Your Voice

An unprecedented finale to the first year of law school, starring COVID-19

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Jamie Hwang

Jamie Hwang.

The first year of law school is an unforgettable rite of passage to becoming a lawyer. I get that. But this year, it’s more “unforgettable” than usual. No one in my class at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law expected to finish it this way: attending Zoom classes, taking untimed finals and shooting for a “passing” grade instead of an A or B.

If I had known, maybe I would have approached the last day of in-person classes differently. On Wednesday, March 11, I walked home from school like any other day, feeling the weight of my constitutional law textbook in the bag wrapped around my shoulder, still smiling from a conversation about the latest Thor movie with friends in the law school atrium. But I’ll never know what would’ve been different.

When my law school moved to remote classes, I didn’t know what to expect. Actually, I had absolutely no idea because I didn’t even know what Zoom was. And the reality of not seeing my 62 section mates every day didn’t fully register with me. I felt comfortable being in the physical presence of the same familiar faces in the classroom each day.

Now, I realize I took this luxury for granted.

At first, the idea of Zoom classes seemed crazy. How would we “participate” in class, and how would professors cold call on students? Some of them resorted to lecturing and taking volunteers through the “raise hand” feature on Zoom, and others stuck to cold calling, leading their panicked students to appear on every participant’s main screen while they answered—or, while they frantically scrolled through notes or casebooks. Luckily, I didn’t get cold called on after switching to Zoom classes, but I was constantly impressed by the way my classmates handled theirs.

And at times, Zoom classes became crazy.

Professors would suddenly disappear from the class for 15 minutes without warning because of a bad internet connection. Or they would be confused about whether their Zoom was working—even when it was on—forcing students to privately call them to reassure them that, yes, Zoom was on. Like many other professionals working from home, some professors taught classes with their kids singing “Let It Go” from Frozen in the next room or jumping behind them on the screen.

As we adjusted to Zoom classes bit by bit, my law school decided to move from
a curved grading system to a credit-no-credit policy. Surprisingly, not much changed.

Students would still forget to “mute,” and the whole class would hear their conversations with roommates or partners, arguing about who should do the laundry. They would add odd “backdrops,” like a picture-perfect island or a football field to their Zoom screens. However, they still engaged in heated discussions about the doctrine of substantive due process in my constitutional law class, and my small seminar-style American Indian law class continued to have a rich conversation about the current state of missing and murdered indigenous women.

Still, so many questions remained unanswered. With no letter grades this semester, will it be harder for students who are 1Ls now to find a job for next summer? Or even after graduation, if the economy doesn’t recover? After hearing rumors about 2Ls and 3Ls losing already-accepted positions from blue-chip firms and nonprofits, the anxiety has been spreading quickly among 1Ls.

Career advisers and law professors remind us it’s not the end of the world. Some students do feel relieved that on-campus interviews moved to January instead of August. But who knows if we should even be worrying about any of this, when the world is battling with COVID-19?

At least at my law school, it’s been confirmed that summer classes will be graded and remote. Since many 1Ls struggled to find jobs this summer, this is good news. Summer classes add another semester of grades to boost our GPAs ahead of the job search.

But what will law school look like in the fall?

I still remember walking into my first mock contracts class during my orientation week last August. I scanned the room to find a comfortable seat at the edge of a row. I settled in a spot next to a girl with two neat braids, sitting with a notebook in front and five different colored pens laid out next to it. I complimented her shoes, and we exchanged the same small talk about where we are from and why we chose law school, which we repeated too many times to count while meeting our classmates during orientation.

When the class finally began, my professor cold called the girl sitting next to me. She answered each question with such ease—even smiled at times—and I gripped onto my chair, imagining how I would have responded in her seat.

Since that day, that girl has been my closest friend in law school. We have already made plans for our friendship 20 and 30 years out. I can’t imagine persevering through my first year without her, our 11 p.m. study sessions at the library, bad pizza deliveries and vent-about-school phone calls. Knowing all of this, I can’t imagine what the experience will be like for incoming 1Ls, if classes are still held remotely through Zoom.

No in-person orientation and classes mean that new law students won’t be able to bond the same way that I did with my classmates. Like a freshman dorm in college, the students in a section become a pack, providing a sense of belonging as everyone starts law school. A huge part of the 1L year is surviving the year with section mates.

The repeated, awkward small talk during orientation and the rush of relief after finishing a cold call in front of 62 peers all adds to the bond between classmates that often last for life (or so I’ve been told). I feel fortunate to have such relationships with classmates at school, made from last semester, but the experience will be so different for the incoming 1Ls if they start out on Zoom.

In the middle of this uncertainty, I finished my last finals of the year and felt the rush of relief when I completed the write-on competition for journals. I hope to celebrate completing this unforgettable rite of passage with my fellow rising 2Ls in person soon, safe and healthy. And I can’t wait for the day when we will be sitting in the classrooms again with the pandemic behind us. Now, I know I’ll never take an in-person class for granted.

Jamie Hwang is a rising 2L at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. She graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in journalism. Hwang’s previous works have appeared in the ABA Journal, the Huffington Post and Chicago Magazine. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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