This quote—“Please help us.”—from the foreword of the annual Law Student Survey of Student Engagement report explains it all. It’s no surprise that the most recent LSSSE results show that law students across the country felt the force of the pandemic.
Students hit hard
The results contained in the report, The COVID Crisis in Legal Education, came from responses from more than 13,000 law students at 61 law schools across the country, more than half of whom were students of color. The 2021 report also contained two new LSSSE modules to gain insight into the experiences of today’s law students. More than 1,500 students responded to the Coping with COVID module, and more than 3,400 responded to the Experiences with Online Learning module.
The one constant across the various responses was predictable: The pandemic created many struggles and hardships for law students. But many legal insiders were stunned to see the breadth of those difficulties.
“I knew students, like everyone else, struggled during the pandemic,” said LSSSE Director Meera Deo. “But I was shocked to see the extent of the challenges.”
Some obstacles weren’t directly law school-related. Some were linked to necessities. Approximately 43 percent of all law students reported an increased concern about having enough food during and due to the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of law students had concerns over whether they’d be able to afford to pay their bills.
These concerns also had an effect on the mental health and well-being of law students.
“A full 85 percent of law students reported that they suffered through depression that interfered with their daily functioning this past year,” said Deo. “And 87 percent managed anxiety that interfered with their daily functioning.
“Almost every law student in the study—91 percent—reported that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in at least some increase in mental or emotional exhaustion,” added Deo.
A positive finding was that 78 percent of students rated their educational experiences in law school as either “good” or “excellent.”
Although the core of legal education remained pretty stable and student satisfaction overall was very high, the mental health effects caused or intensified by the pandemic also affected students’ studies. About 83 percent of students reported that their ability to concentrate suffered as a result of the pandemic.
The pandemic also interfered with the academic success of more than 79 percent of students. And racial and gender disparities exacerbated the issues faced by students of color and female students.
“Law students were more likely than in years past to be lonely, to be emotionally exhausted, and to struggle with anxiety and depression,” stated Deo. “Data also made clear that the pandemic deepened ongoing disparities and inequities in legal education. Vulnerable student populations—including students of color, women students, first-generation students, and students with the highest levels of debt—faced even greater challenges this year.”
JoCynda Hudson, assistant dean of student affairs at Stetson University College of Law in Tampa, Fla., said, although they were disheartening to hear, the study’s results weren’t surprising.
“Students felt a lack of faculty and staff interaction, difficulty with unfamiliar online platforms, and limited interaction with peers,” Hudson explained. “The lack of socialization of students to campus and with peers has led to a lot of frustration. It has also affected student wellness in being able to balance coursework with personal health.”
Like many institutions, Stetson had to amend or suspend many programs, events, conferences, and wellness initiatives that law students enjoy and may depend on for their personal wellbeing due to the pandemic. This unfortunate result of COVID-19 had another impact on students, specifically on 2Ls, since incoming 1Ls had introductory experiences to acclimate them to the law school life and 3Ls had career and externship support.
“The 2Ls were more likely to feel disengaged in all aspects of campus,” said Hudson. “This could be due to the college focusing on creating successful incoming 1L experiences and providing support for externships and jobs for 3Ls.”
Students also reported a decline in positive relationships with staff. The number of students reporting such relationships dropped to 59 percent, a nearly 10 percent decrease from the high of 68 percent in 2018. Of those who reported that they had positive relationships with faculty and staff, more than 93 percent said they appreciated how their professors showed they cared and were concerned about them during the pandemic.
More can be done
How can law schools continue to make things better for students? “The most important thing a law school can do is to engage with and listen to their student body and to make them partners in learning,” Hudson said. “Students want more engagement with faculty concerning mentoring and advising. The informal, out-of-classroom experiences promote engagement and retention of students. Time spent with students is never wasted.”
In the years since its inception in 2004, the LSSSE has highlighted hardships and struggles that have existed in the law school community for decades and will likely continue in a post-pandemic world—unless, as Deo explained, real changes are made to address these problems.
“We can’t preach self-care while assigning impossible levels of work,” Deo said. “We can’t publish anti-racist resolutions devoid of action items attached to immediate and long-term goals. We can’t claim to put students first without attaching sufficient resources to student support measures.”
Stetson students, for example, said personal well-being was a primary concern and asked for services such as mental health counseling, access to gyms and recreational facilities, health support, and a food pantry. Deo said schools should identify challenges like those outlined by Stetson students and see which changes can be implemented quickly.
“A first step is to take these documented challenges and to consider immediate responses,” said Deo. “Do you have a food pantry for students struggling with food insecurity? Can you assemble a free closet of donated new or gently used items for students who need professional attire for interviews or internships but can’t afford new purchases?”
The next step would be to think bigger about these challenges. Then expand efforts to support more students and prepare them for the legal profession.
“Every school expresses a commitment to students, and this report is a call to action so that those who are truly committed will put more work behind the words,” Deo explained. “I hope faculty, staff, and administrators will heed that call and do more to support students going forward.”