Where’s the Hurt? Part 3: The Coronavirus Impact on Law Students and What That Means for the Future of the Profession

A man looking stressed, pinching the bridge of his nose while looking at a laptop.

Generations of lawyers are still adapting to a new world turned upside down by the global coronavirus pandemic, but for countless law students the ongoing crisis has halted their young careers before they’ve even begun.

Blake Hoonan is a 2L at the Seattle University School of Law. In August 2019, Hoonan received an offer from a Seattle law firm to start a summer program this year—then COVID-19 happened. After Gov. Jay Inslee announced the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, Hoonan learned the firm was canceling its summer program, with the possibility that an alternative, but far shorter program might get off the ground in August.

“I can’t help but feel frustrated and concerned about the impacts it is having on my legal career during this crucial 2L summer where I am supposed to be learning and gaining practical experience working with potential future employers,” Hoonan said.

He’s far from alone in that experience. Bloomberg Businessweek reported that law students “often with six-figure debt loads, they’re facing reduced hiring and major delays getting their careers under way.” And the Wall Street Journal recently described law students as being in “no man’s land.” Such delays and uncertainty for law students today could put them at a disadvantage in the future.

“My sincere hope is two years from now, when [employers] look at résumés they remember, ‘Oh yeah, that was corona,’” said Elana Matt, the interim assistant dean of Student & Career Services at the University of Washington School of Law.

According to career-placement officials at Washington’s three law schools—UW, Seattle University, and Gonzaga University—the economic standstill from COVID-19 and abrupt transition to a new remote working environment has resulted in a general chilling of the job market (internships, externships, associate programs) for law students.

“When they’re so focused on their mission, it’s hard to think about hiring,” Matt said. “I’m not convinced it doesn’t mean they won’t be; what’s certain for the short term is they’re not.”

Beyond law students, the profession as a whole is taking a hit. According to the Washington Employment Security Department, 450 lawyers, judges, and related workers and 1,463 legal support workers have filed for unemployment this year, nearly all of which occurred after March 8.

Georgia M. Woodruff, assistant dean at Seattle University’s Center for Professional Development, told NWSidebar that the school is in regular contact with firms to adjust summer positions as needed, but mid- to large-sized firms hadn’t yet figured out how to adjust their programs. Seattle University students haven’t reported mass retractions of existing offers, Woodruff added; in fact, superior courts were still seeking clerks and some small firms specializing in estate planning and family law have been offering new positions.

But at the moment, it seems, all that’s certain is that no one is certain.

“We’re all going to be impacted and we all have been impacted by the pandemic,” Woodruff said. “What that’s going to look like—in terms of the big picture and the long game—I don’t think anyone knows.”

Laurie Powers, the assistant dean of professional development at Gonzaga School of Law, said she’s heard from a handful of recent graduates who were laid off because of COVID-19-related cutbacks, mostly from in-house and small-firm positions. While Powers referred to such instances as “a little uptick,” delays and outright cancelations of offers are more widespread.

“Students who were already placed and ready to go this summer, so far those have all been held,” Powers said. And problems with summer programs for 2L and 3L students could cause further trouble down the line when 1L students begin looking for positions in the spring.

Yet weighing most heavily on the minds of many is the summer bar exam.

As of this writing, the WSBA July bar exam—as well as the application and related deadlines—will proceed as scheduled. However, the Washington Supreme Court is considering this issue. And as one of 36 jurisdictions that have adopted the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), developed and coordinated by the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE), the final outcome must take into account the NCBE’S decision about whether enough applicants are scheduled to take the July exam to make it a valid exam, with an answer expected from the organization on May 5.

About a dozen jurisdictions have taken steps to postpone summer bar exams until the fall. The Utah Supreme Court has issued an order to temporarily allow admission to the state’s bar (with certain restrictions and a supervised practice hours requirement) without sitting for the exam.

Washington’s Admission and Practice Rule (APR) 9 for “licensed legal interns” creates a pathway that permits law school graduates to be licensed for supervised practice for up to 18 months after graduation, with no requirements to register to take the bar exam or not having failed it.

On March 31, a collective of law students in a letter to the Washington Supreme Court asked that Washington enact a “diploma privilege scheme” that would provide an exemption permitting them to be licensed to practice law as lawyers without sitting for the bar exam.

“Diploma privilege is the only humane alternative to postponement and, in light of current circumstances that evolve daily and are impossible to predict, is the only route that can offer clarity and certainty to the Bar,” the students wrote.

The WSBA Board of Governors voted not to support that request, which will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court at its April 29 en banc session. However, the board also directed the WSBA to take measures to ensure the July exam would be administered in “the safest reasonable manner,” which could include multiple testing sites or administration dates.

If there’s been a positive from this crisis, it’s that it has jumpstarted efforts to bring legal education online, and students are proving well adept in a world that many others are still adjusting to.

“I have found our students to be really remarkable and resilient and adaptable in this situation,” said Seattle University’s Woodruff. “I am impressed by the students and by the faculty learning how to do that in such a short period of time and I think that is something that’s a positive flowing from this.”