Production by ALI and the Bolch Judicial Institute. Music is ‘Headway’ by Kai Engel, from the Free Music Archive, CC BY.
Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law at Duke University
Vikram Amar, the Dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law
Heather Gerken, the Dean and Sol & Lillian Goldman Professor of Law at Yale Law School
John Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School
Jenny S. Martinez, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School
Jennifer Mnookin, the Dean and David G. Price and Dallas P. Price Professor of Law at UCLA Law
- Host David F. Levi, director of the Bolch Judicial Institute and president of the American Law Institute, talks with top law school deans about how they made the rapid transition to online learning and what the coming months and years might hold for law schools and students.
- The deans say that faculty successfully learned new software and adapted their courses to digital platforms; students found ways to connect and support each other online; and courses, exams, and even social activities proceeded remarkably well in a new Zoom world.
- The deans also discussed the financial impact of the pandemic on universities and law schools; they also discuss the pandemic’s impact on the admissions process; planning for the 2020-21 academic year; students’ job prospects for summer and beyond; and the things they’ve learned that will benefit law schools in the future — as uncertain as that future may be.
Listen to the podcast
David Levi: Hello, and welcome to Coping with COVID, a podcast and video series jointly produced by the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law School, and the American Law Institute. This series examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the legal system. I’m David Levi, President of the American Law Institute and Director of the Bolch Judicial Institute. I’m joined today by the deans of several of our country’s top law schools.
In the past month, law schools, like so many other institutions and businesses, have completely transformed the way they operate. They have trained faculty to teach online, they have supported staff in adapting to work at home, assisted students no longer permitted on campus with their urgent needs related to learning online, and also travel, housing, access to food and healthcare. They have adjusted budgets and plans in the face of a massive economic downturn. They did all of this and more in just the wink of an eye, just a few days in the middle of March. It’s really quite remarkable. Today we will talk about how these transitions are going, and what the months and years ahead might hold for students and law faculty.
Joining us today are Kerry Abrams, my dean, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law at Duke University; Vikram Amar, the dean and Iwan Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Illinois College of Law; Heather Gerken, the dean and Sol and Lillian Goldman Professor of Law at Yale Law School; John Manning, the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law at Harvard Law School; Jenny S. Martinez, the Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean of Stanford Law School and Jennifer Mnookin, the Dean and David G. Price and Dallas P. Price Professor of Law at UCLA Law School. Thank you all for taking your precious time here today to be with us. Kerry, let’s start with you. I know that Duke has totally gone online. Can you talk about what happened there, what the challenges were, some of the difficulties, and how you’ve adapted, particularly your clinics and experiential learning to this process?
Kerry Abrams: Yeah, sure, David, thank you so much for having me. It’s a real honor to get to be with all these wonderful deans. Yes, as you know, it was really really quick. You said the wink of an eye when we decided to go online this spring. At Duke it was a Tuesday during spring break, and by the next Monday we had completely moved to an online teaching format. I don’t think anyone had anticipated just how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic would affect us, even though we all knew something would happen.
There were a lot of challenges with going online. One of them was purely technological. Did we have the amount of equipment we needed to allow professors to teach, either from empty classrooms or from their homes? Did they know how to use that equipment? We had sessions every day all week, once we had made the decision, with our IT staff to teach our faculty how to use Zoom and Panopto, and other technological aids. But we quickly realized that we did not even have enough IT staff to answer all of their questions quickly. So one really lovely thing to see was our faculty volunteering their time to help each other to create their own help desk email system, so that they could give one-on-one tutoring to each other as they figured out how to manage to teach online. Technology, in some ways, turned out to be the least of the problem, though. There’s a pedagogical difference between teaching in person and teaching online, that I don’t think any of us were totally prepared for. And so in that respect, I think it was really our students who helped us the most. A lot of us got feedback from our students during that first week about how we could use the technology better, and the faculty adapted really really quickly to a different environment.
In one respect, I think the move online was easier than teaching an entire semester online, in that there was already a community built in each classroom. And so the faculty and students knew each other and knew enough about each other and how the class usually operated, that they already had that tie, that sense of community. And so when they were suddenly splintered, they were able to kind of fill in the gaps, which is harder to do if you’re building an online class from scratch.
As you mentioned, David, the clinics and experiential learning have been especially challenging. In some cases it’s been easier with a clinic of one-on-one conversation with a client that someone already has a relationship with isn’t that difficult over the phone or over Zoom. But like so many aspects of this pandemic, the change has made visible differences that we knew existed before, but has exacerbated them. So, for example, clients who do not have access to good wifi, or don’t have a smart phone, or don’t have the same resources, and that’s many of our clinic clients, have not been able to benefit as much as those who have, during this time. And we’ve really had to make individual decisions about how to best interact with people when we can’t be with them in person.
