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2020 law school graduates, students cope with unprecedented pandemic fallout

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For some of the newest lawyers in Wisconsin, graduation didn’t come with the pomp and circumstance one might expect.

“It was so anticlimactic, especially the end of it,” said Deb Brauer, a 2020 graduate of UW Law School. “No graduation was like the worst thing after putting my life on hold for five years. I felt like

I wanted something for it, and an hour of slides and video presentations wasn’t what I wanted.”

Graduates in the Class of 2020 at UW Law School and Marquette University Law School were forced to finish their final semesters remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both schools asked students not to return to campus after their spring breaks in March and moved instruction online.

UW Law held an hour-long virtual commencement ceremony in May featuring pre-recorded videos of keynote speakers and a role call.

Marquette Law scheduled commencement for the Class of 2020 on Aug. 30 in Eckstein Hall, a departure from the university’s usual procedure of holding one general event for post-graduates and undergraduates. A university spokesperson said Marquette Law hasn’t decided if the event will continue as planned, but the school hopes to have a decision in coming weeks.

The lackluster ending to 2020 graduates’ time in law school was just one of many unforeseen consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brauer and Greg Venturini, another 2020 UW Law School graduate, experienced a noticeable decline in motivation and quality of work, both for themselves and other students, after courses went online. As a teaching assistant, Venturini said he saw students’ quality of work plummet following the loss of typical face-to-face instruction and contact with fellow students.

“It was just kind of hard to take school seriously,” Venturini said. “It felt like everybody that I knew, including myself, stumbled for a second while they were trying to find a new way to keep themselves accountable.”

Brauer said one of her courses did a good job of adapting to online teaching, but others weren’t quite the same without in-person instruction. And knowing the university had switched to the pass-fail grading system for final exams made the courses much less demanding for Brauer, who was working full-time as a research coordinator at UW-Madison during her studies.

“I was also trying to figure out how to work from home and all kinds of other things in life, so I was like this thing isn’t asking for as much effort, so it’s not getting it,” Brauer said.

Virtual summer-associate programs

As law students dealt with the sudden switch to online learning, many also found themselves uncertain about another important first step into the legal field — going through summer-associate programs.

The law firm Michael Best has been trying to offer some stability for summer associates by reimagining a program with COVID-19 precautions that still offers the same experience as was found in years past.

Tanya Salman, partner and co-chair of Michael Best’s summer-associate program, said this year’s program is more like a structured internship. Summer associates can choose a specialization rather than opting for a general-practice experience. The firm also moved in-person networking events online and shortened the program’s length from 10 weeks to about six.

“We really focused on continuing the networking, but doing it in a virtual environment,” Salman said. “We’re making sure everyone is still getting the opportunity to meet one another, but not necessarily in a way that would make anyone feel uncomfortable or affect anyone’s health.”

Michael Best is inviting summer associates to its Milwaukee and Madison offices, along with locations elsewhere the country. Salman said she has heard mostly praise from the rising 3Ls who are part of the program this year.

“The legal market has really shifted so much that for a lot of them, seeing many of their peers without a program, getting the opportunity here has been positive,” Salman said.

She said she’s been able to know the summer associates and assess their work, despite having few face-to-face dealings with them.

“A lot of the time it’s asking the right questions, it’s being professional, it’s asking for help when you need help,” Salman said. “Those are all things where you don’t necessarily need to see someone to determine if the work product is good.”

Just as in years past, the firm’s goal is to hire this year’s summer associates as full-time associates, even if their program looks a little different.

“We were really making sure that we were providing enough work so we’d be able to assess if they’d be a successful lawyer in the long run, especially here at Michael Best,” Salman said. “Then they could also assess the type of work that they were doing to see if that’s something they were interested in and wanting to do long-term.”

Questions about law, health at Wisconsin bar exam

Despite worries about the pandemic’s effects on students’ quality of education and health, out-of-state graduates hoping to practice at a Wisconsin law firm will have to take the bar exam as they have in years past,

The Wisconsin Board of Bar Examiners is holding the state’s bar exam from July 28 to 29 at the Marriott Madison West. The Wisconsin Supreme Court’s court information officer said Jacquelynn Rothstein, the Board of Bar Examiners executive director, consulted Public Health Madison and Dane County about precautions to take to lower the risk the virus could be spread during the exam.

This year, the 145 people scheduled to take the exam will be spread out among 16 rooms at the hotel. No more than 10 examinees will be allowed in each. All exam takers and proctors will be required to wear face masks, and hand sanitizer will be provided.

Before they can sit for the exam, examinees will have to fill out a health questionnaire and have their temperatures taken. They’ll also have to sign a waiver acknowledging that the exam is voluntary, and that even though the BBE has taken all reasonable steps to protect the health of others, there is still some risk involved.

By July 22, Wisconsin was one of 23 states still planning to hold its bar exam in July. New York, meanwhile, had canceled its bar exam scheduled for September, and California scheduled a remote exam to be held in October. The California Supreme Court decided to permanently lower the passing score, too.

Temporary diploma privilege has been a popular proposal put forward in response to students’ interruption in learning this year. So far, Oregon, Utah and Washington have adopted a temporary diploma privilege for in-state graduates.

Pandemic’s continued effect on graduates

Thankfully, Venturini hasn’t had to sit for another exam to begin his career in law. He instead started his own practice, Community Law in Stevens Point, and discovered his motivation returning as he started taking on clients.

Venturini said he’s uncertain about the pandemic’s effect on his practice this early on. He wonders if the current case backlog in the courts will cause public defenders to hand off cases to firms like his.

“We’ve envisioned large gatherings where people voice their community concerns,” Venturini said. “If we’re going to have trouble having these large gatherings, that would be a challenge to us as we begin to branch out and do interesting, new things.”

Brauer, who said she went to law school because she wanted to rather than to make law her career, is continuing to work remotely for UW-Madison. She predicts UW Law courses will run more smoothly in the fall semester, since instructors will have more time to prepare.

However, the sudden changes she experienced in her last semester have made it difficult for her to celebrate finally reaching a goal she’s had for the past 20 years.

“I haven’t even had a chance to say goodbye to classmates that I may never see again,” Brauer said. “Social media is OK, but it’s not the same as sitting down and having these kinds of conversations that we’re used to and knowing what’s going on in each other’s lives.”


About Michaela Paukner, [email protected]

Michaela Paukner is the legal reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal. She can be reached at (414) 225-1825 or by email at [email protected]

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