Members of the NYU Law community discuss ways that they adapted and innovated during a challenging year.
BY ALANA GRAMBUSH
No one knew exactly what to expect when the 2020-21 academic year began at NYU Law. With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing, social distancing requirements meant that most courses were held remotely. Students sheltered in place in New York City and across the globe. Long-standing Law School events, like the student musical Law Revue and Early Interview Week, were put to the test. In this unprecedented environment, the NYU Law community was creative, persistent, and adaptable in finding a variety of ways to connect with and support one another. We talked to some students, faculty members, and administrators about their year.
Keeping in Touch
“It was a time when every law school and every person had to move quickly,” says Dean of Students Lindsay Kendrick, recalling the busy days in March 2020 when NYU moved to remote instruction to reduce the spread of COVID-19. “I think one of the things that became clear…was that the natural ways that people form community and connect—the passing of each other in the hallway, the rich intellectual life, the student group programming—we were going to need to be much more intentional about that,” says Kendrick, who is also assistant dean for diversity and inclusion.
Beginning in Fall 2020, Kendrick and her team at the Office of Student Affairs conducted individual outreach to students, each administrator contacting several hundred students and setting up one-on-one conferences to discuss their remote experience and to try to connect them to resources. In Spring 2021, Kendrick and administrative colleagues also sent handwritten letters to students who said that they would appreciate receiving a piece of mail. “Our current counselor, Maisie Chou Chaffin, provided programming on stress and time management,” Kendrick says, noting that this work was done in addition to Chou Chaffin’s traditional counseling role.
“Student organization leaders and the administration worked tirelessly to help make students feel as connected as possible,” says Sara Greaves ’22, then-vice president of the Student Bar Association (SBA). When Helen Jennings LLM ’21 moved to New York mid-pandemic (see “Celebrating the Class of 2021”), Senior Director of the Office of Graduate Affairs Barbara Landress put her in touch with other LLM students who had also moved to campus. “The camaraderie of the students in my year was invaluable,” says Jennings, who had relocated from Ireland. “My classmates were always sending each other flowers or cookies or getting into Zoom rooms to show each other support,” she says. Greaves notes that student organizations were creative in bringing people together online: the SBA put on a talent show and murder mystery event, as well as a weekly happy hour that included trivia games and online scavenger hunts.
The Office of Career Services (OCS) also boosted its outreach with students with a weekly newsletter and other communications. “The whole idea was to have more points of contact, even if that meant virtual points,” says Associate Dean for Career Services Irene Dorzback. The aim, she says, was to replicate “that buddy in class who reminds you to submit your bid, to meet your deadlines, to stay on top of things.” With Early Interview Week rescheduled from August to January and conducted remotely, students had more time to prepare for recruiting season, including the opportunity to conduct a practice interview with an OCS counselor as well as being paired with NYU Law alumni in a program called Alumni Interview Match. Some 93 percent of 2L students had summer employment offers by April, up from 88 percent of the previous class at the same stage in the recruiting process.
Looking forward to a full return to campus in Fall 2021, Kendrick says that the pandemic underlined how important it is to keep the bonds among community members strong. “A standing agenda item on our team meetings all through this summer is ‘How can we make this large community feel small and intimate?’” she says. “That’s going to be something that we continue, especially as we’re all reintegrating back into the building.”
Reading groups, which traditionally connect small groups of first-year students with a faculty member to discuss various topics in the law, have been part of the 1L experience at the Law School for many years. For the entering JD class in 2020-21, reading groups took on new importance, bringing students into the homes of their professors via video and providing a respite from required coursework.
“The unique thing about it is it sort of felt like all of those informal conversations you would have with professors or students in a typical in-person environment. And somehow it was able to be re-created in a virtual environment,” says Soleil Ball Van Zee ’23, who was a member of the reading group led by Helen Hershkoff, Herbert M. and Svetlana Wachtell Professor of Constitutional Law and Civil Liberties.
“The readers built a dynamic that was magical,” says Hershkoff, whose group focused on law in the news. “With each session I could see close friendships being formed. Being with the group was a highlight of the year.”
“Everyone put in a little bit more [effort] to get to know each other and have these amazing conversations about a wide range of topics, from insurance adjustment payments and actuarial tables to different right-wing militia groups to food and law,” says Ball Van Zee. As a 1L, she says, she sometimes felt defined by the assigned section in which she took all of her coursework first year. “[The reading group] reminded me that the Law School was much bigger than 90 people, but more than that, that I could find an intimate space within it.”
Some nights at 1:00 a.m., New York time, Randy Hertz, vice dean and professor of clinical law, could be found on Zoom, asking first-year students about their hometowns, the names of their pets, and why they decided to pursue the law. Finding time to conference one-on-one with 1Ls—whether they were quarantined in Australia or the West Village—was just one of the ways Hertz adapted to accommodate the new needs of his students.
“I realized that these students are surely going to feel less connection with each other and also necessarily with me,” says Hertz, who also made himself available to meet with his Criminal Law students on the weekends. By the end of the year, Hertz estimates, almost 90 percent of his 1L students had taken him up on his invitation to meet virtually, discussing their coursework, career goals, and how to adjust to law school, among other topics.
