Pandemic Gives Mass. Law Grads Lesson In 'How To Survive'

By Brian Dowling
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Law360 (May 28, 2020, 1:28 PM EDT) -- This is part two of a three-part series on how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the Boston-area legal industry. Part one focuses on lawyers and law firms, part two on law schools and students, and part three on the judiciary.

When envisioning the start of her legal career, Anna Madrishin did not picture studying for the Massachusetts bar exam while crammed into a 400-square-foot apartment in Beacon Hill. Nor did she imagine waiting four months to take the test while job offers dried up.

But this is the reality she and many other graduating law students face as they navigate entering the profession during a global health and employment crisis.

"I have been looking for jobs, but it doesn't seem like things are being posted," Madrishin said. "It's definitely stressful because not only are the job prospects not really out there, but being delayed in taking the bar means we will be delayed in getting results."

The state's Supreme Judicial Court announced in early April that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the late July bar exam would be rescheduled for Sept. 30 and Oct 1. A backup plan is being devised in case even those dates are not workable with precautionary measures in place.

All of it has left law students even more anxious during an already stressful time. Many firms have delayed start dates for new associates, some until January 2021, and summer programs have been trimmed down to eight or even six weeks. Meanwhile, law schools themselves are facing upheaval in the form of new online classrooms and tighter budgets.

"Many students are trying to find how to survive," said Boston University Law School Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig, who worries there will be a higher fail rate on the bar due to increased stress.

Under pressure

The sweeping changes to the legal landscape brought about by the novel coronavirus are recharting the traditional post-law school plan for many graduates.

"There is a lot of stress, there is anxiety, and there are the unanswered questions," said New England School of Law professor Lawrence Friedman. He acknowledged fielding student inquiries early on in the pandemic about whether the school's library would be available as a study space.

"Instead of knowing what they are going to be doing from now until the end of July, they are now trying to figure out what they are going to do between graduation and the end of September when they sit for the Mass bar," Friedman added.

But while many new grads are re-engineering their plans for the bar exam and hopes for future employment, Boston University Law School graduate Chris Hamilton finds himself in a different boat.

Hamilton has two clerkships lined up — with Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Kimberly S. Budd, then U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns — followed by a job with Goodwin Procter LLP. His plan is to take the bar exam in February, not at the September offering.

For himself and his classmates, he said, the intensified stresses of entering the legal workforce during an economic recession and pandemic could be eased by one thing: knowing their start dates.

"A lot of people are going to feel better once everybody has a concrete start date," Hamilton said. "Everybody is relieved that we have work at all."

Virtual reality

From online classes to course offerings shifting toward practice areas with high demand in tough economic times, like bankruptcy, law schools are also adjusting to the new reality of educating students in a pandemic.

But simply shifting everything into an online Zoom meeting won't cut it, according to Friedman.

"A law school education, it's different from an undergrad education, and most of the successful distance learning has been done at the undergrad level," he said. "Law school is a much more interactive kind of learning process. It's not something most law schools were considering adopting until we had to."

Schools need to embrace technology as a practice skill, in addition to a mode of teaching, according to Len Zandrow of Brister & Zandrow LLP, who runs the Justice Bridge Legal Center with the University of Massachusetts School of Law.

"Our courts will be relying more on technology and virtual hearings in the future, even after this pandemic is over," he said. "As the courts move in this direction, I believe that law schools will begin emphasizing tech skills more in their curriculum and clinical programs as well."

For a handful of law schools, the upheaval of the pandemic will prove to be too much, Onwuachi-Willig predicted.

"You'll see some law schools that will close," she said, citing potential losses from reimbursing room and board payments to students. "There are budget shortfalls."

A few wealthy law schools sitting on huge endowments will manage to weather the downturn, she said, but even those are announcing hiring freezes and budget cuts. Yale University, Harvard University, Columbia University, Stanford University, and the University of Chicago have all announced severe institutionwide limits on hiring, as well as cuts, if not outright suspensions, on discretionary spending.

Making it work

Students like Madrishin are weighing their options if delays from the bar exam and shaky economy make starting their legal careers untenable at the moment. If all else fails, she said she would consider a job in her undergraduate field of study, environmental science.

"I could use that," she said. "I wouldn't want to, but I personally would take any job to pay off loans."

If law firms move some of their work to contract positions, a less risky avenue for organizations than bringing on new employees while the economic picture is still so murky, that could further dim law school grads' job prospects, according to Onwuachi-Willig.

"You might see an expansion of contract work for attorneys, which is of course not the high-paying stuff which people with a couple hundred of thousand in debt would like," she said.

Massachusetts Bar Association President Martin W. Healy said lawyers and law schools need to think outside the box on how new grads can use their degrees, like taking up pro bono work, probate and family court matters.

"It's incumbent upon lawyers and bar associations to be available to those students whose life plans have been put on hold or upended," Healy said.

Boston College Law School's Assistant Dean Jennifer Perrigo said there's a greater likelihood that new grads find work in "J.D.-adjacent roles" while the dust settles on the crisis, state economies reopen and business restarts.

"It's going to be really tight out there," Perrigo said. "We are telling [law students] to stay in the game. We are telling them to be flexible, stay abreast of any changes in the legal market and what is happening in the market."

She added, "Much of the law is based on precedent and there is no precedent for this."

--Additional reporting by Chris Villani. Editing by Marygrace Murphy.

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