I started my second year of law school last fall with a sense of confidence mixed with relief.
As a 2L, I understood the demands of law school and had developed skills and strategies to cope with the stress and to succeed. The things that had worried me as a 1L – scholarships, class rank, on-campus interviews for summer positions – seemed much less daunting as I returned to campus in September
At the same time, the bar examination was still nearly two years away, too far in the future to worry about – let alone to begin studying for.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting public health emergency. The already daunting task of succeeding in law school became even more daunting. Law students were presented with a whole new set of questions about how our law school experience would unfold and what – many of which had no easy answers.
I recognize that many law students may have been concerned about or unhappy with how their schools responded to the pandemic. However, I felt that my school, the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, dealt effectively with the impacts of COVID-19.
At the outset, my biggest concern was personal: I live at home with my family and I was terrified that if I had to attend classes on campus, that I might bring the coronavirus home with me and expose my elderly parents. These worries faded quickly, though, as Hofstra moved quickly to close the campus and move to remote instruction. The decision to go remote came on a Sunday, professors and administrators were trained the next day, and classes resumed on Tuesday.
Since then, the faculty at the law school has sent out regular communications updates, our professors have been holding additional office hours and our librarians have been readily available as well. Hofstra students received prorated refunds for housing charges and for unused meal points in the dining halls. On a personal level, I found that I adapted well to remote learning.
Another important step taken by the law school was to convert all spring semester classes to pass-fail grading. From what I could tell, doing so eased concerns that students may have had about the quality of their work because they were operating outside of their comfort zone, under unusual and unprecedented circumstances.
I understand that the effects of the pandemic were much more problematic for 3Ls. I have no doubt that it was difficult and draining to suddenly find that they did not know when the bar examination would be held, even though a delay would mean more time to prepare. Without clarity on when the bar exam would be given, many 3Ls wondered what the impacts would be as they look to start careers for which they have been preparing for many years. Also, many of us have taken student loans to complete our education, and we are ready to get to work and to commence paying off those loans.
To be sure, 2Ls are also feeling the impacts of the pandemic and its effects across the legal community, although the experiences have varied from student to student. Some of my classmates who had not yet secured summer positions found it more difficult to do so, while others lowered their expectations. Some with planned big law internships for this summer learned that those positions were eliminated, and it was far too late to pursue other positions as nearly all of these internships are filled far in advance.
One student had a firm cancel the summer program, but at the same time extend a full-time offer for after graduation in 2021. Personally, I am employed with a company that offered me increased hours after going remote, and I have been told that those hours will be maintained through the summer.
It is no secret that law school is intensely stressful for most students, and that stress sometimes leads to emotional and mental health issues and substance abuse. A 2014 Survey of Law Student Well-Being sponsored by the American Bar Association found that 42% percent of surveyed law students believed they needed help for emotional or mental health issues in the past year, but only half sought assistance. Sixty-three percent of the respondents feared that seeking help for a substance abuse issue could pose a threat to their bar admission, and 45% said the same thing regarding seeking mental health treatment.
Last fall, I had the privilege of participating in NYSBA’s Working Group on Attorney Mental Health. I was pleased that the group found that the inclusion of mental health inquiries on the New York State bar application may lead law students to fail to seek assistance for these problems, and recommended removal of this part of the application. The Unified Court System agreed, and Chief Judge Janet DiFiore announced earlier this year that “the amended application will no longer ask intrusive questions about a candidate’s mental health conditions or treatment history.”
Knowing that law students are especially vulnerable to the impacts of stress, I inherently understood that the disruption of our lives due to the pandemic would lead to even great anxiety and strain for many of us. At the same time, I took some comfort in the fact that, with the change in the bar application, those students who felt they needed professional help to get through this tough time might be more likely to get it.
I already know that this fall, when I begin my 3L year, the future will be uncertain. But at least my fellow 3Ls and I will know that from the start. In the meantime, I will continue to appreciate the fact that the pandemic has led to a new level of camaraderie with my fellow law students.
For some of us, the impacts of COVID-19 have reaffirmed our urge to help society. We know there will be a widespread need for legal assistance relating to the impacts of the public health crisis, and we intend to find ways to provide that help. We may have been shaken to the core by the pandemic, but for me and many of my student colleagues, the shock has helped us see our own strengths, and solidified our commitment to be lawyers who will make a difference in the world.
Suzanne Hassani is a rising 3L at the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, editor-in-chief of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel Law Journal Vol. 46, and a research assistant for Hofstra’s Law, Logic, and Technology Lab.