I’d also say that in addition to the technological and pedagogical challenges, I think the most interesting and challenging part from my perspective has been the emotional difference that the separation has caused this spring. And again, this is different from an online program where people signed up for one and knew that that’s what they were getting. But it’s also different because everything is being done in the context of the pandemic. And so we had some students who returned to their parents’ homes and had a really nice living situation with strong broadband and their own room. And maybe cookies being brought to them. We had some students who, I had one student call me from a gas station driving cross country because he was desperately trying to get home, thinking that states were likely to shut down soon. And they did, and didn’t want to be isolated, away from his family and his summer internship. We have some students who do not have access to resources, and that, again, is masked when they’re at school, and the mask came off once everyone was in different situations. And then, finally, we have a lot of students who are living alone in studio apartments. Many of them are still here in Durham, who are feeling very emotionally isolated.
So, one thing that happened that completely surprised me, was that for a lot of our students, class became the social highlight of their day. I don’t know about you, but class was not the social highlight of my law school day. I enjoyed class, but it was the stuff in between class where I was building community. Class is starting to become the place where the community is built for them. And so our students were quite anxious about class ending, not just because of exams, but because then that tie to each other in a structured environment would be gone suddenly. So one thing that the Duke Bar Association students did, was they asked the faculty to sign up during exam period, which is right now, for online Zoom sessions for social events with the students, so they could keep interacting with each other and the faculty. And so yesterday and today, for example, there have been Zoom sessions on everything from how to make biscuits, to surviving a financial crisis at a law firm, to doing the New York Times crossword puzzle together, to adventures in Japan, travel and culinary and other, to finding happiness in a stressful time. And I think the majority of our faculty stepped up with some sort of social engagement for students. So it’s really been a mix a technological challenge, a pedagogical challenge, but then mostly, a social challenge, of how do we stay together as a community when we’ve been pulled apart?
Levi: Thank you. Vik, you’ve had a year, I mean, a year, a month. It seems like a year.
Vikram Amar: It seems like more than a year.
Levi: Oh man, it’s been a long month. But you’ve had a month dealing with online education. How’s it going?
Amar: So first of all, I want to thank you for including me in this event, and I’m honored to be joined by such illustrious decanal colleagues. I would actually describe our experience at Illinois in broad contours, very similarly to the way Kerry did at Duke. We had to make a rapid transition. We did it the week before, not during, spring break. And we had the benefit of having some more internal conversations in the law school, prior to the campus going online as a whole. So I think we were actually ahead of some of other units on campus cause we saw this coming a little bit better.
If one focuses on the instruction component, which, honestly, was my biggest concern for the balance of the semester, I would say things are going considerably better than I expected, and much better than I feared. Because of the sudden transition we had to make, and also, as Kerry pointed out, the fact that faculty come into a situation like this with very different starting points concerning comfort with technology and the like. I was concerned about how even the quality of instruction would be, and I think at Illinois we pride ourselves in delivering a relatively consistently good product in the classroom. But faculty have really rallied, both individually and collectively, as Kerry mentioned. They pitched in and helped each other. Students have helped each other. Students have helped faculty. And so, overall, I think that part of it is going well.
I would not say it’s remotely the same. I teach a class, typically in the spring, a big first year Constitutional Law introductory class. I’m teaching that from California, where I am with my wife out here. And it is amazing how different it is when you can’t see everybody’s face and their body. Probably one of my favorite shows is Seinfeld. And there’s an episode in which Kramer says that 94% of all communication is non-verbal. And like most of what Kramer says, it’s ridiculous, but there’s also a kernel of insight in there. And I didn’t realize how much I was able to gauge how effectively I was conveying certain ideas by looking in the eyes of students and seeing their faces and their bodies. And it’s hard when, in between my talking and some other students talking, it’s just crickets. It’s kind of a very weird sensation.
I also think it’s going better than it might otherwise, because students have been so good-natured about this, recognizing that we have very little choice but to do this on a dime. I have a feeling that that patience and good will will stretch a little thin come the fall, if, as we’ll discuss later, we have to continue to deliver the product in this format. If I take a step back, it’s kind of ironic in that, I think this past month and a half has highlighted the possibilities of online or hybrid instruction in ways that most of us did not appreciate. And in ways that maybe the ABA will come to appreciate, and loosen some of its high-bound restrictions.
But it also really reminds me deeply of how important it is to come together as a community in person in buildings. Put aside all the symposia and conferences and endowed lectures and formal events. And put aside also the very important thing that Kerry mentioned about social interaction and how much Zoom can substitute for that. I think, for me, what I worry about is that students aren’t able to talk to each other about their classes, about their clinical work, about the legal things they see in the news, in the hallways, in the atrium, et cetera. You know, when I went to law school, and, granted, it was a very fine law school, but I think that’s true of all the law schools we have represented today here. I probably learned as much from my fellow students as I did from my faculty. Heather, don’t pass that on to everybody at Yale. But I think that’s true at a lot of good law schools, where students learn a ton about the law, and not just about life, and the legal profession culturally, but about the ideas that they’re discussing by interacting in the hallways, in the lobby of the library, et cetera.
