Paul L. Caron

Monday, August 2, 2021

Gerken: Will Legal Education Change Post-2020?

Heather K. Gerken (Dean, Yale), Will Legal Education Change Post-2020?, 119 Mich. L. Rev. 1059 (2021):

GerkenThe famed book review issue of the Michigan Law Review feels like a reminder of better days. As this issue goes to print, a shocking 554,103 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States alone, the country seems to have begun a long-overdue national reckoning on race,  climate change and economic inequality continue to ravage the country, and our Capitol was stormed by insurrectionists with the encouragement of the president of the United States. In the usual year, a scholar would happily pick up this volume and delight in its contents. This year, one marvels at the scholars who managed to finish their reviews on time.

The editors have asked me to reflect on how 2020, particularly the pandemic, will change legal education. Like most institutions, law schools have undergone a stress test over the past year. During the early days of the pandemic, every school put a centuries-old teaching tradition online, often within the space of a single week. Most thought that the pace of change would slow down in April. It didn’t. For months, COVID generated crisis after crisis.

 Schools had to deal with budgetary shortfalls, a stock market crash, job losses, postponements of the bar exam, the loss of virtually all of their international students, and the terrible hardships that COVID caused for students, staff, and faculty. To top it all off, any school that—like Yale—brought its students back in the fall for in-person learning had to invent new forms of teaching for the classroom and an entirely new set of communal rules for campus interactions. Even though the pandemic has not yet lifted, one can already make out the ways in which law schools’ adaptations to the pandemic will eventually be structured into legal education’s gene sequence.

While those changes will be the subject of endless discussion by deans and administrators, myself included, I expect those changes to be modest, as I explain in Part I. COVID-19 compelled law schools to adapt, to be sure, but it also centered every law school on its core mission and reminded us of the magic that is missed when we are online.

Part II offers a brief coda by asking whether 2020 will reshape the way we think about law, institutions, and democracy. Put more sharply, this Part focuses not on whether 2020 will reshape legal education writ small, but whether it will reshape legal education writ large.

I hope so. The pandemic has brought about losses of an incomprehensible scale. The human costs of economic inequality, structural racism, and climate change have been made plain for all to see. The political events of the last year have revealed enormous fissures in our country. The effects of the pandemic on educational institutions have been dwarfed by the personal and human losses that COVID has inflicted on this country. The storming of the Capitol cost lives, desecrated the seat of our democracy, and shamed our country.3 If we look back at this period with cheery bromides about improved pedagogy and online conferences, we will have failed.

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