Law360 (June 18, 2020, 5:54 PM EDT) --
My company recently surveyed its user base of both law and prelaw students to gauge their sentiment on how COVID-19 and recent events have affected their educational and career prospects. The survey was sent via email and in-app push notification to all users, and the 1,700-plus students who responded are from universities across the U.S. As these survey results demonstrate, rapid action from the legal community is necessary to prevent an exodus of promising young people from our profession.
Law Students Agree: Suddenly Remote Law School Costs Too Much
A staggering 86.7% of the survey respondents say that, if they are unable to return to campus and remote learning continues into multiple future semesters, they will consider their legal education overpriced. These numbers should be taken seriously by law schools, especially coming as they do after a 34-year period of tuition increases that significantly outpaced inflation.
Even pre-pandemic, many law school graduates believed their degrees were not worth the cost of tuition. Now, if remote education continues for multiple semesters, law students may reach a boiling point with regard to the cost of law school tuition. We could see students dropping out to pursue degrees in fields where long-term remote work is more feasible, such as software engineering, or in fields where the COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for qualified workers, such as public health and biotech.
COVID-19 may become the straw that broke the camel's back in terms of demand for legal education. Law school applications have already fallen by more than 3% this admissions season.
Potential law students are aware that, even in BigLaw, associate salaries are still hovering at pre-recession levels. Those paychecks look even more stagnant when compared to the 19% increase in the Consumer Price Index and 31% spike in private law school tuition since 2008. Even the most well-off young lawyers aren't getting as much monetary value for their tuition dollar as they used to.
Law schools should act now to ensure that tuition costs are reasonable — especially in a world where students can't benefit from on-campus events, cohort networking, law libraries, or in-person study groups.
Unfortunately, the law schools that are most overpriced with regard to debt-to-income ratio are unlikely to adjust tuition downward. And while private T14 schools with large endowments may be able to issue more scholarships even if they don't reduce tuition, state schools may not have the wherewithal to do the same. So, ultimately, it will remain individual students' responsibility to determine whether or not law school is worth its price.
Online Learning Less Effective, Say More Than Half of Law Students
Compared to previous semesters, 56% of law students surveyed say the education they received during the spring 2020 semester was "less effective," 37% reported the quality of education they received was "unchanged," while fewer than 7% of respondents found remote learning "more effective" than in-person classes.
Anecdotally, students report that some professors had a harder time than others adapting to remote instruction. And, of course, students' perceptions of educational quality may have been colored by the inherent challenges of learning and teaching during a public health emergency.
Both students and faculty are coping with, at a minimum, social isolation, concerns about loved ones' health, and economic stressors. Some have also experienced illnesses or deaths in the family. Under those circumstances, even the most internet-savvy law professors and the most focused students would struggle to maintain peak performance.
Law schools can't control a potential second wave of COVID-19, but they can take steps to mitigate unforced problems with online instruction. Faculty should receive training in remote education, and IT support should be widely available and quickly accessible for professors who encounter technical difficulties. And law schools would be wise to follow Harvard's example by setting aside funds to help students obtain modern devices and high-speed internet for their remote education.
When schools were unexpectedly thrust into remote education last semester, they had no time to design online curriculums. They simply took their traditional formats and adapted them for Zoom.
If remote education is to become the norm, courses will have to go beyond Zoom to include elements of social networks, games, videos, audio-only formats for learning on the go, Slack-style breakout discussions, Evernote-style collaborative research, and soon, perhaps even custom apps. Education is a product, and right now, it appears students are not compelled by most online education offerings.
Students Fear Bar Exam Ineligibility
More than 60% of law students surveyed are concerned that they may be ineligible to take the bar exam if online learning continues through 2021. Forty-six of 50 states currently have rules that could limit bar exam eligibility for students who obtained most of their law school credits online, so this is a reasonable worry.
That being said, the American Bar Association and New York state have already made moves to loosen these eligibility requirements. If COVID-19 continues to make on-campus legal education a rarity, it's all but certain that most states will follow suit — or even go farther. For instance, California is weighing a proposal to grant "emergency diploma privileges," allowing some graduates to practice without passing the bar.
In fact, this is one area where the novel coronavirus might do future lawyers a favor — especially those with disabilities. Over the next couple of years, bar passage results will be, effectively, a natural experiment studying the usefulness of online legal education. If students are just as capable of passing the bar exam after learning remotely for multiple semesters, bar associations may be forced to loosen eligibility restrictions permanently.
It's hard to justify excluding online law school graduates from the bar exam if they turn out to be about as likely to pass as those who obtained their law degrees on campus.
Career Plans and Internships Disrupted
While tuition costs and bar ineligibility fears make waves in the law school community, disrupted summer plans are the hungry shark lurking just below the surface. More than 63% of law students surveyed say their career plans or internships have been affected negatively by COVID-19. That's an extremely troubling number, because summer jobs are absolutely critical to employability for recent law school graduates.
Even with many schools moving on-campus interviews to January 2021 or later, students are missing out on important work experience that could help them to excel in those later interviews. While some people enter law school after working in another career, others go straight from a bachelor's program into a J.D. program. If those students are finding their summer internships canceled or transitioned to remote work, they could soon be facing on-campus interviews without any in-person work experience at all.
One-Fifth of Students Already Reconsidering Legal Careers
Inarguably, the Great Recession permanently altered the legal economy. As today's law students watch COVID-19 and the accompanying economic fallout hit the legal profession, more than 20% of law students surveyed say they're already considering a different career path. Even if the economy bounces back rapidly, the world has changed; it seems likely that demand for certain types of legal work will change, too.
Some public interest law students may now be feeling driven to contribute to their communities in a different way, in light of the health care inequities and governmental dysfunction exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We could see some promising law students departing from law school in favor of public health careers or the social impact space. A few aspiring lawyers may even decide to focus on entrepreneurship, taking advantage of the opportunities created (for a fortunate few) by a rapidly changing economy.
The Bottom Line
Like all of us, law school administrators are unsure exactly how much of a threat the novel coronavirus will pose this fall. Furthermore, in addition to student safety, any plans to reopen must take into consideration the well-being of faculty, other campus staff, and the communities in which law schools are situated. COVID-19 is forcing law schools to make decisions that affect thousands on the basis of insufficient data. No matter what they do, they are likely to alienate some stakeholders.
Based on these survey results, it appears that students are quite fearful of an indefinite, online-only model. If educators fail to address the concerns of future lawyers, law school applications could drop precipitously and many current students may withdraw. Meanwhile, disruptions to summer work opportunities threaten to produce a generation of young lawyers who are under-prepared for the workplace. Yet, should the predicted fall wave of COVID-19 materialize, schools that remain off-campus will undoubtedly be saving lives.
The predicament law schools find themselves in today is an unenviable one. It would behoove all of us in the legal community to think about how we can help current and future law students, in the event that COVID-19 continues to alter our daily lives for years to come. If we look back on our own law school years, we're all likely to remember a few lawyers who extended a hand up to us. Now is an excellent time to pay those old favors forward.
Mehran Ebadolahi is the CEO of TestMax Inc.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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