Law students take initiative for mental health

Students are pushing for greater support from the University’s Law School.

Walter+F.+Mondale+Hall+is+seen+on+Tuesday%2C+June+5.

Tony Saunders

Walter F. Mondale Hall is seen on Tuesday, June 5.

Katelyn Vue, Campus Activities Reporter

Several law students are advocating for greater measures to ensure their mental health and well-being during the pandemic, including changing grading curves in recognition of the challenges of online learning.

The University announced in early December it would only allow undergraduate students on the Twin Cities campus to switch to or from the pass/fail grading system.

On the same day of the pass/fail announcement, Garry W. Jenkins, dean of the Law School, sent an email to reaffirm that the Law School would not make any changes to its grading policy.

According to Jenkins’ email, an abrupt change to grading might disadvantage students who worked hard to improve their grades and could create barriers to employment, as many law schools across the country have not implemented pass/fail options for the fall.

Students petition for understanding during the pandemic

Third-year law student Amanda Tesarek said she is advocating to change the grading curve for final grades this fall, especially for first-year law students, to be more generous considering the added challenges of online learning. Tesarek is also the president of the Law Council, which serves as a liaison between the University’s Law School administration and law students.

According to William McGeveran, associate dean for academic affairs in the Law School, larger classes — usually the classes that first-year law students are required to take — are graded on a curve. Smaller classes like seminars and clinics, usually for second- and third-year law students, do not have a curve, McGeveran said.

McGeveran said the Law School would not opt to change the grading curve for the same reasons it would not implement pass/fail grading for law students. Adding changes to the grading curve would introduce “arbitrariness” and unclear grading standards as well as affect a student’s future with employers, he added.

Shantal Pai, a third-year law student, wrote a petition to make a statement mandatory on student transcripts to indicate to employers the semesters that coincided with the pandemic.

“This petition was a demand for recognition that this is not normal,” Pai said. “A demand for the Law School to take some leadership in supporting students who are going through this thing that’s not normal, who are going to be affected by this in the future.”

In response to Pai’s petition, Jenkins’ email said the Law School will add a formal statement about the impacts of COVID-19 on students to the quartile ranking statement for the class of 2021, 2022 and 2023. The quartile ranking statement is a document that lists the grade point average range for each quartile and is provided to all employers who recruit from the Law School. The quartile ranking statement is also available on the school’s website.

But some students said the statement on the quartile ranking is not the same as having it on students’ transcripts. Employers will more likely see their transcripts than seek a quartile statement, students say.

Law school administrators disagree, stating that quartile ranking is readily available to employers.

“We think that employers actually rely on, as much or more on, our information document about our grades in the Law School, including the quartiles. And the career center provides it to all of our employers that list through us,” McGeveran said. “So, we actually think it’s more accessible than the transcripts.”

Some uncomfortable asking for mental health day

In November, Tesarek sent out a survey for law students about mental health. The survey asked students if they felt comfortable taking a day off for mental health, whether there are adequate mental health resources on campus and if they felt the Law School cared about their mental health.

Almost 70% of law students disagree or strongly disagree that they feel comfortable taking a necessary mental health day, according to the survey results. 40.5% of students disagree or strongly disagree that the Law School is helping students’ mental health during the pandemic.

“Getting penalized or punished for lack of attendance based on mental health requirements, I don’t think that is something students should be worried about,” McGeveran said. “And clearly based on this survey, we need to do [better to communicate] about that.”

Tesarek sent an email to the dean’s office at the Law School with the mental health survey results and student concerns about COVID-19, and she asked to meet during winter break to set up a plan for the spring semester.

“We have the data now to back up what we’ve known all along, which is that mental health is hard for law students as it is,” Tesarek said. “And this pandemic is only making that worse, and what the law school is doing right now is not adequately responding to the increased demand for the support that students need.”

Response from law school deans

This semester, the Law School launched a weekly student newsletter that highlights administrative updates, opportunities to connect with the community and mental health resources. The law school also partnered with Ten Percent Happier, a health and wellness app, to secure 500 free subscriptions for students, said Erin Keyes, assistant dean of students at the Law School.

In the next couple of months, the Law School will work alongside student leaders to plan and create opportunities for the spring to address student concerns, Keyes added.

“There’s always more that can be done,” McGeveran said. “We’re trying really hard. But being a law student is really difficult in ordinary times, and it’s exceptionally difficult in COVID times. There’s just no doubt about that.”