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Excerpted From: Khrystan Nicole Policarpio and Grecia Orozco, Together but Unequal: How the Covid-19 Pandemic Exacerbated the Inequities Harming Minority Law Students, 55 U.C. Davis Law Review Online 91 (May 2022) (196 Footnotes) (Full Document)
In early March of 2020, the official number of coronavirus (“COVID-19”) cases worldwide surpassed 100,000, marking the start of one of the deadliest global pandemics. COVID-19 cases have only increased since the initial surge, surpassing 481 million cases and over 65.8 million deaths worldwide in March 2022, two years since the outbreak. In the United States, there have been over 79 million cases, and over 950,000 deaths, making this pandemic deadlier than the 1918 Flu. The outbreak of this deadly and highly contagious virus created new obstacles. Workplaces and schools transitioned to online learning; restaurants, malls, and shops restricted visitors; people relied more on delivery or takeout services; and national parks closed. Major public transportation systems implemented new regulations to keep people safe. All these changes impacted the lives of law students, particularly minority students, by contributing to continuous uncertainties regarding secure housing and future job placements. No change caused more difficulty for students than the transition to online learning. This unprecedented shift in how we learn has been difficult for new and continuing law students enrolled in traditional American law schools. Law school is a difficult endeavor with many barriers, such as the cost and preparation for the Law School Admissions Test (“LSAT”), cost of each individual application, and financing law school generally. Attending law school under normal conditions is a challenge because it is structured to favor students from the wealthy elite, or students with access to the best resources for success. First-generation students, students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (“BIPOC”), low-income students, non-traditional students, undocumented students, and students with disabilities (who we will refer to collectively here as “Diverse students”), have all suffered at the hands of a system that has historically held them back. An online environment exacerbates these historical and systemic inequities in law schools. Efforts to “go back to normal” amidst the ongoing pandemic, use of letter grades, extensive law review write-on competitions, and harsh and rigorous law firm recruiting, especially the On Campus Interview (“OCI”) process, have only emphasized these barriers.
The first Part of this Article explores the pre-pandemic law school structure and the inequities faced by Diverse students. The second Part examines the effects of the ongoing pandemic and the current cultural and political climate on the law student experience. This discussion incorporates findings from a survey we conducted in 2021, in which we gathered anonymous feedback from law students across the country regarding their experiences with online learning. This Section also discusses students' reactions to the current political and cultural climate, including the nation's response to police brutality and the 2020 presidential election as additional factors affecting law students. Lastly, the third Part of this Article offers recommendations to law schools on how legal education can be more equitable during and beyond this global crisis.
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With all these issues at play, how can law school administrations do better to serve the most vulnerable of their student populations? While many schools have implemented diversity trainings and diversity, equity, and inclusion (“DEI”) initiatives, these do not rise to the needs of Diverse law students. Professor Courtney Wright, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, does consultant and conflict work with organizations and education professionals to manage difficult interactions communicating across cultural differences. She writes, “By working on DEI initiatives without repairing those relationships, you are more like an agitator than ally. Just as agitators have infiltrated peaceful protests to incite violence, there are agitators who claim space in DEI regimes while (un)intentionally working against diverse faculty.” This same principle can apply to Diverse students. While the legal profession continues to be competitive, it is important to reassess how practices that keep Diverse attorneys out of the legal field continue to survive and thrive. After a year of navigating a global pandemic, law school administrators should take an honest assessment of their efforts and implement immediate changes to support Diverse students. Now.
There are a number of ways to bring equity to the legal field, some of which we have explored, and many of which have been advocated for throughout the years.
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But above all else, listen to students. Ultimately, the question remains, for who does this current system work? Due to the nature of law degree programs, they are often short, anywhere between three to four years. While students can identify issues that impact them directly, it often is not enough to make widescale/lasting change. In the alternative, school administrations would benefit from having an active role in engaging the student body. Too often it is left to students to conduct surveys asking about the well-being of their peers or to continue to push for equitable change. Law school administrations should take active roles to learn about their student communities and take note of what students say would best assist them during times of crisis as well as under “normal” circumstances. A commitment to learn about students and carefully considering the needs of each class is the first step to help fill structural gaps. Students should not be in the position of creating mutual aids to support the gaps where the law school falls short. Though these solutions do not get to the root of the inequities that Diverse students face, they are a starting point. Many have been advocating for these changes for years. The pandemic has shed light on the fragility of gains made by Diverse students, and it is imperative that law schools across the nation act swiftly and immediately to rectify the harms Diverse students are facing.
Khrystan Nicole Policarpio & Grecia Orozco. Khrystan Nicole Policarpio (she/her) and Grecia Orozco (she/her/they) are J.D. candidates, class of 2022, at the University of California, Davis, School of Law.
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