And I think about myself, as a scholar. I’ve gotten used, over the years, whether I was in Berkeley or Davis or Champagne, to connecting to those other scholars, both in my building, and around the country, that I love to talk about, whether it’s by the phone or email or now Zoom. It’s very natural for me. So I don’t think I’m missing a beat in terms of my writing and my ability to connect to the folks that I want to. But I don’t know that students, who are located, as Kerry pointed out, in such a wide array of living arrangements, I don’t know that they’re really able to talk to each other about what they’re learning in class. And if this continues, that’s a big worry for me.
Levi: So Heather, let’s pick up on the last point that Vik made. The intellectual community and people who don’t teach in law schools, and haven’t experienced it for a long time, don’t maybe realize how tight the intellectual community is, and the social intellectual lives of a scholar is so important, and now everybody’s bunkered in. As Vik says, that’s part of the scholarly life too. But it’s different when you’re required to stay apart and you don’t have those opportunities for workshops and presentation of papers, and in-person discussions. So how is Yale dealing with that aspect?
Heather Gerken: Yeah, so initially, we did suspend our intellectual life for awhile. That was, in large part, because everyone was pivoting to online education and people were trying to be respectful of our incredibly hard-working IT staff. But we’d also, we had a meeting on grading, and one in four of our students is first in the family to go to any professional school of any sort. One in 10 is first in the family to go to college. And we all knew those statistics in our head, and knew individual student’s stories, but we really had a long discussion with our students in advance of that meeting about where they were, and sharing their stories. And I think in the wake of that, the faculty decided to sort of pull, set aside their own desires and interests for a little while to make sure that we got our teaching online. But once we were doing that, and it was feeling reasonably successful, we went back to having workshops and faculty meetings to discuss hiring and so on. And, in fact, we even have a set of faculty who’ve organized a set of COVID workshops, cause there’s enormous expertise on our faculty in a variety of areas.
So, in fact, at lunch today there were 50 faculty members sitting down and listening to their colleagues talk about the work that they’ve been doing recently. And I will say that after that first workshop, I felt like there was this enormous sense of relief. First, that we had achieved it with only one or two faculty members not knowing how to unmute themselves, and the usual struggles that you find. But also because it’s so central to who we are, a workshop culture and thinking about ideas, that I think people were very worried about losing that piece of our life. And so it’s almost felt like a return to normalcy, which I think people need a little of the normal rhythm of their life in moments like these. So it’s been great, and I will say, I don’t mind having a faculty meeting where it’s possible to mute people. I think maybe every dean ought to think about that as a new strategy.
Levi: You know what’s remarkable to me is, when I was a dean, I used to say a law school faculty was like Napolean’s army. It traveled on its stomach. And if you wanted people to come to meetings or do anything, or be in a good mood, you had to give them lunch. You had to give them snacks or something, and students, of course, even more so. But that’s not remotely possible now, but you do it, you sort of have a virtual lunch, I guess.
Gerken: You know, a virtual lunch is actually kind of fun to watch when everyone’s eating. I will say that I think my food is better in this house, but that’s only cause I think I’m a better cook than most of my colleagues.
Levi: Yeah, well you’re the dean.
John, let’s talk about, for a moment, about the future. So, how do you think, you know, we may be living with this for quite awhile. But even beyond that, let’s say five years from now, do you think we’ll look back at the coronavirus and say, “Gee, this changed a lot of things about legal education?” I’ll tell you that the judges that I talked to a few days ago, they think that this may be transformative in the way that judicial services are provided to the public.
John Manning: Yeah, it’s a very good question. Thank you for hosting this, and it’s great to see all the fellow deans. Very nice to be here with all of you. We were, like everybody, surprised and pleased at how smoothly the transition happened in 12 days from when we decided to go online until we actually went online, and we returned from spring break. And it was a really massive group effort. Our teaching and learning center, our library, our IT department all helped and trained faculty, and trained students, and trained faculty assistants to provide support. And it was a really, it was a very moving community effort from start to finish. And at the end of the first week we sent around a Qualtrics survey to our faculty to find out how things were going, and we’re gonna send another one this Friday, which the faculty will find out tomorrow. And we asked them, generally, how things were going. We asked some quantitative questions and some qualitative questions, and it turned out at the end of week one, which is kind of incredible, 85% of the faculty said that they were having a positive or very positive experience. Only 1 and 1/2%, which was one person, who responded, said it was a very negative experience, and about 6% said they were having a negative experience. So that at the end of week one, we thought that was good news.
Even better news was we got pages and pages and pages of input from the faculty on the qualitative questions that we asked them about how things were going and what they were doing differently, and what they thought might stick with them when we go back to teaching live on campus. And we got a lot of responses. First of all, in the first week, people were trying a lot of different things. And I’ll just mention a few, cause, as I said, there are pages and pages and pages. But some of them stood out as being, you know, a number of people found it helpful. So a lot of people found polling very helpful, and breakout rooms, and a lot of them thought that the chat function was really useful, right? You can see what students are thinking in real time. And it can help you to see what they’re understanding and not understanding, and also, suggest ways of shifting or moving the discussion in areas where they’re interested or where there’s an interesting thread of discussion that emerges.
