Using What We’ve Learned About the Effect of Racism and Economic Disparities on Law Students During the Pandemic

Jennifer S. Bard, Visiting Professor of Law, Levin College of Law

In my last two blog posts, I wrote about how law school’s structure unfairly benefits students who come in knowing how the game is played and those with the resources to play it under the best possible conditions.  I’ve also linked legal education to the systemic bias of the legal profession.

Our current situation, a still spreading deadly pandemic that has so far claimed over 250,000 lives in the U.S., has intensified those inequalities for everyone.  The evidence is already coming in of how the Pandemic is harming first-generation students.  

But it has also provided a clearer window into what was always apparent to student services professionals but not so much to faculty–how much harder the law school experience is for students who come to it with fewer resources of every kind.   

For example, online learning is only as good as the environment in which students learn and we are already seeing effects on students with the least resources. In normal times, all of our students have near 24/7 access to quiet, safe, comfortable places to study, engage in co-curricular activities, meet with faculty, and even take exams. Places without pets, younger siblings, or household chores.  They have lightning fast internet, large monitors, bulk printers, and IT support for when things go wrong.

But of course a lot of what’s going isn’t visible in a 50 minute Zoom session.  On campus, students have access to food either directly, by attending events, or can sometimes be signed up for university meal plans.  But in a world where by some estimates, pre-pandemic as many as half of all U.S. college students experience food insecurity hunger is an increasing peril as is homelessness.   The end of the moratorium on evictions means that as many as 8 million people will lose their homes over the next four months. 

We  also know that during the pandemic college students are facing worse mental health and that for many of our students home is not a safe place as they face abuse from parents and domestic partners. Research is emerging that like other segments of the population, students are drinking more during the Pandemic and are likely part of the increase in overdose deaths.

And then there’s the virus itself. As we all know (and have known for a long time), it very much does infect young adults–and it can hit them hard.   All the factors that contribute to racial bias in health care are magnified by those that put Black, Indigenous, Latino communities at greater risk of infection and, once infected, at greater risk of dying.  In addition, the harm caused by the uncertainty, fear, and loss triggered by living in pandemic conditions.  These are only magnified by our law students who have faced trauma as bar examiners  are caught flat footed and many of the pathways to employment, such as in-person summer placements, were disrupted.

Layered on top of economic disparities issues of systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia, these economic disparities mean that students come into law school with very  different levels of debt. Which itself is affected by racial disparities.   These factors are magnified in law students who come to us after four years of borrowing money for college. (The best information on law school debt is at Accesslex).

The Pandemic will end, and law students will once again have full access to law school facilities. But this glimpse into the real differences in backgrounds and resources should be a starting place for us to look at the law school experience, the gateway to the legal profession.

If any good can come from the experience of being so much closer to our students’ day to day lives, it should be an increased urgency to think about how we can make law school more inclusive. 

In my next post, I will be more specific starting with a proposal reduce the cost of a law degree by moving a year of course work to the undergraduate level.  Doing that would reduce the barriers to entry in the legal profession that saddle lawyers with debt and deprive most individuals in need of legal help from those best trained to assist them. 

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