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Law students face work, certification challenges during COVID-19 pandemic

With upcoming bar exam dates being canceled or uncertain, some students say they are worried about their future.
Illustrated by Hailee Schievelbein
Image by Hailee Schievelbein

Illustrated by Hailee Schievelbein

As the University of Minnesota Law School moves to completely online and pass/fail grade instruction, many law students are experiencing unprecedented challenges as they pursue their legal education. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, law students across the country are battling canceled bar exams, uncertain internship start dates and changing extracurricular programs. While the Law School is ramping up the amount of online support through its Career Center and Dean’s Office, many students are unsure about what the future has in store for them and other law students nationwide.

Third-year law student Gabe Branco plans on practicing corporate law when he graduates from the Law School this spring. He accepted an offer from a law firm that he has worked for over the last two summers but said he is unsure if the start date of his employment will be affected by COVID-19. Branco said he has student loans from his undergraduate degree and law school, and he wants to work as soon as he can. 

“If I don’t get to start on time, my loans are due,” Branco said. “I need that money to pay back loans.”

The National Conference of Bar Examiners, the body that administers the bar exam, is leaving the decision to postpone or cancel the bar up to the individual jurisdictions. While states like New Jersey, New York and Hawaii have already canceled their July exams, the Minnesota Bar has not made a decision yet. Law students need to take a bar exam to be certified to practice law. 

Third-year law student Sam Cleveland was planning on taking the New York Bar Exam this July before it was canceled. Now, his plans for an upcoming clerkship are more complicated as he and his peers figure out what to do next, he said. Cleveland also said he is upset that he will not be able to participate in a commencement ceremony, even though he is supportive of the Law School’s administrative decisions so far. 

“Anything we can do would be really great, but it just won’t be the same,” Cleveland said. “I understand that they’re doing the best they can.”

Law School Assistant Dean of Students Erin Keyes has been working with different parts of the Law School’s administration to address immediate COVID-19-related issues as well as planning for the future. Keyes said that the law school has been working hard to address students’ mental health concerns and said it can be harder to tell who needs services now. The Career Center has been working to move all advising online and meet with students who may be experiencing new or exacerbated issues, Keyes said.

For many law students, summer internships are an opportunity to make an impression for potential employment opportunities after law school. First-year law students have their own COVID-19 challenges as they look this summer and beyond. Avery Katz, a first-year law student, said she is worried about missing out on in-person learning experiences and clinics next fall if programs are canceled or moved online.

“The whole point is it’s supposed to expose you to working with clients,” Katz said.

The Law School decided to go completely pass/fail for course grading, and Katz said she thinks that the administration made the right decision. However, Cleveland said he worries that it may be difficult for current first-year students to apply for later opportunities if they do not have letter grades on their transcript this semester. 

“I got a flukey bad grade my fall semester,” Cleveland said. “If I didn’t have the spring grades to balance it out, it would have affected me a lot.”

Students and school administrators both said that along with the broader issues related to COVID-19, a difficult effect of the pandemic is not being physically in Mondale Hall, the building that houses the entire school. 

“There’s a great sense of community in Mondale Hall,” Cleveland said. “And that’s part of being in the same building.”

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