It was interesting also to see that, and this goes to Dean Abrams’ point that it’s not just the technology. It’s also the pedagogy. There’s something, Harvard’s been in the online space very deep for a long time, and so there’s a lot of learning around the campus on this. And there’s been really wonderful sharing across the schools about tools and techniques and pedagogy, and how to navigate this space. And as it turns out, the pedagogical differences are also important, and I think some of those will stick also. So a lot of faculty decided to ask students to submit questions on Canvas before class started. And that helped to shape the discussion, and helped to understand how people were learning. And it goes to Dean Amar’s point that we get a lot of information from reading the faces of our students in class, and so when we can’t see all of them, being able to have ways of getting information from them, both in advance and in real time, enormously important to gauge how we’re teaching and what direction to move in. More faculty are using PowerPoint and sharing their PowerPoint slides in advance. And a lot of faculty, and I thought this was really interesting because it aligns very neatly with the best practices in online teaching, and you’ll find it on the various websites around Harvard University about best practices on online teaching, but it’s really interesting how many faculty took to this. We have attention spans somewhere between 12 and 20 minutes during lectures to begin with, and so there are lots of ways that we need to keep people engaged. And law schools are way ahead of a lot of parts of universities, because we’re Socratic teaching and we use the case method, we use inductive teaching. That method, we’re all doing flip classrooms already, right, in a way. But as it turns out, when you’re teaching online, it’s really really important to be mindful of a bunch of things. So one is to be transparent about mapping what techniques you’re using and why. And the other thing is, it’s really important to think hard about what point you’re making, how it relates to what went before, and how it relates to what went after. Coherence is enormously important in high-quality online teaching. And what we saw from a lot of faculty is, that they thought very hard about how to structure their lessons and how to structure their teaching in a way that would make it more coherent.
What surprised me, I think everybody is working extra hard. I think there’s a lot of adrenaline, and I think people, when classes end tomorrow, I think people will take a breath and allow themselves to be tired. You know what I’ve found this semester, the last five weeks, is that people have been more excited than I expected about trying these new ways of teaching. And I expect a lot of this, and in fact, even after one week, I’ll know more tomorrow when we do the second survey. Even after one week, a lot of faculty were talking about things that they had used in the online setting that they will use in the classroom when we go live. So it’s very hard, we all have great faculties who are great teachers, and they read their evaluations. Their evaluations are very strong. Our students go off and they do great things, and so, you say to yourself, “What’s gonna get faculty “who are really excellent to think, “to try new things, and think about things differently?” And I think the last five weeks people will have tried and thought about things that will really shape their teaching when we go back into the classroom.
Levi: Maybe we’ll have something of a hybrid model down the road, where it’ll be a little bit like when you go to a football or a baseball game, you can’t help but look at the scoreboard. Sometimes you get a better vision of the field, actually, by looking at the video than you do by looking at the field. But you like the field noise, and you go back and forth. Maybe faculty will say, “Oh, the next two weeks “covering this topic,” or, “I think at the beginning “of the class I want everybody in there, “but later it’s not so important, “so we can kind of mix and match.” And then you’ll get faculty who will say, “Gee, my spouse is gonna be at Lake Como for the year “doing, on this sabbatical, maybe I’ll join him or her, “and I’ll teach from there. “And it’ll be just as good, “and then the deans will have to deal with that.”
Manning: So I think you’re right that we will have more of a mix. I will return to another point that Dean Amar made, which is that we are a regulated industry, of course.
Manning: And our regulators will have something to say about it, and hopefully . . .
Levi: Yes, they will.
Manning: . . . they will learn something from this as we did. We shall see they thought hard about what the elements of strong legal education are. So we will all be learning together.
Levi: So, let’s go out to Stanford, my alma mater, my other dean. Jenny, all the schools are right smack in the middle of the admissions season, and most of the schools, at least think, maybe without a lot of empirics, that it’s really important when students, potential students, come, they come to the campus and then they get to expose them to students who are already there, and to faculty, and show them the physical plant and how great it would be to come to their school. But they’re not having that opportunity this year. And how do you see this? Cause this is really a different admissions season than probably we’ve ever seen.
Jenny Martinez: I think you’re absolutely right that those admitted students weekends and the campus visits are just a part of the school calendar every year, and it’s really hard to imagine an admissions season without it. When we began talking about canceling Admitted Students Weekend, as this, sort of, health situation became apparent, the first few conversations, my Dean of Admissions just couldn’t even imagine how that would work if we didn’t have it in person. But I think that the same creativity that faculty have shown in the classroom environment has carried over to the admitted students context. And we’ve managed to pull off a really interesting set of events for admitted students online. And I know that all the other deans on this call are doing that as well. And it’s been interesting to think about how to recreate that campus visit experience through a series of Zoom calls, and we did a live Instagram tour of the school. But we’ve had huge enthusiasm from students and faculty about participating in these events.
