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Law school grades in the time of COVID-19

With COVID-19 sweeping through the Pacific Northwest and with the first confirmed case in the Lewis & Clark Law community, now is a time to focus on what matters most: our mental and physical health, our relationships with friends and family and our communities. Now is a time to reprioritize and let go of the little things — including some things that, were this not a time of global crisis, would be the focus of our daily lives. 

At age 31, law is a second career for both of us. We enrolled at Lewis & Clark Law with a strong sense of what we wanted to study and where we wanted to work upon graduation. Our first semester in, we wasted no time building relationships with our professors, networking with local attorneys, getting study groups up and running and preparing for our first round of finals. We are both what one might call “try hards,” students who are ambitious (at times perhaps annoyingly so) and determined not to be average. Our efforts paid off: we both did well our first semester and secured our dream summer jobs. The future looked bright.

Then the event cancelations began rolling in — first, it was local networking events; next, the spring career fair. Within days, like dominoes toppling, universities across the country began closing their doors — encouraging students to return home if possible, moving in-person classes online and adjusting the way finals were to be administered. On March 12, Lewis & Clark Law emailed students to notify us that beginning March 16 classes would be conducted remotely. From March 21 until further notice, the campus would be closed.  

Aime, mother to twin five-year-old boys, soon found herself with additional childcare responsibilities. During class lectures over Zoom video conferencing, Aime was one of several parents whose children made guest appearances on screen. While this may have seemed charming to classmates and teachers, the behind-the-scenes tells a different story: constant interruptions, the need to manage the same homework load while also taking on an additional 35 hours a week of parenting and the guilt that comes with the level of screen-time that is necessary to let her get through just a single class session. Law school is a complex time management challenge at its most planned-for state. This is the furthest you can get from that planned-for state. 

With the closure of Oregon public schools, many of our classmates are now in a position where they are not only in charge of their own learning, but that of their children as well. While self-isolation is the best way to minimize spread of COVID-19, it has wreaked havoc on the delicately crafted house-of-cards that are the care schedules of parents and caregivers everywhere.

Even students who are not parents or caregivers are feeling the psychic effects of COVID-19. We find ourselves caught in the same chaos as the rest of the country, as we read the news from our corners of self-isolation. We watch people we know cough, hoping their symptoms really are just allergies or “sinus issues.” We feel the impulse to pray for our parents over 60, despite our distinct lack of religion. We worry about whether we will be able to keep our shelves stocked with food next week and the next, for however long this crisis lasts. 

As students in a professional program, we worry about our job prospects — for this summer and beyond — if the economy continues to collapse. We were both 19 at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. Victoria, a college freshman at the time, remembers the feeling of panic that washed over the campus as seniors struggled to find jobs, as company after company instituted hiring freezes and layoffs. Aime remembers interviewing for a job as a bank teller — the applicants she was up against all had college degrees; some had graduate degrees, too. It is hard to not draw parallels between 2008 and today.  

While grades matter, if there was ever a time for law school administrators to give their students permission to stop worrying about them, it is now. 

In an attempt to alleviate this burden, on March 28, the law school administration announced a new default for spring semester grades: credit/no credit. However, students may opt to receive a letter grade, so long as they do so within 24 hours of taking a final exam. While this measure is certainly better than continuing on with letter grades as usual, it falls short of truly relieving students of the pressure to carry on as usual.

 For law students, grades can make or break your early career: good grades open doors to high paying jobs, coveted judicial clerkships and memberships in competitive student activities like law review. With concerns over the future of the economy looming large, students will likely feel pressure to opt for a letter grade, at the sacrifice of their mental and physical health or time spent with family. Taking a class for credit/no credit when you could have taken it for a grade means defending your decision and recounting trauma to future employers. For students who select one option, then learn the other might have reflected better on their transcript, it means carrying regret and worry that through your own actions you may have hurt your career options.

Realizing that grades this finals season are more likely than ever to reflect which students had the privilege of being able to maintain a sense of normalcy as opposed to academic ability, law schools across the country — including nearby University of Oregon, University of Washington and Seattle University — have moved to mandatory pass/fail grading systems for the spring. We had hoped Lewis & Clark Law would adopt such a policy, too.

Though we understand this was a difficult decision for our faculty to make and that there was no one policy that would have satisfied every member of the student body, we believe that a mandatory pass/fail system would have been the most compassionate, equitable approach. Leaving a curved grading system in place — albeit one you must now opt in to — assures that law school exams will continue to be an outsized source of stress during this time of economic and medical upheaval. 

Our state, our country, our globe are in crisis. Sick or not, our daily lives have been upended. One day, we will have the luxury of normalcy again — of meeting face-to-face with our professors and peers, of studying at Boley Law Library, of worrying about grades — but until then, it will be up to us, as students, to find ways to prioritize caring for ourselves, our loved ones and our community.  

Victoria Bejarano Muirhead & Aime Lee Ohlmann

Students at Lewis & Clark Law School

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