COVID-19 Law Student Impact

The Bencher—July/August 2020

By Jonathan A. McGowan

Law school follows predicable paths. The first year is a set routine for all students. We take the same classes, in our assigned sections, at our assigned times. In the summer after the 1L year, students get their first taste of the legal world, some through externships, some through campus clinics, some through paid internships, others through pro bono work.

During the 2L year, students branch out into their fields of interest with eyes on summer. The 2L summer is viewed as critical. It is the summer where you aren’t looking just for experience but hoping for a permanent job offer. The 3L year is about finalizing graduation requirements and transitioning from student to lawyer. The summer after you graduate is dedicated to studying for the bar. Then you are off into the real world. That has been the routine for decades. A familiar path all lawyers take.

Because of the set routine, hiring attorneys know what to look for on a resume. How a student spends their 1L and 2L summers can tell you things about their experience and ambitions that are not often reflected in transcripts. It can bridge the gap between the study of law and the practice of law.

Things are drastically different due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For most law students, myself included, the internships they had planned for this summer have been canceled. I had hoped to spend the beginning of my 2L summer interning in Washington, DC, then finish the summer in a study abroad program in Paris. Both were canceled due to COVID-19. When even my backup plans were canceled or put on hold, I decided to enroll in summer classes online and look for a fall internship to make up the lost summer.

And it truly is a lost summer for law students. The 1Ls will not get that valuable experience. The 2Ls will not be working to impress for that post-graduation job offer. And the 3Ls will have to try to study for the bar during a pandemic, which I expect will result in lower-than-normal bar pass rates.

As American Inns of Court mentors, it will be important that you help students and new graduates overcome these challenges.

There are various ways you can help; the first step is contacting the students. Some won’t ask for help simply because they don’t know what to ask for. Others will be too timid. For many, this situation is overwhelming, and they don’t know what to do—I see it in my classmates. They are facing fear and anxiety above the norm for law school. They are also facing unprecedented uncertainty. The guidance of an experienced mentor is going to be critical.

Beyond professional guidance, they are going to need help making up for the experience they missed. Consider what skills you learned during your summer internships and talk to your mentees about it. See what they know and don’t know. When you find a deficiency, help provide the necessary experience and hone their skills. Consider bringing on an intern if you don’t normally. Even a few hours a week can significantly bridge the gap.

You can also offer letters of recommendation. For almost anything associated with law school multiple letters of recommendation are required, usually one from a professor and one citing legal work experience. Without the summer internships, many students won’t be able to provide that second letter.

The legal field will be forced to adjust to this unique situation and hiring attorneys will have to accept new standards. Letters of recommendation will come from different sources, and the normal experiences won’t be there. Our transcripts will also look different as we will have a full semester without grades, just pass/fail. The 1Ls will only have grades for half their first-year classes. Those who needed to improve were denied that opportunity. Class ranks were locked based on where they stood in December, and for many that is to their disadvantage.

I personally struggled with how to address this summer on my resume. Normally, you would never include on a resume something you were offered but never did. This situation isn’t normal. Students will need to rely on the accomplishment of securing opportunities to bridge the gap. Some advisers are recommending that the lost opportunities be included on your resume normally with the notation that it was canceled due to COVID-19. Some students may just delete the opportunities completely. I came up with my own solution by adding a “COVID-19 Cancellations” section on my resume. There doesn’t seem to be any clear guidance as this is an unprecedented situation. Hiring attorneys will have to embrace the unique ways students address this summer.

None of these challenges are insurmountable. While it may feel catastrophic to those students who are experiencing it, in the grand scheme of things this lost summer is a minor setback. With the support of mentors and seasoned attorneys, students will be able to find their way back on the path to a successful career.

Jon McGowan is a rising 3L at Florida State University College of Law. He is a member of the First District Appellate American Inn of Court in Tallahassee, Florida. Prior to pursuing his JD, he owned multiple businesses in Jacksonville, Florida. He currently serves as vice-chair of the Board of Commissioners for the Jacksonville Housing Authority and president of Better Jacksonville Beach Inc., a non-profit supporting art and cultural events.

© 2020 Jonathan A. McGowan. This article was originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.