It’s a little bit like what Kerry said in terms of students viewing classes as kind of the social highlight of their week. In a way, the students have also viewed participating in these Zoom sessions for admitted students, as the, kind of, highlight of their week in certain ways. And one of the admitted students that I was talking to said to me that one of the things that they were most impressed by was how happy our students seemed to be to see each other and to interact with one another. And that was interesting to me because they are really happy to see and interact with each other, and I think even more so when they haven’t been able to see each other in person for awhile. And the current students have enjoyed being on those Zoom calls with the admits and talking about what it’s like at the law school in a more normal time, and what their experiences have been. And same with faculty. Faculty, we’ve tried to pair people up sometimes to have more than one person on the call, and they’ve enjoyed that opportunity to interact, and to interact with some of our current students, and so forth. And the students have gotten really creative. Our students have come up with some great and highly entertaining videos around campus of themselves sheltering in place and studying, and things like that.
And so, it’s been an exercise in creativity, and, I think, as with some of the classroom changes, will probably give us ideas of things to do when we are back in person, of new ways to group students together to talk with our current students and faculty to show them what life is like on campus, and so on. I think that it is going to be different looking forward to next year and an admission cycle where travel will be impacted for awhile. We have been making an effort to send our admissions staff out around the country in the past few years to more places than we would have historically. In part, to try to recruit more students from low income backgrounds who might not otherwise be thinking about applying to a school like Stanford or coming to California, to, sort of, get more students who are at not the usual suspects of colleges that are, sort of, sending a lot of students our way, but other places where we think there might be bright students who would really be successful if only they they thought to apply. And it’s going to be much more difficult to have those in-person visits where we send our current students back to their alma maters to talk to a pre-law group or some of our admissions staff out to those different parts of the country. And so, thinking creatively about how to reach those populations, get information to pre-law students about how they should be thinking about law school. And their search for a law school will be different in this environment.
And also, in terms of thinking about, particularly for this fall, our international students. We have, of course, LLM students, but a certain number of our JD students who are from outside the United States, and with the travel situation, and uncertainty about how quickly student visas will be processed, and things like that, that’s also a population of admitted students and perspective students that are being impacted by the current environment that will pose some unique difficulties in this cycle. Going back to the question of how we might carry forward some of the online teaching in the future that also relates to international students, one thing that some of our faculty have done previously, but more faculty are thinking about now, is recognizing the possibilities of online classes. I have a faculty member who has co-taught classes with students in other countries and here at Stanford, where you’ve got a classroom of students on campus here, and a classroom of students in Europe or in Asia, or in Latin America. And I think those have been great. We’ve had only a couple of faculty who have ever sort of tried to do things like that. But I think now, as people are realizing the potential for the technology to have meaningful classroom experiences, I can envision more of those collaborations across borders in the future, which would be something that would be a positive thing to come out of this as well, I think.
Levi: Yeah, definitely. I think I’m the only one who was a dean in 2008, and that was a pretty devastating financial situation, not just for the law schools, but for the universities. But my sense is that this is worse because, in ’08, we were dealing mainly with the collapse of endowments, and to some extent, of giving, whereas here, probably all the revenue streams of the university are being affected, from grants, to gifts, tuition, room and board. And so this is, potentially, going to be very hard on the university. So, Jennifer, I’m wondering how you see it, not so much from the point of view of the law school, but just kind of the whole scene here. I think we’re all going to experience this, but most people probably don’t realize how deeply affected universities may be. What are your thoughts?
Jennifer Mnookin: Thanks for the question, and thanks also for having me. It’s great to see such a terrific group of fellow deans. And, I guess, it’s wonderful to hear about the creativity across the board, which we also have experienced at UCLA, because I think we’re going to need it. I think it is going to be a fiscally challenging time for law schools, but, perhaps, even more, for the universities under whose umbrellas we operate. And there’s so much unknown right now. We don’t know how long this is going to last, or what the impact is going to look like. None of us has seen a shock of this intensity. I think, not only in our lives as deans, but of, frankly, in our lives. And certainly it’s going to affect us.
At the law school level, we’re a school where, typically, about 200 of our 1100 students are international. We have a large LLM program. And it seems almost, it would take an awful lot of things going just right to imagine a world where those LLM students are able to get visas and participate in an on-campus experience come August. I mean, I think there’s harder questions about our programs as a whole, but an awful lot would have to look different than it does today for that to happen. And so for schools like mine where that’s a really core part of our institution, that’s an immediate potential change to our community, and who’s in it temporarily. And also, obviously, one fiscal dimension of our population as well.
But really, it’s at the whole university level that I think we’re seeing enormous challenge, and the question is how that will affect us as law schools. The University of California announced that, I think they, as a system, there was about a $500 million revenue loss in March alone at the system level. And that’s obviously very very substantial. At UCLA I think the two biggest areas of current impact, and this is true for a number of other schools, both on this call or otherwise, are, I think, around auxiliaries, around dorms and dining halls, and tickets, and all of those things that aren’t happening. And then also the health system. So for those of us whose universities have health systems, that’s a giant area of tremendous financial importance and financial risk that we all have to be concerned about.
