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Back to (law) school during COVID-19 | Sigma Samanta Khan

Friday, September 18, 2020 @ 3:13 PM | By Sigma Samanta Khan

Sigma Samanta Khan %>
Sigma Samanta Khan
There are endless portrayals of the law school experience in popular culture, ranging from Elle Wood’s uphill battle in Legally Blonde to the intimidating cold-calling or Socratic teaching method of professor Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder. However, for the first time, current law students across Canada and the United States are experiencing law school in a way never expected nor depicted — full course loads, completely online.

As the world continues to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic, many law schools have decided to shift to virtual classes for the upcoming semester(s) as an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. This means that law students are logging onto online learning platforms for their courses.

In my experience, virtual law school has consisted of synchronous lectures, asynchronous videos, a class-chat function, a “raise hand” command for student participation and an optional webcam video feature. While students may have taken online classes prior to law school, the nature of law school pedagogy and course loads during the fall and winter semester make experiencing virtual full-time law school unlike the short bouts of online classes typically designed for the summer in post-secondary learning.

Nonetheless, professors and students alike are continuing to make the best of “the new normal,” as the current state of affairs is frequently referred to.

For most students, typical law school days are designed around lectures with group work, class participation or discussion and many students are involved in extracurricular activities, networking events, information sessions, guest speaker lectures, clinics or part-time work in between their regular classes.

Students are now required to shift, adjust and alter their schedules and expectations to take place in a virtual world. As such, for my peers and I, this online law school experience seems to have caused a type of cognitive dissonance as the academic and professional schedules we have spent years carefully getting used to now requires change.

As a millennial law student who has grown up in the digital era and experienced as well as benefited from almost every area of life slowly transitioning into the cyber realm, I am still facing hardships adjusting to virtual law school. Nonetheless, I can also appreciate the way this distinctive career experience can have and leave lasting benefits. The following have been my greatest challenges.

Challenge No. 1: Lack of community

Since law school orientation, the importance of the student community, network development and peer appreciation is emphasized to law students. As such, students benefit greatly from witnessing their fellow colleagues undergoing the same experience as themselves. Without being able to walk into a classroom, share thoughts on readings between classes or impromptu group studying sessions over lunch, law school can start to feel lonely and solitary.

The contrast between virtually seeing classmates’ names pop up on the screen and being able to vent together about work five minutes before class truly disengages the sense of a community. For students who move cities to attend law school, law school friends become a “family” away from family while navigating this niche world of shared experiences where everyone bonds over law jokes.

For group studiers who require social interaction to keep from feeling drained, virtual law school feels secluded. Having days filled with walking into the law building to see booths for social events, posters sharing resources, leftover baked goods from a catered occasion which acted as pick-me-ups, and strolling into the library to see another student rapidly highlighting the same textbook as myself replaced by minimal virtual interactions has been a challenging adjustment.

Challenge No. 2: Blurring of boundaries

Another challenge I have faced adjusting to virtual law school has been the encroachment of work or school into every area of life. Without a physical law building, classroom, library or study rooms, it often feels as if law school is all-consuming. Working from a home office (or in my case, my bedroom) has brought my work into my space of relaxation.

Without clear boundaries of work and personal time, it is difficult to turn “work mode” off. Prior to COVID-19, there would be a distinct ending to the class or study time, however, virtual law school has created a vacuum where law students are simultaneously participating in all things school, extracurricular, family time and personal time all in one space.

Personally, the feeling of being in “work mode” at all times brings about a fear of missing an assignment or, in flipping between law school and personal life, making it harder to maintain that balance law students often strive for.

This is part one of a two-part series. In part two, I will continue the discussion of my greatest challenges, as well as the benefits, of attending law school online during the pandemic.

Sigma Samanta Khan is currently a 2L juris doctor student. Her legal areas of interest include privacy, technology, litigation, intellectual property, access to justice and international law.

Illustration by Chris Yates/Law360

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