On March 11, 2020, the University of Pennsylvania, like many other institutions and organizations throughout the nation, issued a statement concerning the public health challenges caused by COVID-19, which effectively brought the country to a sudden halt.
For Penn Law, the abrupt disruption to the spring semester meant a rapid depopulation of campus, followed by a fast, coordinated pivot towards a total virtual learning environment. Specifically, 190 classes were moved online within ten days, and the delivery of high-quality legal education continued in this unprecedented format, including all externships, clinics, and mock trials. This included the Legal Practice Skills program, the first-year course dedicated to teaching fundamental lawyering skills, which required students to complete their oral arguments before a panel of peer student judges over Zoom video conferencing.
“Based in large part on the huge effort to quickly rollout and teach the Zoom technology, I don’t think our curriculum missed much of a beat,” said Legal Practice Skills Professor Gayle Gowen L’98. “In fact, if anything, I think it helped prepare our lawyers for a new normal where they might need to work on their delivery of information when in a remote situation.”
Despite the multitude of new challenges created by the pandemic, these dire circumstances also presented the Law School community with the opportunity to lead the way in finding creative, innovative solutions to its community’s most urgent needs. Much of this immediate response was made possible through the generosity of the W. P. Carey Foundation, whose unrestricted financial support allowed the Law School to respond and pivot nimbly to support students in their legal studies in the face of an unprecedented crisis.
In mid-March, just days after the pandemic caused shutdowns across campus, the Biddle Law Library staff worked tirelessly to quickly digitize study resources, scanning and compiling thousands of pages of 1L course materials while coordinating with legal publishers to obtain complimentary online access to textbooks for students. Additionally, library staff created and mailed detailed course packets to all students.
The Law School also assisted in finding short and long-term housing options for students suddenly displaced from University housing with no backup option, as well as shipped personal belongings left in deserted lockers and journal offices to individual students. In addition, the Law School launched a meal support program for students facing food insecurity, with over 80 students, or roughly 10% of the Law School’s student population receiving support.
And while classes and spring graduation ceremonies were shifted virtually, Penn Law also assured its community that the switch to remote learning would not impact any J.D. or L.L.M.’s eligibility to sit for the New York state bar, obtaining a waiver of distance learning restrictions from the New York Court of Appeals. All students, including 2020 graduates, were also offered the option of summer courses for the first time since the World War II years.
The summer also brought with it the launch of “Skills Series: Summer 2020,” a brand-new program designed to help students develop skills to help them stand out in a world forever altered by the pandemic. Courses included those from Penn Law’s Legal Practice Skills faculty, JD-trained law librarians from the Biddle Law Library, the Center on Professionalism, the Career Planning & Professionalism office as well as the Future of the Profession Initiative.
“In the spring, our students responded with great resilience and fortitude to an immense educational challenge,” said Joe Glyn, Director of the Law School’s Center on Professionalism. “With ‘Skills Series: Summer 2020,’ we aimed to provide our students with the knowledge and support they might need to overcome potential challenges in their career and professional development, whether in a temporary summer position or as a new attorney, and stand head and shoulders above the rest.”
Now, nearly seven months later, the University has successfully embarked on a hybrid fall semester, which features both in-person and online courses, and the Law School’s community continues to innovate new ways of learning, working, and communicating in virtual environments, rising to the challenge in the face of such uncertainty.
“Our students really stepped it up to complete [their] final assignment[s] in these more difficult circumstances with as high a quality as I would have expected had we been in person,” said Jessica Simon, Associate Director of the Law School’s legal writing program and the Director of the Academic Support Program. “All of us on the faculty were so impressed with our students who stepped in to help other students who were in more difficult circumstances, helping to ease the burden of those students and to demonstrate to [them] what it means to be a true professional who cares about his or her teammates, colleagues, and the work product.”
In recognition of the changed economic circumstances for most students, Penn Law was one of the few law schools in the country able to freeze tuition for the 2020-2021 academic year. This decision, coupled with a double-digit increase in financial aid and increased institutional funding to support students in their careers, was only possible because of the W. P. Carey Foundation’s transformative generosity. This historic gift gave the Law School the flexibility to prioritize the safety of its community despite potential revenue declines for the coming year.
“Our faculty have worked incredibly hard to adapt their teaching to a range of new formats—whether fully remote or with an in-person component—while taking care to preserve the rigor and close faculty-student relationships that characterize a Penn Carey Law education, ” said Associate Dean for Curricular Affairs Eleanor Barett L’05.