I think in some ways the academic core, I mean, the question is how are we going to protect and support the excellence of that academic core given these other broader pressures? And schools all around the country have already begun to announce staff hiring freezes, faculty hiring freezes, in some cases pay cuts. At my own university we have implemented a staff hiring freeze with limited exceptions. We do not have a faculty hiring freeze right now. I know some other institutions do, but our campus leadership recognizes that these search processes can be lengthy and substantial. And also that we need to be focused on maintaining excellence, even at really challenging times. So we haven’t yet seen that, and we, actually, at the law school, are having a pretty active hiring year. But we’ve seen a number of announcements at other universities, and we certainly are seeing some effects of this as well. I think philanthropy is also a big open question. Obviously, this is a fiscal shock at large, and that may well be. We saw that after 2008, I think, at a variety of institutions. And so that is an area of meaningful and significant concern. Also because there’s so many needs, right? I mean, educational philanthropy is incredibly important, and I think all of us can make powerful cases for why the investment in our institutions has huge payoffs, not just for the students that we train, but for the world, and for making the world a better place. But there’s also clearly going to be a lot of other needs out there as well. And so continuing to make the strong case for philanthropic investment in education is going to be terribly important.
Two of us on this call are deans at public institutions, and so Vik and I have that as an added dynamic to the fiscal dimensions. There’s no question but that this will be placing tremendous pressures on state budgets as well. I think that public schools, public institutions, are, simultaneously, going to have special risks, but also, potentially, special opportunities, right? On the one hand, our state funding, obviously, could face reduction in the face of all of the pressures on state budgets. On the other hand, the fact that we do get some funding from the state, creates a space from which we can also articulate the importance of investing in education. And certainly, in California, The UC has been an extraordinary driver of economic growth for the state, and an investment from the public, that has paid off many-fold. And so, one can at least hope, that there will be a more recognition and understanding of that going forward. I think the politics of education in my state are, certainly, complicated and messy, but there really is a broad legislative understanding of the importance of the UC and the Cal State systems to the state and their ambitions, that makes that both yin and yang, both risk, but also opportunity.
Levi: Thank you. Just addressed to the group as a whole, in the last sharp downturn, one of the great concerns was the job market. And it took a little while to see that the law firms were not hiring or canceling their summer programs. Are you, just anecdotally, are you starting to see this, some problems in the legal economy, that are affecting students, or is that yet to come?
Amar: I’ll jump in, this is Vik.
Levi: Yeah, Vik.
Amar: So it’s still a very changing landscape. A lot of my students and graduates end up in large law firms in Chicago and other places in the Midwest, although we do send students to California and the East Coast too. Yeah, some large firms are maintaining their summer program, albeit virtually. Some are skipping the summer program but extending offers to all the students who would have been in it to join full time. Other firms are deferring the entry date for the Fall 2020 Class of recent graduates from September to January. So I think, the difference between this event and 2008 was, I think there was a broad understanding in 2008 of some very deep structural problems with credit markets and over-extension that were gonna take awhile to work off. Combined with changes in the delivery of legal services and the affect of globalization technology on law firms. This time it really depends on, kind of, the answer to an unprecedented question, namely, how do you restart an economy that you’ve called a time out on? How quickly can you do that? How interlocked is everybody, and how much time does it take to unwind all that?
So both as to the state funding question that Jennifer put nicely on the table for her and me, people don’t really know how it’s gonna affect tax revenues, and people don’t know how it’s going to affect the demand for legals. In the short term, a lot of people speculate that lawyers are gonna be more important than ever because there’s a lot of, think of all of the contract law disputes of big entities that are gonna emerge, over whether non-compliance is excused or not. Think of corporate restructuring and bankruptcy, and the like. So it’s really hard to know.
One thing, and actually Jennifer, I think, has been a leader among us deans in talking about this. One thing I think is pretty clear at every major law school I can think of in the top 30 or so, is probably going to alter their on-campus interviewing to some extent. Because I think that’s what the firms are going to want themselves. They may not want to come in July and August as they have been, and do it in January instead, or at least, January in addition. And part of that relates to something, I think, someone else adverted to, maybe it was Kerry at the outset. The change in the grading regimes in almost every major law school for this spring, means that first-year students don’t have traditional law grades in this second semester. And so for firms that are looking to hire them after their second summer, as a platform to post-graduation hiring, they might need some more information and input than they’re going to get from the pass/fail or modified pass/fail system that most of us have implemented.
So I think, just as is true with what universities are gonna look like in the fall, what law firms are gonna look like with regard to their short and intermediate financial and hiring needs, is really up in the air. Some law firms are cutting partnership shares by as much as 50% in the short term, and imposing 20 to 25% salary reductions on people who make over 200,000, or somewhat less than that for people who make over a hundred thousand. So just as is true with the universities, every institution is kind of feeling its way through this step by step.
Levi: It may be in the public interest area where you see the most contraction, because, for example, when the treasury sets interest rates at zero, the interest paid on IOLTA disappears. And that’s a very substantial amount of money nationwide. So that part of the picture, it’s always the toughest part, became tougher, I think. Anybody else on this topic of student employment?
