Responding to COVID-19, NYU Law community continues online

In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified in New York City and around the world, NYU Law responded quickly, moving all courses and a broad range of activities online.

Trevor Morrison
Trevor Morrison

On March 9, Dean Trevor Morrison announced that starting on March 12, all NYU Law School classes would be conducted remotely and that in-person events would be canceled or postponed. “These measures are designed to protect the health and well-being of our community… I appreciate that they will require major adjustments on a very short timeline, and that they may also significantly disrupt some of our existing plans,” Morrison noted in his announcement.

In the two weeks that followed, New York State and New York City instituted sweeping restrictions that closed public schools, suspended the operations of many businesses, and required residents to stay at home.

Remote learning at NYU Law will extend through the end of the spring semester. Despite the newfound challenges placed upon the community, the life of the Law School—teaching, scholarship, outreach, and recreation—continues robustly online. Here’s how faculty, students, and administrators made the dramatic transition.

Making Distance Learning a Reality

When Morrison made his announcement on Monday, March 9, the Law Information Technology Services department had already swung into action to bring classes online. “The first lectures were on Thursday and Friday, so we started with those,” says Tolga Ergunay, the associate dean of innovation and chief information officer at NYU Law.

Ergunay credits the Law School’s existing technology infrastructure and policies—such as the requirement that all students must have a compliant laptop—with facilitating a quick transition. Within a day, the IT department had trained administrators to activate faculty members’ accounts on the teleconferencing tool Zoom and to prepare them to use the program.

Faculty members are able to conduct their classes virtually with lectures, cold calls, and discussions occurring as they normally would. All course meetings went online on Thursday, March 12. By the end of the following day, as Spring Break began, more than 100 classes—all those scheduled for Thursday and Friday—had met virtually. The remainder of the Law School’s over 300 courses moved online when classes restarted following Spring Break.

Jennifer Arlen ’86
Jennifer Arlen ’86

“The move [online] has been remarkably easy. The Law School did an excellent job of both training us, and also doing the transition in a way that gave us time to transition,” says Jennifer Arlen ’86, Norma Z. Paige Professor of Law, who notes that she used the week of Spring Break to hone her course structure.

Paula Galowitz
Paula Galowitz

More complex aspects of in-person classes have adapted to the online format as well. Clinical Professor of Law Emerita Paula Galowitz had previously held simulated trials for her students in the classroom. She now uses the teleconferencing gallery feature for her Civil Litigation Seminar, serving as the judge while students take the advocacy roles. “The [lawyers, witnesses, and judge] are on the screen that everybody’s looking at, so we’ve worked that out to at least make it feel more like a courtroom,” Galowitz says. “The students take this quite seriously and work together, and they’ve been extraordinary.”

Deborah Archer portrait
Deborah Archer

Clinics have had to address unique challenges as expressed by Associate Professor of Clinical Law Deborah Archer, who teaches a Civil Rights Clinic in which students represent clients in a range of civil rights matters, including ongoing employment discrimination cases under her supervision.

“Most clients, community partners, and judges have access to Zoom or Microsoft Teams, through which most of our clinic work and representation is now done. This has included a mediation and a community meeting,” says Archer. “Two clients don’t have access to Zoom; both clients used to go to the library to access the internet and generally met with the clinic students in person. So the students instead are spending a lot of time counseling their clients over the phone and using FaceTime or taking photos of important documents in order to provide legal representation to those clients.”

Faculty meetings and workshops also transitioned to a virtual format, along with information sessions, seminars, and lectures hosted by Law School centers and student groups. One such event is a virtual series, COVID-19: Advancing Rights and Justice During a Pandemic. Co-organized by Just Security, which is based at NYU Law, it will convene practitioners and thought leaders to consider the global threats of the coronavirus and possible solutions.

Easing the Transition

The pivot to remote learning brought one immediate challenge. Under New York’s state bar limitations, a semester of remote learning would render JD and LLM students ineligible for the bar exam. The Law School successfully petitioned the New York State Court of Appeals for a waiver of strict compliance with those limitations, removing one stressor for students concerned about delays or interruptions of their career pursuits.

As another measure to reduce the pandemic’s unanticipated pressures, on March 25 the Law School announced a mandatory credit/fail grading system for the semester. The policy change followed the faculty’s “careful consideration of concerns expressed by faculty colleagues, senior administrators, leadership at peer schools, and our students,” Dean Morrison noted in an email to the community.

Among the groups involved in shaping the decision was the Student Bar Association (SBA), which surveyed students to collect quantitative and qualitive feedback. The results indicated a majority of student support for a mandatory credit/fail grading policy.

“We have a lot of students in our school and in our community who have child-care responsibilities now, or students who have to care for family members, or students who have family members or spouses who are working in the healthcare industry,” says Kevin Tupper, president of the SBA. “We didn’t want the letter grades to become a proxy for how people in difficult circumstances were and how COVID-19 affected people individually, and so the mandatory pass/fail became apparent as the most equitable solution.”

On March 30, Dean Morrison announced the establishment of the NYU Law COVID-19 Hardship Fund to provide relief to students under unanticipated financial strain related to the coronavirus crisis.

Community Life and Outreach

Recreation and extracurricular activities have also shifted into the virtual realm. With more than 80 student groups now unable to meet in person, students have carved online spaces for themselves to stay engaged.

The Law Students of Catan formerly convened on Fridays in the D’Agostino basement for game night. Now the games continue on the chat application Discord, says Lucian Wang ’21, the group’s president. And the number of gamers has grown, with NYU Law students and their friends joining remote games of Codenames and Pictionary, among others.

“I realized that instead of having an ad hoc, once a week set-up, we could create a permanent community there and say, ‘Here’s a place, not only where you can play games, but also just chat about what’s going on, how your classes are going, and just trying to replicate as much of that in-person interaction that you can get in law school as much as possible,’” Wang says.

The SBA has created an expanding list of books, movies, and activities for students looking for connections and entertainment. For its own activities, the SBA added a charitable component to its annual effort to provide apparel to the student body: This year, the organization established a T-shirt design competition in which the proceeds earned from the winning design will go to God’s Love We Deliver, a nonsectarian food pantry servicing the greater New York City area. In addition, the SBA has pledged to donate $3 per shirt sold to the newly established NYU Law COVID-19 Hardship Fund.

Members of the NYU Law community are responding in other ways to the societal problems and questions accompanying the increasing coronavirus threat. The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law (CACL) has recently published a working document cataloguing the legal authority of governors to grant reprieves in every state to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in correctional facilities where the crowds render prisoners especially vulnerable. Approximately 40 NYU Law students have volunteered to assist CACL with research as the center updates the document and collaborates with advocacy organizations engaged with government entities on this issue.

Journals are maintaining their operations as well, with publications like the Environmental Law Journal reviewing articles for upcoming publications. “Thankfully, due to modern technology, our day-to-day has been mainly uninterrupted, with the exception that hard copies of the Journal will be delayed due to our printing company being offline,” the Environmental Law Journal said in a statement. “…As the world seems, perhaps, an unsteady place, we have been able to take immense comfort in how many brilliant legal minds there are around the country (and the world) working hard to do good in the environmental sphere.”

Posted April 6, 2020