For many practitioners and law students, the current crisis and subsequent need for social distancing is causing anxiety, stress, and depression—all of which impact our ability to maintain the level of professionalism required of lawyers. And as lawyers strive to maintain their practices, meet client needs, and stay physically and mentally safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic, law students are facing unique challenges of their own.
Law students are figuring out how to transition to online classes, having their graduation ceremonies canceled, and wondering when—or if—they will take the bar exam and begin their careers. For many students enrolled in live-client clinics, the challenges of meeting their clients’ needs in a transitional environment are particularly demanding. Yet law students in clinical programs have a unique opportunity to rise to the occasion: cases are still moving forward as courts strategically manage their caseloads and set deadlines and virtual appearances.
In live-client law school clinics, many clients have more pressing needs now than they did before the pandemic. For example, in family and child advocacy clinics, concerns over unemployment, evictions, child support, parenting time, domestic violence, and child abuse are on the rise. There is some indication that there will be a spike in domestic relations cases in the next few months as more consequences of this pandemic become apparent.
However, the current circumstances—including the need for many to work remotely—have given clinic law students enhanced opportunities to demonstrate characteristics highly valued in many sectors of the legal profession. Characteristics like integrity, work ethic, and resilience are crucial in times like these. Law students who enjoy overcoming challenges, work well autonomously, and have a commitment to achieving excellence will rise to the top. Those who choose to put forth the minimum amount of effort necessary to pass a clinic course (many law schools have gone to pass/fail grading) may find the skills necessary to be successful lawyers harder to achieve. On the other hand, how well individual law students adapt under challenging circumstances can give future employers insight into a recent law graduate’s potential legal skills, professional competencies, and characteristics necessary to be successful lawyers.
Experiential clinical faculty face personal, professional, and ethical challenges, too. For jurisdictions with a student practice rule, student attorneys are practicing under their supervising attorneys’ licenses to practice law. Many of us are challenged by the need for better technology and more resources at our institutions, both of which are necessary to remotely supervise student attorneys, meet with clients, organize case files, and appear virtually for court hearings and trials. These hurdles, though, present clinical faculty with an opportunity to work with students through many of these unprecedented legal practice challenges.
It is doubtful that either law school or the practice of the law will come out of this pandemic unscathed. However, how we handle the disruptions now will influence how we, as lawyers, can handle other profession-wide challenges in the future. So while cases are pending, court dockets are stretched, and law school requirements are modified, clinical law students have an opportunity to demonstrate the professional competencies and legal skills that, when taken together, produce a whole lawyer. And most importantly, the ability to adapt during these unprecedented times will improve the quality of client representation and, consequently, improve public trust in our legal system—now and in the future.