– One other thing, sorry, go, John.
– No, no, go ahead.
Martinez: I was just gonna say, one other thing that is going to affect the graduating class is the timing of the bar exam. As states are doing all kinds of different things in terms of trying to reschedule, or do other ways of giving provisional licensure, things like that. That’s gonna impact when students can start their jobs. They’re not going to have their traditional summer where they go, they study for the July bar, they take a little vacation, and then show up at a job in the fall. It’s going to be all over the map, depending on the jurisdiction and when those bar exams take place. And that affects students in different employment sectors in different ways. For law firms, it might delay start dates, or they might give students time, or new graduates, time off to study later, but for students who might be going to a government or public interest job where they actually want to be able to go to court right away, or things like that, how, exactly, the particular state bar manages the bar exam is gonna have an impact on when they can begin their legal practice.
– Yeah, John.
Manning: We’ve thought very hard about what’s gonna happen this summer, and there have been, some employers have cut back their summers, and also some employers have canceled their summers, and, including in the public interest area. And so we, going to Dean Mnookin’s points about finances, and how do you spend the money wisely, one of the things we’re gonna focus on is financial aid. We have a summer public interest funding for people going to public interest internships, and we decided to make it available for people who are, we told our clinics that each one of you can, we have a lot of clinics, that each one of you can add three new summer interns, and we’ll give summer public interest funding to people who do these internal internships. And we also increase the amount of money available to our faculty to hire summer research assistants, in the hopes that we’ll be able to absorb some of the people who have lost their opportunities over the summer this year. So we’ll see. We just launched this this week and we’ll see how it goes. But I gather there are already people who are signing up for these opportunities. And faculty are jumping on it eagerly. So we’ll get more research, more clinical work, and hopefully absorb some of the lost employment.
Levi: So here’s sort of a softball for you all. Most of the people that listen to this are going to be alumni. Many of them are alumni of your very schools, and if they listen to this and they say, “Gee, you’re doing such a fantastic job, but you need “all the help and support you can get.” How might they be helpful during this stressful period? Aside from giving money, which seems like would be very helpful. But actually, you could talk about that too because maybe that’s the most important thing they can do right now.
Abrams: Yeah, well, I can jump in and take the first stab at that one. Interested to hear what the rest of you had to say. Definitely supporting us financially is still a huge priority, probably even more urgent than before, and that’s a tough message right now because it’s urgent for almost any kind of organization. And so, figuring out how to have that conversation is something I think we’ve all been trying to think through. A second is, back to your points about the employment market. Our alumni are sometimes in the best position to know before we do what’s happening, and they’re watching what’s happening in their firms and their corporations, and their public interest organizations, or the government. Wherever they’re employed, they know how those organizations are responding to this. They’re also really really excited about trying to help our current students or recent graduates.
And so, I think, the message I’ve been giving our alumni right now is, our Duke Law network always matters, but it really really matters right now. We really need you to make yourselves available to each other, and to us, and to stay in touch, and be ready to pick up the phone to help someone if someone loses a job. And also helping our students to think through options. So we’ve had requests from students, for example, “Would you put together a panel of alums “who would talk to us about their experiences “in going through recessions or difficult times? “And what was it like for them “the last time this happened? “And what can we learn from them about resilience?” And so I think sharing expertise and just offering a helping hand to our current students is something that they can be very helpful with right now.
Gerken: Yeah, I actually agree with that completely. I mean, financial support matters, but mostly the ability just to help our students in need. What our alumni had done in the past enabled us to deal with this crisis now. But this really is a time for the alumni, all of our alumns are like standing armies for us. And it’s just kind of been inspiring how much they want to help. So, Jenny, we felt the same way about canceling our Admissions Day, and when the alums discovered it, cause it’s such a tradition with us, they immediately were volunteering to speak to our students and to help. We’re doing the same thing that Harvard is doing to help our students who might have lost a job. But I’m sure all of you have had the same thing. I just got an alumni emailing me, “I’ve got a job, “do you have a student who needs one? “What can I do to help?” That’s the kind of thing that just makes you feel really lucky to have such a vibrant group behind you. And we don’t always need a standing army working that hard, but I think now is a time when everybody needs their standing army.
Mnookin: I would jump in, I would agree with everything that Kerry and Heather said, but I would also say that another way that they can help over a slightly longer period, in addition to financial support, which is enormously important, and participating, and thinking about job creation, and taking alumni links seriously, is maybe even thicker forms of mentorship over the year or two ahead. I mean, we’re also a school, we’re really proud that one in six of our students is the first in their family to graduate from college. Not just professional school, but college. And in a marketplace that may have more complexity and uncertainty, and the need for pivots and resilience, and real thinking about direction, for our alums to help our students be ready to succeed as mightily as possible when uncertainties come to pass, and to think about how to develop their, how to think about their job search process, how to think about their first year or two of their career, and how to be successful in that from the get go, is a place where we really can have alums. Our alums have always been willing to mentor and to provide these forms of engagement. But I think there really is a place for that to get a step thicker and more substantial than we’ve, maybe, called on in the past. And I’m really thrilled that there are alums who have already been volunteering in these ways. And I think it can make a big difference.
