How COVID-19 Changed Everything in Legal Education

The Bencher  |  March/April 2023

By The Honorable Deanell Reece Tacha

Everything changed in legal education due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the American Inns of Court, it seems to me that the most important lens on post-COVID legal education is to understand what happened to the law student experience and how it affected the formation of new lawyers. As the early founders of the American Inns of Court recognized, the formation of young lawyers is rooted in transmitting the values of legal excellence, professionalism, ethics, and mentoring from one generation of lawyers to another. Clearly, the isolation caused by the pandemic has created a mentoring void that the American Inns of Court is uniquely qualified to remedy.

One of the privileges of my career was the opportunity to serve as dean at the Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law from 2011 to 2016. Serving as a law school dean has the extraordinary side benefit of becoming acquainted with the talented and dedicated deans of law schools around the nation. For this article, I turned to this group for their personal insights into how the law student experience changed, literally overnight, in March 2020 when law schools pivoted to online education.

Returning to in-person teaching proved challenging, as Dean Chris Guthrie of the Vanderbilt Law School explains: “We spent the summer of 2020 building our elaborate testing and contact tracing programs, designing walkways in our building to limit contact, reducing the capacity of our classrooms by about 60% to accommodate social distancing, placing plexiglass dividers between teachers and students, and installing equipment to facilitate remote education for those students unable to attend in person.”

Post-COVID, law schools today vary greatly in their interest in retaining an online classroom. For example, Dean Wendy C. Perdue of the University of Richmond School of Law observed that her law school today is not much different than pre-COVID and that there is no interest in moving online or to a hybrid model. Other schools, while returning to in-person instruction, are continuing to experiment. According to Dean Vikram D. Amar of the University of Illinois College of Law, “If there is any silver lining to COVID and higher education, it is that while we are all reminded that in-person instruction is generally superior to remote learning, the latter can be much better than we feared. The trick is to return to ‘normal’ while incorporating more elements of remote instruction into the curriculum as a regular matter, which can help connect each law school better to faculty (either full-time or adjunct) who may be located far away from campus and who can’t come ‘visit’ for extended in-person stints.”

Continuing to reflect on the return back to “normal,” Dean Kevin K. Washburn of the University of Iowa School of Law observes, “Adversity has caused growth. While we are all enjoying being back together in person almost all of the time, we enjoy the flexibility to provide a class session virtually or have a meeting online or hybrid when needed. We can now allow students to attend a class virtually if they are not feeling well, and even professors can sometimes teach a class or two in this fashion.”

Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig of Boston University School of Law is optimistic about the possibilities for remote education going forward: “The changes that we made during the pandemic also taught us to expand what and whom we can bring into our law school communities to enrich the learning opportunities we offer to our students. We learned that we scan bring in speakers with more global perspectives through Zoom…. We have been able to open up lectures to audience members around the world, which has allowed us to extend our reach and conversations…and the people with whom we are having those conversations.”

My successor at the Pepperdine University School of Law, Dean Paul L. Caron, describes how professors have elected “a hybrid approach without a formal requirement because most students are in person, but some need Zoom for COVID or accommodation purposes. Our professors have chosen this approach to maximize student participation, learning, and engagement—three things we think might not have been top-of-mind for online learning pre-pandemic.”

Dean William C. Koch Jr. of the Nashville School of Law concludes that “weathering the storm has made us stronger and has introduced us to technological tools and new methodologies that will strengthen and improve our educational program going forward.”

The pandemic also dramatically affected clinical education. According to Onwuachi-Willig in Boston, “the pandemic hit many of our clinic’s clients the hardest. Courts, all of a sudden, [were] operating differently…for our students; client meetings could not always be remote because of the lack of access to resources for remote meetings with clients.”

But ingenuity prevailed, and the obstacle was overcome. The fact that students and faculty were able to change their approach and provide remote client counseling and other legal services to underserved populations suggests that new models of lawyering can close the justice gap in this country. For example, at Boston University School of Law, a clinical professor created a project in which law students assisted tenants with filing an answer to an eviction notice entirely remotely using an online portal at Legal Aid in Boston. This type of new online legal service, pioneered in a law school clinic during a pandemic, provides a model for the entire legal profession.

Recognizing the student sense of isolation produced by online education, law schools quickly adapted by providing either remote or very distanced advising and interaction with faculty members. Perdue says what we all know: “It is now considered completely normal to hold a meeting online.”  This capability not only facilitates opportunities that once might have been logistically inconvenient, but it may also have an equalizing effect on the students’ experience by easing the burden of commuting to the campus for students who are employed or who have family and other personal responsibilities. It also clearly eases the burden on students with disabilities.

