Whether they’re graduating this spring, preparing for a summer program, or just starting their legal education, students at the nation’s law schools are facing unique challenges and an uncertain future in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
With bar exams canceled, when can graduates work?
To comply with social distancing guidelines, many states are postponing their bar exams, which law school graduates must pass to be certified to practice law. “To me, it’s my ability to use this degree that I’ve spent three years working on,” Molly Savage, a third-year student at Detroit’s Wayne State University law school, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “I can’t get a law job if I don’t have admission to the bar.”
At least nine states have canceled or delayed bar exams thus far, igniting a movement to allow graduates in the law school Class of 2020 to begin practicing law without having passed the exam—similar to how medical students are heading to the front lines during the pandemic. Deans from 15 law schools in New York state recently issued a letter cautioning that, if students aren’t able to work, delayed admission to the bar could cause students “profound harm in a time already marked by suffering, intensifying financial hardship, and exacerbating the unfairness of their plight.”
Third-year University of Minnesota Law School student Gabe Branco, who has both undergraduate and graduate student loan debt, reinforced those concerns in an interview with the Minnesota Daily. “If I don’t get to start [my job] on time, my loans are due,” Branco said. “I need that money to pay back loans.”
What will become of summer associate programs?
Many major law firms also are making plans to change their summer associate programs—positions that current law students rely on for income, networking opportunities, and a path to full-time positions after graduation, writes Law.com.
Some firms have canceled their programs, while others have only postponed or shortened them. Dickinson Wright, a general practice business law firm based in Detroit, has canceled its summer program but will extend an offer to every student in its summer class. Covington & Burling, an international law firm, has committed to a “fully remote” summer program.
Will there be long-term implications?
Law students are also concerned about longer-term impacts—for instance, the ramifications of a temporary shift to pass/fail grading or the post-pandemic outlook for the legal job market. Given campus closures and the switch to online instruction, some schools are now handing out pass/fail grades rather than letter grades—prompting student concerns that their transcripts could be less appealing to employers. “I got a flukey bad grade my fall semester,” Sam Cleveland, a third-year University of Minnesota law student, told the Minnesota Daily. “If I didn’t have the spring grades to balance it out, it would have affected me a lot.”
A weak hiring market could pose even greater challenges. Given how law firms reacted to the Great Recession, it’s likely that law graduates will face a tough economy in the coming years, James Leipold, executive director of the National Association of Law Placement, told Bloomberg News.