Levi: I don’t think any of us knows yet whether the universities will be open in the fall or not, for physical presence learning. But let’s assume that they are not. Does that concern you? What you described is a lot of momentum and a lot of careful thinking, energy, mutual caring and caretaking for your communities. But let’s say this goes on for another semester. Is that of concern?
Amar: It is for me.
Levi: I thought it might be.
Levi: Not just for you.
Amar: Yeah, it’s a tremendous concern. I have to say also, the setup to your question is also what makes things so challenging. None of us has any idea, and it’s so hard to plan when you have no visibility. I really deeply understand now in a way that I always have, but more so today, what economists mean when they say, “The most important thing is to have some certainty around which you can plan.” But the scenarios are so varied, it’s really tough to know where to be investing your time and energy in the short term.
I want to go back to something that Jennifer mentioned as well. It’s not just about the law schools. For a lot of us it’s about the universities that are our bigger homes. And if we can’t have physical instruction in the College of Law, we can work around that, although, I do worry about the affect that will have on yield for incoming students. Who wants to spend some or all of their first year of law school in their parents’ basement taking classes? But if the undergraduate and graduate schools can’t have in-person instruction across these campuses, that has just tremendous financial as well as cultural consequences.
So I really hope that we are in a place, nationally or regionally, in all six of our venues, where we can at least have some in-person instruction with social distancing. Even if it means some kind of a hybrid approach that you described. Maybe half the students are in the building on Mondays, and the other half are in the building on Wednesdays. And so you have one class a week remote, and one class a week in person, and everybody is keeping their distance. I think because law schools are more self-contained and somewhat more insular, and our students don’t tend to live in dorms, and they’re adult, and maybe we can count on them to respect some of the norms that we really want to emphasize, we may have a little bit more latitude to succeed than other parts of campus. But whether we’re talking about the country, or each of our universities, or the legal academy as a whole, we really are all in this together.
Levi: That’s an excellent point. We made the decision in this country in the 19th century that the law schools would be part of the university, and, what Vik is pointing out is that this has a kind of disaggregating affect when we can’t be all together.
Gerken: I think that law schools are actually in much better positions than almost everybody else. Most of us don’t rely on the kind of residential college dorms. It makes you wonder whether you can bring a large number of students and put them in the same place with shared bathrooms and shared kitchens. Most of us have students who are in either in apartment-like dorms or apartments. Our students are older so they’re gonna be living in a city where we’re holding classes, regardless of what happens, so that we can turn the switch on and off really easily. We can move online and offline in the same class year. We know that cause we’ve done it. So I feel like we have a much better chance than some other parts of campus to be able to go in person for as much of the percentage of the year as one can with public health constraints. And so it’s not ideal for the rest of the university, but I do feel like that law schools have a tiny bit more reason to be cheerful.
Mnookin: I would just jump in to add a couple of quick thoughts. One is, we’ve begun to do measurements of our classrooms. What would we need to do if we had to respect six foot social distancing? And I will say that that was not a cheerful finding for us. And for us, if we had to do six feet social distancing, our largest classrooms, which frankly, are bigger than we ever need for most of our real classes, came down to about the ability to hold 40. And it went down from there. So that was not a fun thing to recognize. If three or four feet social distancing were plausible, that becomes much much more feasible. But I guess I’m left feeling two things at once. If we can’t be in person in the fall at least partly, absolutely it’s a loss, absolutely. What Kerry began with about how we’re doing it midstream. We already did have community and cohorts, and people who knew each other. And it would be a loss, and we also wouldn’t have the kind of adrenaline-driven engagement that I think a lot of us have felt and that has been beneficial.
And so that would be really disappointing, but I also think we can make it work. And all of the creativity that we’ve been hearing about, and all of the learning of this past month plus, we could put to do what we have to do. And so what is challenging as an academic leader right now is it feels like we’re operating on about six pathways at once, right? We’re imagining such a substantial range of possibilities, and yet trying to imagine them thoroughly and thoughtfully, and in creative ways. And, of course, much of it, we’re just not in control of it. And so that’s challenging, but I think that this spring also does show us that we will be able to do it, and to give our students a strong education, even if that which has to happen, is not at all what we would hope would happen.
Levi: Well thank you, and on that note of optimism we will end this edition of Coping with COVID. Thank you so much for being with me here today. You’re amazing leaders and you’re very important to the legal profession. I think we all appreciate and admire the incredible work that you’re doing in this time of difficulty and uncertainty. And so, on behalf of the legal profession, I thank you all. It’s nice, you’re all competitors, but you’re also collaborators, and there is a community of deans who face so many of the same issues over time. But this is unique, and we’re very fortunate to have such a talented group guiding us through this period. This has been Coping with COVID, a podcast and video series produced by the American Law Institute and the Bolch Judicial Institute. I’m David Levi. Thank you for joining us.