In his upper-level courses, Hertz made adaptations to the simulations that are part of both his yearlong Juvenile Defender Clinic and Criminal Litigation course. Students traditionally held a simulated jury trial on campus with local high school students playing jurors. This year, since the trial was held on Zoom, Hertz worried about keeping the attention of the high school students, so he allowed them to pause the simulation to ask questions.
“It was just incredible,” says Hertz. “I found the high school students to be incredibly engaged in conversations about trial procedure, or facts, or law or broader systemic issues.” The richness of their discussion, he says, was worth the break in the verisimilitude of the trial.
In the lecture aspect of his courses, Hertz says he also learned a lot about the ways that technology can enrich student experience, noting that students would often place citations, podcast links, supplementary articles, and other materials relevant to their classmates into the chat. Hertz reviewed them after class and made additional comments.
“I…was not surprised to find, that of course the students were far more fluent and far better at using Zoom and all kinds of technological things than I am,” says Hertz. “I try to get them to realize that, especially when we’re working on simulated cases together, I have no more expertise on the factual or evidentiary or strategic issue under consideration than they do.”
Forging New Connections
When Robert Solmssen ’23 entered NYU Law after serving four years in the US Marine Corps, he was surprised to find that he was the only veteran in his L class. “I went from being one of many to one of one,” says Solmssen. He decided to work to increase veteran representation in law schools and provide legal support to needs specific to veteran reentry into civilian life. While he knew that the pandemic would cause unique challenges, Solmssen said it also allowed him to reach beyond the Law School to build a larger network of support for the veteran community.
Solmssen’s Civil Procedure professor, John Sexton, dean emeritus, NYU president emeritus, and Benjamin F. Butler Professor of Law, helped connect him to legal practitioners focused on this issue. With a grant, Solmssen then started the NYU Veterans Legal Services Project. Overseen by Murray and Kathleen Bring Professor of Law Christopher Jon Sprigman, the project provides pro bono legal services to veterans across the country. As of June 2021, the project was working on its first appeal before the US Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
“My hope is by the end of my time at NYU, we’re able to institutionalize this into a formal clinic to allow NYU students who have limited exposure to the military to help serve the veteran community in New York and beyond,” says Solmssen.
He also reached out to veterans groups at Columbia Law and Fordham Law. Together, they created a coalition with students at Cardozo Law School and New York Law School that organizes discussions with legal employers and established lawyers—including some who are veterans—and creates a space for veterans to ask questions about the legal profession and examine different career paths. “The remote nature of the year did allow us to mobilize and get great speakers and attend sessions across law schools that otherwise would have taken a huge amount of coordination,” says Solmssen.
Working with NYU Law’s Office of Admissions, Solmssen and other members of the NYU Veterans Legal Services Project offered an online panel for applicants with military experience as well as information for admitted veterans. “We discussed things I had questions about, like does the GI Bill actually work?—it does!—and what sorts of things you can do with a law degree,” he says. As of July 2021, five veterans are matriculating in the incoming class of 2024.
An Ode to Joy
For Bill Baker ’22, the real question about staging Law Revue—the annual student show that parodies the experience of being a law student—during a pandemic year was how the show would go on, not if. “Law Revue has a really long history at NYU and we have lots of alumni who care about our show. We were going to put it on,” says Baker, who served as a student organizer and had also participated in the show as a 1L. “[Law Revue] is ultimately about bringing people together,” Baker adds. “Bringing the cast together, bringing the school together, to laugh at ourselves and at our own foibles and faux pas. And this year, especially, that felt super necessary.”
This year, the show won Above the Law’s law revue video contest for their parody “Gunner/Savage,” based on the song “Savage Remix” by Megan Thee Stallion, featuring Beyoncé. Their performance poked fun at law school overachievers.
“We had to grapple with the idea that [Law Revue] wasn’t going to be the same and it couldn’t be the same as years past,” says Baker. “But we saw it as an opportunity to use new elements and aspects that you could never do for a live staged production, like sound mixing and prerecorded segments.” The virtual format allowed the video to be shared with alumni and family members who otherwise would not have been able to attend in person, Baker says.
“I needed a space to escape and be happy and laugh again, and the Law Revue was that space,” says Taylor Peterson ’22, who served as director and video editor for the production. “Just as stress and sadness can be contagious, I think happiness and excitement can be contagious as well, and this was a year where everyone felt that and was giving it their all.” Cast members filmed themselves with their phones propped up against books or enlisted family members or roommates as camera operators, Peterson says. It reaffirmed, she says, how committed her classmates were.
And the same spirit was palpable outside of Law Revue, Peterson says. “One thing that struck me was NYU—and all of us—were forced to adapt to this new environment. And it truly has been a community effort,” she says. “It wasn’t just one person’s decision, but I think that the Law School did continue to adapt and continue to evolve.”
Alana Grambush is a writer at NYU Law.
Posted September 9, 2021.