Entering the unknown: New, returning law students grapple with pandemic-related changes

IU McKinney students, wearing masks amid the pandemic, gather in the law school’s courtyard during a student organization fair. (Photo courtesy of David Jaynes)

Bre Robinson’s final year of law school has been different in every way possible. Just a few weeks into a pandemic-stricken semester, the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Student Bar Association president said classmates are sparse.

Robinson

“The school is empty and quiet, so there is not really an opportunity to see people in the building. You just go to your class and sit in class and then you leave and that’s that,” Robinson said.

In a way it’s depressing, she said, especially as a third-year law student.

“Running into people and having those connections throughout the day has been something I have really appreciated and relied on,” Robinson said. “So going to the building and just going to class and not seeing anyone or being able to speak to anyone has created a sense of isolation throughout the law school.”

A different experience

Robinson isn’t alone in that sentiment. As students nationwide make their way into a new school year, social distancing guidelines and uncertainty are following them.

Although many returning law students already briefly dipped their toes into virtual learning earlier this spring, incoming 1Ls will have to tackle their first year of law school under unusual circumstances.

Will they receive the same peer-mentor help needed to navigate the uncharted waters of a legal education? Will students be able to engage in necessary networking for future job opportunities? How will student organizations fare if social distancing restrictions are in place?

IU McKinney 3L Tyler Smith believes virtual classes and events will not be as beneficial or as enjoyable an experience as they might have been in-person.

“But under the circumstances you don’t want to risk it,” he said.

As division chair of the law school’s Indianapolis Bar Association Law Student Division, Smith said his organization is trying to provide the same opportunities for students despite the constraints of having to host virtual events this semester.

“It’s definitely going to be a different look and experience,” he said. “… As a 1L it is such an important experience because everything is new and you are trying to figure it out. Law school is a way more grueling experience than undergrad.”

This year will be no different in terms of the number or type of events offered to IU McKinney students, said Sonja Rice, interim assistant dean of the office of professional development. Rather, the difference is that the events will be in a virtual format.

“Technology is keeping pace with the coronavirus, and software platforms abound to meet our needs. Events of all sizes will be accommodated — from our large, virtual career fair with dozens of employers to more intimate, smaller-sized virtual coffee chats with McKinney alums,” she said.

Lost connection

Getting new students connected with their classmates during the pandemic is definitely a concern, Robinson said, because organizations can’t provide in-person, face-to-face social events.

“The 1L year is especially challenging and you want to be able to find people to connect with and commiserate with that actually understand what you are going through,” she said.

In an effort to engage new students, IU McKinney’s Student Bar Association launched a new mentorship program this year to pair up interested 1Ls with 2L and 3L students. So far, the participation has been encouraging.

Ongeri

“We had 113 1Ls apply to have mentors, so we had a really good turnout,” Robinson said. “I know some of the 2Ls and 3Ls have already talked to the 1Ls, and one of the things that they said is that (the 1Ls) are having a hard time talking to people and making friends.”

“There are a lot of things in the beginning of the year that are foundational to the rest of your law school experience. Socially, making friends, becoming acquainted with professors via office hours — a lot of those things are missing,” said Keith Ongeri, a 3L and the Notre Dame Law School Student Bar Association president.

The northern Indiana law school’s community is very collegial, he said, where students would make new friends by sitting together during their lunch hour.

“Things of that nature are just completely gone,” Ongeri said. “The structure that allowed for social development, it’s hard to replicate that. I think (1Ls) are going to miss that. Hopefully we can find ways to roll out more productive and safe social gatherings.”

Plugging in

Byram

Since all of his classes are online this semester, IU Maurer School of Law Student Bar Association President Cole Byram is relying more heavily on extracurricular organizations to keep in touch with the school. Byram is a mentor to seven 1L students, which he says has been helpful in getting to know new people during these unusual times.

“We are trying to make sure our 1Ls get a feel of the community as much as possible and still get to know everybody,” he said. “We have had exceptional turnout of 1Ls who are interested in being in these (student) organizations, more than ever, because they want to feel more connected.”

Rice and Byram say it’s too soon to tell how the pandemic will impact student organizations. But in Indianapolis, the pandemic already has impacted IU McKinney’s SBA a great deal, Robinson said.

Although their professional development and academic events are fine being transferred online, social events are taking a hit. Two big events have already been denied this year, Robinson said, and the SBA is forced to come up with creative and engaging virtual solutions.

The engagement aspect within student clubs at Notre Dame Law School also has struggled, Ongeri noted, because it’s hard to replicate the experience and virtues of in-person interaction.

“A lot of these organizations thrive off of in-person meetings. One of the hallmarks of the 1L experience is lunchtime talks and events where you meet people. I think everyone agrees Zoom is no substitute for talking with someone in real life,” he said.

Another challenge for student organizations has been availability, Ongeri said. He’s not sure yet how the pandemic will impact the law schools’ clubs, but now that classes are taught through the once-available lunch hour, there’s no open time in anyone’s schedule to connect.

“Maybe a 1L really wants to get involved but they can’t to go to any group meetings because they are scheduled during lunch or vice versa,” he said. “You can’t schedule meetings because you don’t think anyone will attend. That I think is a big challenge because there is no real way to get anyone on the same page.”

Fortunately, IU McKinney hosted its student organization fair in-person and outside last week with social distancing measures in place, which Robinson said was really nice. But for her, the experience was also bittersweet.

“It made me realize how valuable those in-person connections are and how much we are missing out on those this year,” she said.

Byram agreed, reminiscing on when he was able to spend time with his peers and professors.

“We are all in law school and our academics are very important to us, but our friends truly are a priority, too, and we really miss that environment,” he said.•

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