Last January, I got a federal agency summer internship in Washington, D.C. My school’s career development officer was excited about the opportunity and gave me links to my law school’s public interest fellowship. She began trying to figure out how to coordinate affordable housing options for the handful of Oklahoma law students with summer internships in Washington.
We all waited. Excited. Biding time until the semester ended because, after finals, we were headed to D.C. to start working.
Then came COVID-19. We left school for spring break and never returned.
By April, I’d already spent weeks in my room watching the days pass impossibly slowly by. Then the exact thing I had expected happened: I, along with thousands of other law students, lost my summer internship to COVID-19.
Losing my internship felt like a major blow—to my career and carefully organized summer fun. This was it: a disaster.
Then something else happened. I no longer qualified for that public interest fellowship I’d banked my entire financial existence on for the summer.
I would have to get a job—in the middle of a pandemic. But then, keeping in the spirit of 2020, something else happened—the Great Economic Depression of 2020.
The power of luck
For many law students, luck would have to take up the slack that hard work and networking usually provides.
Luck was with me. I got an internship with a judge. I became a research assistant, and I was able to recoup some of the money I’d lost because that public interest fellowship fell through. I also took odd research jobs and writing assignments.
The funny thing was that, even in a pandemic, things moved along. A lost opportunity now just means that, with luck, something else will fill that time. At least, that happened for me and a few other law students.
One student from Santa Clara School of Law in California had secured a summer position at Google.
In April, Google informed her the position couldn’t be done remotely. She lost her summer job—a tech job for which she’d worked hard.
Like most other law students, she immediately shifted gears. She devoted herself to researching scholarships and finding new opportunities, and she ended up working for a tech policy nonprofit from her parents’ home on the East Coast.
Another student lost his law firm internship in the East Coast city he eventually hoped to make his home.
When COVID-19 hit, he left school and made the 23-hour drive to join his parents in Texas. He was able to rekindle his father’s professional networks.
In early June, he interviewed with a local firm, and he found work in its appellate division.
COVID-19 has meant that law students have had to be creative. For months, sometimes even for years, they’ve developed networks to achieve the career they wanted. Then the pandemic happened.
For some law students, things have worked out. Others, however, are still trying to find their best path.
Recent grads hit hard
Few experienced the acute career realities of a global pandemic and economic recession more than recent law school graduates. For many of them, student loan payments were soon coming due. Some lost their post-law school job, while others had their job-search plans come to a grinding halt.
Rebecca, a 3L from Catholic University School of Law who asked to be identified by only her first name, had plans for a normal summer of working, practicing bar exam tests, and the usual trappings of a recent law school graduate. Instead, she was stuck in a small apartment studying for the bar.
One recent law school graduate in Illinois, who’s also a first-generation college student and the daughter of immigrants, immediately went from focusing on studying, working, and bar prep to providing full-time care for her child.
Without childcare assistance, she had to split time between full-time bar study and childcare—a circumstance she knew greatly lowered her chances of passing the bar. And if she didn’t pass, she wouldn’t be able to keep her job, necessary to cover about $114,000 in student debt. She said her housing situation was unstable, at best, if she didn’t pass.
Some students unexpectedly spent their time advocating for something: for law schools to formally recognize Black Lives Matter. Students from Michigan planned for a normal summer only to find themselves fighting for the University of Michigan Law school and Northwestern Pritzker School of Law deans to publicly state that Black lives matter.
These public statements became a central point for online petitions.
Deans who remained silent were flooded with emails and online advocacy by students, alumni, and law students across the country before releasing a series of public statements that Black lives matter.
Still working, but differently
For other law students, the summer meant changing expectations, losing jobs, and getting new ones.
Megan Wilson, a 3L at Michigan State University College of Law, wants to be a tax lawyer. She hoped to get experience in tax court this summer. She also wanted to develop practical skills in addition to the academic skills she built during her second year of law school.
Her plan was to work at a clinic and in tax court starting at the end of March.
“Nope!” she said.
“The Internal Revenue Service shutdown changed a whole bunch of stuff,” she said. Wilson still worked at the clinic remotely. “That didn’t change, but exactly what I’m doing changed quite a bit,” she said in June. “I’m doing a lot less actual representing clients and more planning for the clinic being remote in the fall.”
Wilson was also supposed to work for the communications office at her school, but lockdown made part of that job impossible. “There’s a lot I can’t do remotely,” she said.
And then there’s the award Wilson won that granted her free admission to a tax convention. Attendance would have allowed her to network with tax attorneys face to face—an opportunity that would have been invaluable to her finding a job post-law school.
Wilson lost the opportunity overnight when, you guessed it, the convention was canceled. As of June, she was attempting to find other ways to network with tax attorneys.
The nontraditional pivot
The legal field has seen a dramatic growth of students who aren’t full time and who have family responsibilities that full-time students typically don’t have. Often, they have more pressing responsibilities than law school: putting food on the table in the middle of a global pandemic and an economic depression and caring for their children.
Adrienne Kirk, a law student and mother from New Orleans, had a paid summer internship lined up that fit her mission of eliminating racism in the juvenile legal system. When stay-at-home orders came down, her internship was canceled. Suddenly, Kirk was jobless and still responsible for her child.
She found an unpaid internship to ensure that her resume didn’t suddenly have a gap, but she had to take an additional job—this one paid—to feed her family. She’s now a full-time childcare provider, an unpaid intern, and a paid employee at another job to replace the income she lost when her internship vanished.
Tiffany Costley is also a mother, in addition to being a military spouse and a 3L at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. She started law school at 36, wanting to prove, as she said, that it’s never too late to start a career.
Her summer plans included a paid internship in the Indian Attorney General’s Office in its professional licensing department. “I hadn’t received a paycheck since 2007,” she lamented. “Finally, I was feeling like a working mom.”
Costley had received a badge to enter the office and a pass to park for free in a garage in the heart of downtown near the office. Then the position vanished when COVID-19 emerged. She was able to find another paid position doing legal research, but it’s not what she’d planned.
“I’m still a stay-at-home mom, except now I get to work in my freezing-cold basement and ignore what I can only imagine is a gladiator battle upstairs,” she joked. “I’m the go-to parent, and I get interrupted every 20 minutes by one of my three kids.”
Sickness takes hold
COVID-19 doesn’t exclusively attack any particular group, which meant that some students were inevitably among those who were sick. In some people, the virus leaves lingering symptoms that are dangerous and require constant observation. That meant some law students spent their summer going to hospitals instead of working or studying.
Natalie O’Fallon, a 2L at Lewis & Clark Law School in Oregon, tested positive for COVID-19 during the spring semester, landing her in the hospital. As summer began, she hoped she’d started to heal. Then, at the end of June, she suddenly began feeling the long-term effects of COVID-19. She now must go to frequent doctors’ appointments and monitor her health carefully.
Instead of spending her summer working, she’s trying to heal from a deadly virus. Her daily struggles include contemplating law school graduation and breathing.
For many of us law students, we had shaken hands, hugged, and enjoyed some of our friends’ and fellow law students’ company for the last time. Among our colleagues are those who’ve graduated and those who couldn’t return to law school due to financial concerns, a lack of childcare, or their own personal health.
Summer 2020 was a time of adaptation, fear, mourning, and healing. But COVID is far from over. The world we planned to enter is entirely different than we expected.
A pandemic and economic depression means we have to adapt to new ways of networking, volunteering, and coping in a world of quarantines and social distancing.