There is only one word Grace Lempp could use to describe graduating from law school during a worldwide pandemic.
“It was surreal. I had to learn a lot really quickly about being able to do what I needed to do without being able to see people every day,” Lempp said.
Lempp graduated from the University of North Carolina law school in May. She is currently a fellow at the Prince William County’s Public Defender’s Office; if she passes the bar exam next month, she is expected to transition into a salaried position as an assistant public defender.
Of course, this was not the post-graduation plan she imagined at the beginning of 2020. Lempp was supposed to take the bar exam in July and begin working as a public defender soon after. But when the coronavirus pandemic swept the county, most public gatherings were shut down, including bar exams.
As such, many recent graduates had to readjust their professional plans.
“I think for young lawyers who have been given a set of expectations about what the practice of law looks like, the reality gap has never been starker,” said Margaret Ogden, wellness coordinator for the Supreme Court of Virginia. “If you’re just entering the practice, a lot of those long established connections and routines… are not going to be there.”
Exam cancellations were just one of many COVID-19 side effects that threw a wrench into the plans of law students, recent graduates and young lawyers. Summer internships were either online or cancelled entirely; at least 65% of law firms suspended their training and coaching programs during the pandemic; and most law firms are now starting their 2020 law graduates in January 2021 instead of this fall, according to a study conducted by Leadership for Lawyers and Cote Consultants.
“Overall, collectively, the pandemic is working against associates’ professional development,” said Graham Bryant, law clerk to Justice William C. Mims and adjunct law professor at William & Mary.
Bryant graduated from the William & Mary law school in 2016. Since then, he has served on the Virginia State Bar President’s Special Committee on Lawyer Well-Being and has published articles on maintaining young lawyer well-being during a pandemic.
This professional experience – plus the experience of being a young lawyer himself – has made Bryant well versed on how law students and young attorneys are being impacted by COVID-19.
He said one of the biggest professional losses young lawyers are now facing is missing out on developing in-person relationships with clients.
“[Young lawyers] haven’t had a chance to properly build their reputations, and it’s hard to build a reputation in a specific area of practice when, for the most part, clients are seeing firm figure heads. They don’t often see all the work that associates put in,” Bryant said.
On an “internal” level, Bryant noted the cancellation of in-person networking opportunities for career growth.
“So many connections are made at conferences, at state bar meetings… When you put that many talented legal professionals in a room, connections are made, opportunities are developed,” Bryant said.
“[Before COVID] you were going to go to a firm with built-in mentorship and education… The law is so much learning by doing, and if you don’t have structure in place for that it can be really nerve wracking,” Ogden added.
Lempp also lamented the loss of in-person clinical experiences for current law students.
“A lot of my friends in [law] school are disappointed being in their third year online… So much is learned being in the field for [in-person] clinical experiences,” she said.
Bryant noted that the COVID-induced “budget shortfalls” are disproportionately affecting new lawyers because they “lack seniority.”
“They’re new to the profession. They don’t have the job security you earn from being with a firm for a long time,” he said.
Bryant added that young lawyers and recent law school graduates may face even more career setbacks due to the pandemic simply because of their demographic and “major life transitions.”
“Typically after graduating law school you’re moving to a new place, renting a new apartment, getting married, having children. All these transitions come with a lot of uncertainty and a lot of expenses… And all of that is amplified right now,” Bryant said.
While early analyses of the virus indicated that life would return to “normal” in a matter of months, it’s become clear that the impacts of COVID-19 on the legal community has forced the profession – from practicing lawyers to law schools — to reevaluate their procedures for the foreseeable future.
One trend that is here to stay is an increase in online learning — though according to Ogden, e-learning may have a more positive impact on young lawyers than originally perceived. In May, Ogden and Bryant hosted a virtual VSB CLE event on lawyer wellness; last month, they held an online training session on occupational wellness with Judges & Lawyers Assistance Program, or JLAP.
Ogden said young lawyers provided the most positive feedback on the online events.
“Young lawyers have said, ‘This is so much more accessible for me,’” she said. “They weren’t necessarily going to be able to drive across the commonwealth for in-person events… Now they’re saying they have access to more types of educational opportunities than before.”
Lempp anticipates law students will graduate as stronger, more adaptable professionals after adjusting to life under COVID-19.
“We’re going to end up with new lawyers in this profession that are super resilient, and I think that could be a silver lining of moving online for law schools,” she said.