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Virtually back to school: Impact of COVID-19 on law students | Sarina Nezhadian

Wednesday, September 02, 2020 @ 2:11 PM | By Sarina Nezhadian

Sarina Nezhadian %>
Sarina Nezhadian
The first week of law school as a 1L student brings nerves that are overcome over the year through the comfort of routine, creating friendships and being within an academic environment.

However, since the school closures in response to COVID-19, several issues have arisen with respect to socioeconomics, resourcing and mental health.

On March 12, many Ontario schools faced a temporary school closure. This impacted all law schools, as near the end of the semester school administrations dealt with a sudden and difficult move to an online learning environment. School boards attempted to ease this transition as smoothly as possible by providing students with a choice on how to proceed with final examinations, and more importantly, final grades.

As some schools were provided with take-home exams and optional “Pass/Fail” grading, others were not. In order to gain uniformity and fairness amongst the entire student body, many Ontario law schools implemented a mandatory Pass/Fail grading scheme for the 2020 final grades.

The mandated grading scheme was a relief for many students who have had to end their leases and return to their family homes, where academic resources may not have been as accessible. With the closure of libraries and coffee shops, unstable Wi-Fi connectivity or new responsibilities to assist family members struggling with the impact of COVID-19, the Pass/Fail grading scheme relieved students of copious amounts of pressure — temporarily.

The long-term effects, on the other hand, are noteworthy. A number of the largest firms and government agencies in Ontario winnow numerous resumés and cover letters down to their best candidates, who they meet for “On Campus Interviews” (hereinafter OCIs).

The firms host interviews at Ontario law schools as part of their recruitment process. OCIs are typically held during October of the following year for 2L students. Due to the closures of COVID-19, the date for OCIs has now been delayed into the new year, likely in January 2021. Students no longer have a percentage grade point average on their transcripts, which places great emphasis on fall 2020 grades. 

In addition, as employers are now encouraged to review applications holistically, participation in extracurricular activities has increased in comparison to previous years. Competition is heightened as students are aware that employers will rely on their fall 2020 grades. Students who had more opportunities to demonstrate a high-grade trajectory must now rely on one semester to do so.

Although firm recruitment may not depend solely on grades, the long-term aftermath of the pandemic has created additional stress on law students.

Along with the mental pressures on upper-year students, 1L students face their own difficulties. With an online semester, the way in which students approach networking has changed. It will be more difficult to continue with large networking events, career fairs or simply creating friendships with peers. Cultivating law school alliances is incredibly important during the three years of attending, as it can be a rough environment to navigate through alone.

Although dependent on one’s own study habits, for those who thrive on having study groups, meeting in person may not be doable as it would be while living in a university city. Most students will now rely on virtual study rooms, which is dependent on both their living situations and Wi-Fi connections. 

Students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are the most affected on this front. From a 2017 statistic, almost all Canadians from high socioeconomic backgrounds have access to Internet at home, while only 69 per cent from low socioeconomic backgrounds do (defined as having a household income of less than $32,914).

Among those who do not have easy Internet access at home, their reasoning includes the cost of the Internet service, cost of equipment, and the unavailability of Internet services in their regions. By not having the consistency of accessible Internet, students are likely to become disengaged with the content and readings. It is also a roadblock for those students seeking to participate in virtual study groups.

An argument to be made is that students may move out as they originally would have, pre-pandemic. However, this viewpoint does not take into account the economic instabilities many have faced during the lockdown. Since March 16, the Superior and Ontario Courts of Justice have facilitated remote matters only by using virtual technology. The online filing and virtual hearings have protected the health and well-being of all parties involved.

However, many summer student and articling positions have been revoked or postponed until further notice due to the closure of firms, as well as adjourned trial dates. The opportunity for students to save money for academic resources, including rent to move out, was scarce. 

As the restrictions continue for health and safety reasons, it is up to us as law students, alumni and licensed lawyers to have empathy and lend a helping hand to our peers and colleagues. We are not aware of the struggles one may face in addition to their academic obligations during these unprecedented times.

We must be open to help those around us, whether it be with adjusting to the law school culture, requiring resources or anxiety about grades. As a legal community, we can provide solutions together.

Sarina Nezhadian is a rising second-year law student at the Dual JD program at the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Law and the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. She has a great passion for criminal law and civil litigation. She is active on LinkedIn.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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