognizant of the role mental health and well-being plays in sustainable legal practice is a critical first step to help lawyers understand how to “put their oxygen masks on first”.
Law students completing their studies during stay-at-home orders had a particularly good opportunity to define and exercise work-life boundaries. At the very least, students in the pandemic class are more likely to be conscious of the challenges and mental health issues associated with poor work-life boundaries.
Trauma Informed Lawyering
As law students entering law school during a global public health crisis, the pandemic class experienced collective trauma, and in some cases, personal and family tragedy at the onset of their legal career. This common experience of trauma places the pandemic class in a unique position to appreciate and adopt trauma-informed lawyering in their practices.
Attending law school during a global pandemic was never how any of us envisioned the start of our legal careers. The pandemic class placed faith in law schools to provide quality legal education in unprecedented times. From my experience, that faith was well placed. In any event, the pandemic class will undoubtedly contribute valuable insight into the meaning of competency, both in legal education and the legal profession.
Simon Brick is finishing his third year of law school at the University of Ottawa. During law school, he was involved in the Indigenous Human Rights Program and is interested in community-oriented law practice. This piece was written as an op-ed assignment in Professor Adam Dodek’s Professional Responsibility course.