A side benefit of increased remote connectivity is increased support and empathy among law students. As Onwuachi-Willig observes, “Students shared notes with each other and advocated for those facing more difficult, systemic challenges than they were; they openly shared their mental health challenges and taught faculty, administrators, and staff a ton in the process.”

One of the greatest impacts on students was the loss of many time-honored law school traditions, particularly the loss of in-person commencement ceremonies. Law school rituals and annual events build a sense of community and connectedness among law students and faculty. According to Dean Stephen W. Mazza of the University of Kansas School of Law, “One lingering issue for us is recapturing the sense of community that existed among the student body pre-COVID. Maybe it’s the political environment in which we now live, but our students don’t seem to have ‘jelled’ the way they did in the past…. We’ve done our best to get students more intensely involved in the life of the law school, but it’s been tough.”

We can all remember the traditions that made our law school experience memorable. There were pub nights, barristers’ balls, tailgates, and a host of other mostly social events. But post-COVID, perhaps some of these “traditions” should remain absent, or at least be reexamined and revised. Frankly, some “traditions” in hindsight were not always inclusive for a host of reasons. They were often expensive and out of reach for some students and may not always have promoted values that enriched and affirmed the diversity of the legal profession. This aspect of the law school student experience should evolve as law schools reinvent their extracurricular activities post-COVID.

One of the most troubling concerns post-COVID is the impact on law student mental health. Interestingly, most of my dean friends mentioned this issue as one of their concerns. These concerns were already evident prior to the pandemic but became more pronounced with its onset. The high cost of legal education, the uncertainty of financial aid, the rapidly changing legal employment landscape, and the challenges of establishing an appropriate work-life balance all weigh heavily on the minds of post-COVID law students. Law professors became much more attuned to the burdens borne by their students, as Interim Dean Jeffrey L. Jackson of Washburn University School of Law explains: “One other lesson we all learned from the pandemic has to do with grace and empathy. The pandemic forced us to examine what parts of our policies and procedures were necessary for effective legal education and what parts were simply relics of the way we’ve always done things…. It forced us to realize that there is ‘life’ that happens to our students and that law school is not the only thing in it. Although law school has to be rigorous, it isn’t a life-and-death endeavor. That realization is something we’re taking with us in the future.”

Another significant impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on law students was the change in the legal employment market. With the loss of employment opportunities came the greater loss of mentoring opportunities that traditionally occur through clerkships in law offices and judges’ chambers. Just as legal education has changed dramatically, so has the nature of post-law school employment for the entire legal profession. The profound changes in the way that lawyers practice law will, no doubt, continue to influence dramatically the interaction between law schools and the legal profession.

It is simply beyond debate that flourishing Inns of Court around the nation are needed more now than ever. The Inns have always worked closely with law schools to provide mentoring, ethics instruction, and models of professionalism and legal excellence to complement the educational experience of new lawyers. Post-COVID, this partnership will be essential in transmitting the ideals of the Inns of Court to a new generation of lawyers and in readjusting the profession to new realities in the legal profession in a way that preserves our essential ideals.

After COVID-19 changed everything, we are all learning to live out our professional ideals in new ways. The lawyers who experienced law school “in the time of COVID” will have much to teach those of us with a much more traditional understanding of legal education. I am hopeful that we will all be open to reimagining how our profession can remain grounded in the history of the Inns of Court movement as we embrace the future of a very changed legal profession.

Author’s note: I am indebted to Deans Vikram D. Amar, Paul L. Caron, Chris Guthrie, Jeffrey L. Jackson, William C. Koch Jr., Stephen W. Mazza, Wendy C. Perdue, Kevin K. Washburn, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig for their invaluable contributions to this article and to my former law clerk, Professor Colleen Medill of the University of Nebraska College of Law, for her characteristic outstanding edits and revisions.

Judge Deanell Reece Tacha is dean emeritus of Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law and a circuit judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit (Ret.). She served as president of the American Inns of Court from 2004 to 2008 and received its A. Sherman Christensen Award in 2012. Additionally, she has served on several national committees and held numerous leadership positions as a member of the Judge Hugh Means American Inn of Court in Lawrence, Kansas, and the Judge Paul R. Michel IP American Inn of Court in Los Angeles, California.

© 2023 Hon. Deanell Reece Tacha. This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.