COVID-19 Special Coverage
An Open Letter to the Legal Community on COVID-19: What are we doing?
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An Open Letter to the Legal Community on COVID-19: What are we doing?

I have been following the course of COVID-19, more colloquially known as Coronavirus, for a few months now and I really do not understand the wide mix of responses from the American legal community. Is our response due to a lack of leadership at the top? Or the wrong leadership perhaps? Is our response due to the disjointed nature of our profession (different bars and bar associations, different practice areas and jurisdictions)? Is our response something inherent to the individualistic mentality of our profession? I don’t know, but I feel the need to ask: What are we doing? Why are we doing it this way? And at the end of it all, who do we want to be?

To answer this question I want to talk about a series of different responses taken in reaction to the spread of COVID-19 in the US. It should be noted that most of these responses have only occurred within the last couple of weeks or so.

The ABA’s Guidance for Law Schools

In February, the ABA issued a guidance memo to law schools about how to handle the impact of COVID-19 on the current semester. The memo effectively discouraged any changes to the curriculum. It said that law schools can alter their curriculum under ABA Standards pursuant to a variance under Standard 107(a)(1), but argued that such variances should be used only in the direst of circumstances because the value of the degree is too important. The ABA went on to discourage online classes because professors may not be properly trained or equipped to conduct them. The ABA’s ultimate suggestion seemed to be: Don’t Change Anything, but if you must change, then your best avenue is to extend the semester to account for the break or reduce the number of credits necessary for graduation to the ABA’s existing minimum of 83 credit hours.

Take a second to ponder that. The ABA could have issued any number of responses to the spread of COVID-19. They could have stressed the importance of people over requirements. They could have created a moratorium or exemption on requirements. They could have offered to assist law schools in exploring new technologies and teaching approaches possibly even subsidizing training or technology purchases. The ABA didn’t even bother to recommend canceling nonessential events. In the end, what it chose to do is say the degree matters more than the person. The “integrity” of the profession matters more than the risks to students or the very professors teaching them.

Mock Trials and Moot Courts

Mock trial and moot court competitions have been all over the map in response to COVID-19 (literally and figuratively). Moot courts have tended to cancel their events. The International Moot Court Competition in Rome was canceled on March 2. The William C. Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot Court Competition in Vienna was canceled on March 7. The Cardozo Moot Court Competition was also canceled this week.

Mock trial competitions, in contrast, have remained conspicuously silent on the issue. Few have said anything. The only one I could find in my brief research is the American Association for Justice, which hosts the Student Trial Advocacy Competition, a major competition involving as many as 224 four-student teams from 14 regions. It shared this post, originally from February 24 but now dated March 5 though no updates have been made to it, explaining that the situation was being monitored. It should also be noted that this is a general post referring to all AAJ events; it doesn’t appear anywhere on the organization’s page for the Student Trial Advocacy Competition. The event has now been canceled, but the AAJ admits that this is because nine law schools have withdrawn and two courthouses have refused to host. To date, it has not informed the individual students of cancellation, only the coaches.

This is understandably a difficult environment to make decisions in and it’s complicated further by government directives and competing interests, but it feels somewhat callous to hold competitions in cities that are trying desperately to avoid further outbreaks. It also feels callous to ask students to risk travel and it may even be encouraging the wrong values in students by telling them that pride and accolades are worth more than their health and well-being and those of the community.

The Bright Side: Legal professionals, individual courts, and individual schools

Some groups are choosing to put people first, namely law students and professors, individual court systems, and law schools.

Let’s start with law students and professors. There is thriving discourse happening online about what law schools and legal professionals should do. This is a thread by Kayla Molina, a current 2L Student in Oklahoma and a member of the ABA Law Student Division’s Editorial Board, wherein there is significant discussion about the ABA’s stringent requirements, particularly around attendance. It also includes a discussion of the ableist nature of such policies in general. Here is another thread by Jess Miers, a 2L student at Santa Clara Law and a section 230 expert, in which she talks about struggling with the mental health effects of Coronavirus spread and reporting. Law professors are sharing existing content on online teaching as seen in Sam Brunson’s tweet here about Brian L. Frye’s Ipse Dixit podcast episode on the subject. David Hoffman, a professor at Penn Law, here is analyzing how contracts might resolve the mass cancellations occurring because of the virus in a way that is sure to drive scholarship and legal reform in the near future. Discussion drives change and discussion is happening online across multiple states and universities and members of the profession. Some groups are choosing to put people first, namely law students and professors, individual court systems, and law schools.

Court systems are taking a variety of different measures. Courts in Seattle are postponing in-person appearances in some cases while Seattle and Tacoma federal courts have put all jury trials on hold to combat the outbreak. Courts in New York are prohibiting guests from certain known high-risk areas to enter the courthouse. These policies are all being put in place by individual courthouses but it is certainly good that they feel the freedom to do what’s best for themselves, their staff, the parties appearing before them and guests.

Finally, some individual law schools are taking action. As noted above, nine law schools have pulled out of the AAJ’s competition. West Virginia University has announced plans to temporarily suspend classes and move to online instruction. The law school is redirecting to the university’s page and thus would appear to be following suit. Yale Law School is similarly extending spring break and moving to online instruction, as are many others. Individual law schools are taking responsibility for their communities.

Conclusion: History has its eyes on us

This is a pinnacle moment. This is a moment in history that could define the next century of legal instruction and legal character. This is a moment that prospective students will be looking to and professionals will forever be defined by. How do we want to present ourselves?

We could choose to hold to our stringent guidelines. We could choose to maintain archaic attendance policies and in-person instruction requirements. We could value some perceived integrity in being inflexible in our methods of instruction, not unlike the proverbial person on the internet saying, “I paid off my student loan debt so why should I forgive yours.” We could continue not to provide accessibility and reasonable accommodation and continue to discourage students who are not “healthy enough” or “tough enough” for law school. We could continue to encourage ego and individualism, self-interest and callousness.

Or we can see this as an opportunity. We can see this as an opportunity to explore new modes of instruction. We can use this to provide accessibility and reach out to the most passionate potential advocates. We can change our perspective and welcome comradery and collaboration over the adversarial individualism that all too often defines our profession.

History has its eyes on us, my friends. Who do we want to be?

Tim Zubizarreta is a 2L student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and JURIST’s Director of Social Media. He has interests in labor law, IP law, and the technology, entertainment, and videogame industries.

Suggested citation: Tim Zubizarreta, An Open Letter to the Legal Community on COVID-19: What are we doing?, JURIST – Student Commentary, March 12, 2020,  https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/03/an-open-letter-t…nity-on-covid-19/ ‎


This article was prepared for publication by Megan McKee. Please direct any questions or comments to her at commentary@jurist.org


Opinions expressed in JURIST Commentary are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JURIST's editors, staff, donors or the University of Pittsburgh.