Law Schools Adjust to Sudden Online Switch
Clinics, externships and admitted student events are still happening remotely

by Jessica Folker

In addition to their classes on torts and criminal procedure, law students are getting a crash course in online education.

Law schools around the country, including the two in Colorado, have had to shift to online learning platforms during the coronavirus pandemic. But it’s not just the classroom components of the law school experience that have gone virtual. Externships, clinical programs and mock trials intended to give students “hands on” experience have had to move online, too.

ONLINE ONLY

“The law school building is empty, but there’s still a lot of learning going on,” said Annecoos Wiersema, associate dean of academic affairs at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.

Before the coronavirus struck, DU had already been using the e-learning platform Canvas for some classes and programs, including DU Law’s part-time J.D. program, which has up to one-third of its coursework online. Since the pandemic arrived, the law school has been able to scale up the use of that platform and other tech tools such as Zoom in what has been a relatively smooth pivot to online, Wiersema said, thanks in large part to a “phenomenal educational technology team” and faculty who adjusted quickly.

To make up for the lack of in-person contact, professors have made themselves more available through extended office hours on Zoom, according to Wiersema. They’re recording online classes so students can access them later if they miss the real-time lesson, since students might be dealing with difficult schedules and caretaking duties at home, she added. At least one professor has been using podcasts to teach.

Adjunct faculty have also been quick to adapt, Wiersema said, highlighting a weeklong skills-based class taught over spring break by members of the in-house legal team from Molson Coors. Knowing the five-day interactive class wouldn’t allow for a lot of trial and error, the instructors got in touch to start planning as soon as they heard the course might be going online, Wiersema said. “They worked incredibly hard. and they taught the class last week, and I gather it went very well,” she added.

Students are still participating in clinical and externship programs, with a few tweaks. “For the clinics, the requirement is that students can’t have any in-person contact with anyone,” Wiersema said. So, while students can’t attend court proceedings, even for cases that are still proceeding, clinical faculty are going to court and conferencing students in through Zoom or Skype.

Externship participants, like the attorneys they’re working for, are carrying on remotely. Students who had been working for the legislature or judicial officers have been given other projects, Wiersema said.

HANDS OFF

“Hands-on learning is no longer hands-on,” said Deborah Cantrell, professor and director of clinical programs at the University of Colorado Law School.

But students are still getting a chance to learn through experience. Most clinical faculty had already been using video conferencing for projects and collaborations, which has helped make the transition “less jarring” for both faculty and students, Cantrell said.

That’s not to say nothing is lost when communication is confined to computers and phones, especially when it comes to working with clients. “It’s tricky to establish the same kind of rapport over video conferencing that you can have when you’re meeting with somebody in person,” Cantrell said.

COVID-19 has also brought into sharp focus the challenges many clients face in accessing technology. Low-income clients often don’t have reliable internet access, or their living situations might make it hard to have private conversations with lawyers. Cantrell said some students are also navigating troubles with internet access in their apartments, along with the isolation of working from home.

Not every experiential learning program can be moved online. “It’s been extraordinarily disruptive for all of our court-based practices,” Cantrell said of the pandemic. “Because, of course, the courts themselves have been badly disrupted.” Trials and motion hearings have been delayed by the courts, and it’s not clear when those cases will be resolved.

“It’s very disappointing for students who were hoping to have those actual experiences in court,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Cantrell said she’s impressed at how everyone is stepping up to put clients first and adjust to new, unexpected challenges. For example, she said, the clinic’s paralegal is finishing up online notary training so they can keep notarizing documents for their cases.

“We’re open and we’re operating, and we’re making sure that no client and no project gets less than what they deserve,” Cantrell said.

FUTURE CONCERNS

Cantrell said that while everyone hopes the stay-at-home situation doesn’t stretch into the fall semester, faculty and administrators are talking about how they would handle that scenario.

“I’m already working with my students who will start in the clinic in the fall and getting to know them through Zoom and trying to set up relationships now, so that at least we’ve got that,” she said.

The health crisis has also changed how prospective students interact with law schools. DU has a video tour for would-be students who want to check out the university’s campus, and the law school is hosting online “open house” sessions that allow admitted students to talk with professors and law school staff. While it’s too early to say what the effect of COVID-19 will be on enrollment numbers, Wiersema said there has been a “good response” to the online offerings, with recent sessions hosting between 40 and 90 admitted students.

“I think, in some ways, it’s what we should be doing going forward as well, because it gives students who can’t travel the opportunity to really engage and interact directly with faculty members or with admissions staff,” Wiersema said.

One of the big unknowns at this point is how the pandemic and its economic fallout will affect the job market for graduating students. Wiersema said DU’s careers office has been reaching out and holding meetings with employers to keep those relationships strong while also keeping graduating students informed about the market.

Another question is whether new graduates will be able to sit for the July bar exam. Several states, including New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, have postponed their July bar exams, but Colorado so far has not joined them. An online notice from Colorado’s Office of Attorney Regulation said that, as of March 27, the state is still planning to hold the bar exam scheduled for July 28-29.

To read other complete articles featured in the April 6, 2020 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.