Wary Law Schools Give Remote Learning The Old College Try

By Chris Villani
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Law360 (September 16, 2020, 5:23 PM EDT) -- When Cambrea Beller looks out her window, she sees the Bitterroot Mountain Range to one side, the longest single mountain range in the Rockies. Flanking her to the other direction are the majestic Sapphire Mountains, and in between is a lush, green valley.

It's a view straight out of a storybook, but it's not what Beller expected to be looking at while attending law school classes this fall at New England Law, Boston, nestled among skyscrapers in the heart of downtown. Instead, Beller is at her home in Stevensville, Montana, a tiny town of some 1,800 nearly 2,600 miles from her law school and most of her professors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to shift classes online in places like Boston, a hub of higher education. Students and professors are doing their best to adjust to a new and, they hope, temporary normal, but say there are significant challenges to delivering a quality legal education from afar.

"Virtual school requires the students to teach themselves a lot more," Beller said. "It really kind of puts the job of educating future lawyers in the hands of future lawyers."

Students and professors told Law360 they believe schools are much better prepared this fall relative to the spring, when the pandemic surged in Massachusetts and schools and businesses were suddenly forced to go remote.

"Spring classes were sort of a disaster, but I think we are gradually going to get the hang of it and get better at it," said Northeastern University School of Law professor Daniel Medwed.

At Boston College Law School, professors spent the summer workshopping ways to make the classroom experience more effective for students. The school beefed up its technology systems to allow for some students to be on Zoom while others are sitting in a socially distanced classroom or lecture hall.

"It has been a transition, I think that's true for everyone," said New England Law professor Lawrence Friedman. "But we, like many schools, invested heavily in technology between the end of last semester and this one to smooth that transition."

When law schools first shifted to a remote format in the spring, Friedman was skeptical the school could deliver the same learning experience without students physically present. As the fall semester has begun, he said he's cautiously more optimistic.

"I still think it remains the case that the teaching we do doesn't translate to an online teaching experience. We have to figure out workarounds," Friedman said. "The proof will be in how the students react to it."

Grading on a Curve

Medwed had never been on Zoom before the spring. Now, after years of "strutting up and down" lecture halls, he's teaching a large class on evidence to 90 students who are divided up, two-thirds online and the rest spaced out in an auditorium built for 120.

"It's a little bit like watching a fifth grade basketball game with just a few people in the bleachers," Medwed said. "I'm talking to them while also monitoring Zoom. When I pose a question, I look at both groups and try to vary who I call on."

Medwed said he is also trying to keep students engaged through PowerPoints and video clips that he plays through Zoom while projecting them for the students in class. Students can sign up for an in-person slot until the maximum socially distanced capacity is reached.

"There are a lot of moving parts, and any problems I've had are because of my own technological limitations," he said. "I'm figuring out how to master the bifurcated audience."

The faculty has had to perform a similar balancing act at BC. But Nathaniel Kenyon, the school's head of marketing and communications, said that "the benefit of being able to offer in-person instruction for those who want that is worth it."

Friedman said he has been able to generate questions and discussion in his classes at New England Law without having students in the same room. But Beller said her experience has been different.

"I am less likely to raise my hand than before, and I was one of the students who would volunteer a lot. Now I do so but much less often," Beller said. "It's not that the professors are not looking for an answer, but they are much more OK with not receiving an answer and moving on to the next point."

"I think we can deliver the doctrinal classes and the seminars," said Northeastern's Medwed. "What's more of a challenge is the clinical training, especially for litigation. How are we going to teach people to litigate or interact with clients?"

Virtually Unprecedented

At Harvard Law School, part of the draw for students is the opportunity to interact with the noted faculty and distinguished guests who might be strolling around the Cambridge campus. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren taught there, as did U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Harvard is going fully remote for the fall, leaving some students wondering whether they are getting the same bang for their buck.

"Getting into Harvard was a big deal for me and my family and my community. I am not getting that Harvard experience when I am at home," said a second-year Harvard law student who asked to speak anonymously.

"When it comes to lawyering skills, any sort of trial-based skills, any sort of oral advocacy skills, those are things you're just not getting in a virtual setting," the student said. She said she will likely try to take a year off if the pandemic-induced restrictions stretch beyond this academic year.

Undergraduate students have filed suits across the country, saying they feel shortchanged by having to pay tuition at schools that were forced to close and send students home due to the virus.

Law students say basic inequities in their living situations are also posing a challenge. If someone has a spotty internet connection or a less-than-ideal home setting, it can be a barrier to learning.

Medwed said students also seem more reluctant to sign up for virtual office hours because the setting doesn't feel as natural.

"I do fear some students who aren't as comfortable with this format or aren't as confident or assertive might get lost," he said.

Several hundred Harvard students raised an issue in a petition of the law school's prohibition on recording classes. Beth Feldstein, a third-year Harvard law student, said all classes were recorded and made accessible to students in the spring. But now, no classes are recorded unless a student submits a request for a particular class two days in advance.

"That policy is by its terms inaccessible to students who fall ill, as people generally do not get sick with two business days' notice," Feldstein told Law360. "HLS had an opportunity to take a burden off its students' shoulders by recording classes, and it is disheartening but not surprising that HLS declined to level the playing field in this way."

Despite the petition, which was signed by about 350 students, Harvard remains committed to the policy. A representative for the law school did not respond to a request for comment.

Tests, Standardized

Harvard students who spoke to Law360 were generally supportive of the school's decision to shift to remote learning. Those schools who are bringing some students back are doing so under strict protocols.

Medwed said Northeastern's gym looks like something out of a futuristic movie as it has been transformed into a testing center for students, who must be tested three times per week, and faculty, who need two tests per week to be on campus.

Kenyon said BC Law has implemented a "strict density plan" that jibes with guidelines set forth by the state.

"Students are encouraged to be on campus only when attending classes, and we have prioritized so that only faculty and staff who are directly supporting the in-person academic experience are on campus on a regular basis," Kenyon said, noting that many of the now familiar measures are in place including testing, personal protective equipment and plexiglass barriers.

Even with the virus numbers waning in Massachusetts and the obstacles presented by remote classes, many students said they feel better away from campus, including Beller in her picturesque mountainside setting.

"It's a nice little retreat from the city," she said. "This was the best decision I could have made."

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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