As the start of the fall 2020 semester draws near, law schools are beginning to define their plans for holding classes during the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. As of this writing, three broad models of law school reopenings have emerged as law schools have presented their plans to the public: largely in-person instruction, largely remote instruction, and various hybrids that negotiate between those two poles.
Unlike many other curricular components, law clinics involve stakeholders beyond the students and wider law school population.
While there are prominent examples of law schools announcing online-only instruction for the coming semester, such as Harvard Law School and Berkeley Law, many have opted for a hybrid approach. For law schools intending to bring students back to campus in some capacity, there are myriad details and policy points to consider, including testing frequency, limitations on class size, modifications to the physical structure of classrooms, and even altering and condensing the time frame of the semester (namely, to conclude in-person coursework by the Thanksgiving holiday break). Meanwhile, remote methods come with their own sets of considerations, such as whether and when to record class sessions (and when to make those recordings available to students), how to re-create valued elements of the law school classroom using virtual media, and how to innovate and even improve the quality of legal education using the new tools at educators’ disposal.
One component of law schools that has perhaps received less coverage lately—but nevertheless occupies a unique place in the remote vs. in-person debate in legal education—is the law school clinic. Unlike many other curricular components, law clinics involve stakeholders beyond the students and wider law school population that depend on their continued functioning. Moreover, some of the relevant factors, like whether local courts are functioning, are out of law schools’ control.
Many clinics transitioned to online operations when law schools closed their campuses in the spring semester, both due to students themselves leaving campus as well as the shutdown of many key stakeholder institutions, most notably courts. Adaptation was necessary, with clinics adopting a number of different strategies. The Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project, for instance, hosted a Zoom phone bank on April 3 to demand the release of vulnerable inmates who pose no public risk. At Fordham Law School, despite moving online, faculty and students at its Federal Litigation Clinic continued to work and reach out to clients in prison—as well as to their families—to determine whether there were underlying vulnerabilities that might make them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Since prison visits were closed, however, they had to get creative, using phone calls, written petitions, and even reaching out to prosecutors directly.
While questions remain around how clinics will operate in the fall 2020 semester, some details are evident in law schools’ larger reopening plans to the extent that they have been made public. Harvard Law School, which plans to hold all its courses online, has published a webpage devoted to its fall 2020 plans with information ranging from its rationale for remote-only instruction to how students can access funding for the technology necessary to participate. The page also details how its clinics will operate. While noting that advocacy-oriented clinics should be able to continue functioning online without significant issues, those that typically interface with the courts—courts that, like law schools themselves, may be online—prove more difficult. Despite the law school’s decision to hold all fall 2020 classes remotely, it notes that clinics that involve direct client service may eventually be able to continue some aspects of their in-person work as courts reopen, potentially including in-person activities such as appearing in court, interviewing clients, and accessing court documents. At the same time, Harvard Law School emphasizes that these potential in-person clinical opportunities would be voluntary and that all its clinics “will and must have robust legal work for students to undertake remotely no matter their geographic location.”
One way or another, clinics will be open for business.
Other law schools hint at their approaches with varying levels of detail. In describing its hybrid approach, the University of Chicago Law School notes that “some clinical offerings will be held in-person.” Michigan Law, which is planning to offer in-person classes with online options, affirms that all clinics will operate in some form in fall 2020, with the status of in-person opportunities dependent on the status of the relevant practice settings (for example, the court that would hear the type of case handled by a given clinic). While acknowledging that the overwhelming majority of clinical work has and will continue to be conducted remotely, Michigan Law directs students who want to participate but who also feel uncomfortable with potential in-person components to consult their clinical professor or dean. Meanwhile, Arizona State University Law School, which also plans to offer online and in-person options for its coursework, cautions that some clinical experiences that “do not lend themselves to remote instruction” will take place only on campus and in person.
Like the larger legal profession, and in particular the court system, consensus best practices for the remote operation of law school clinics have yet to be fully developed. Just as courts are struggling with how to safely and effectively re-create essential in-person tasks like sharing evidence and providing space for public viewing (for more, see “Public Trials”), clinics are similarly forced to reckon with previously face-to-face tasks like conducting client interviews and interfacing with the courts. One thing is clear: clinics will have to adapt to the new normal. Quinten Steenhuis, a clinical fellow at Suffolk University’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab, recently launched a project aimed at creating a client-centric app around housing and family law given both the closure of physical courts as well as the separation between students and their clients—just one example of clinical innovation borne of necessity. Time will tell what other innovations and breaks from tradition await as the fall 2020 semester unfolds. One way or another, clinics will be open for business.