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Living and Studying Through the Unprecedented Age of COVID-19

By Jennifer Catherine Keane-Valdez

“1L will scare you to death, 2L will work you to death, and 3L will bore you to death,” he said to me. I will never forget this bit of “wisdom” shared by an upperclassman during the first week of my first year at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), David A. Clarke School of Law.

The upperclassman followed by offering pointers on how to excel in specific classes. At the time, I accepted his perspective as true because I had only completed orientation and the first week of law school, which were intimidating, to say the least. When I decided to attend law school, I did not have a clear idea of what to expect, but I knew that the law school experience would be challenging and demanding. While my family and friends were excited that I would be attending law school, I was the first person in both my family and circle of friends to aspire to become an attorney. As a result, I had no first-hand examples of the life of a law student, nor did I have a clear sense of the lawyering experience that lay before me.

Two years later, now a rising 3L at UDC Law, I can confirm that my 1L experience was terrifying. Law school took more out of me than I anticipated; the new environment, the workload, and the pressure to do well, combined with feelings of insecurity and incompetence, all contributed to an overall fear-provoking experience. Every time I established a comfortable routine, a new challenge would arise, and those paralyzing, fearful feelings would come rushing back. As a coping mechanism, early in my first year, I promised myself that I would always face the trials head on, no matter how scared I felt. Whatever “it” was, whatever law school threw at me, whatever needed to be overcome, I would conquer “it”, even if I was breathless and shaking from anxiety. I eventually learned that the upperclassman who offered wisdom during my first week of 1L was right, but not completely. 1L did scare me, but not to death. I rose to the occasion and became a 2L with grit, resilience, and the spirit of a conqueror.

I can also confirm that my 2L experience was laborious. After finishing the first year of foundational classes and a summer legal internship at the Public Defender’s Office in Baltimore City, my 2L year started with a “hit the ground running” style. As my workload in law classes increased, my responsibilities in extracurricular activities became more demanding. Additionally, I now worked with pro bono clients in a UDC Law clinic. It became especially difficult to balance the increased workload in my courses alongside my membership in UDC Law’s Bethel Campus Fellowship, the National Lawyers Guild, and Law Students for Disability Rights, with my new duties in the Community Development Law (CDL) Clinic. In the CDL Clinic, I counseled small business owners, non-profit organizations, and entrepreneurs in Washington D.C. under the supervision of Professors Louise Howells and Etienne Toussaint. Working in a team of law students as a certified law student advocate, I assisted clients with business formation, entity structure, incorporation filings, the drafting of bylaws and articles of incorporation, and various unemployment and worker’s compensation legal issues.

When Dean Renee Hutchins announced that our spring break would be extended due to worries over the COVID-19 global pandemic, to be honest, I was somewhat relieved. I would now be able to use the time that I had previously dedicated to commuting to and from school to catch up on work or sleep. Little did I know that my sense of relief would soon turn into horror when Dean Hutchins announced that we would move to remote learning indefinitely, which meant the second half of my 2L spring semester would be completed entirely at home.

Now that I have completed my 2L year, I can confidently say that the biggest challenge I’m experiencing as a law student during COVID-19 is the lack of community. I didn’t realize the vital impact of campus life to my law school experience until I no longer had access to it. Prior to COVID-19, I utilized professor’s office hours frequently and benefited from in-person discussions of course material, client matters, and writing assignments. Before class, it was helpful to discuss a complex case or confusing concept with my colleagues, and after class, review important takeaways from the classroom discussion while studying in groups. Having an opportunity to engage with my colleagues outside of the classroom by participating in student organizations further solidified the strong sense of community at UDC Law.

Although UDC Law quickly adapted to an effective remote learning method, and as much as I dread the Socratic method, I thrive and get the most out of being in a physical classroom with my law professors and peers. Attending class virtually requires students to adapt to a new learning style, and quickly! As a second-semester 2L, I was finally starting to feel comfortable with the challenges of law school: class preparation, in class cold-calling, outlining, student organization participation, clinic responsibilities, etc. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted my routine, and has made me feel like that scared, intimidated, self-doubting 1L all over again. Present opportunities and future goals have been disrupted. Perhaps worst of all, while I was isolated alone at home, I started to doubt myself – Am I doing this right? Do I have what it takes? Am I following the right path? Still, I believe that whenever a challenge presents itself, there is always a newfound opportunity to rise to the occasion.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of technology and effective communication, not only for law students, but also for lawyers. To graduate law school, classes must be completed; to ethically and adequately practice law, client matters must be settled. Without technology and effective communication, law school and lawyering would be impossible during this pandemic. As a law student and future attorney, I will use this experience to discover new ways to utilize technology and effective communication to resolve client matters and continue to serve the public interest, no matter what is going on in the world. For example, in the CDL Clinic, I have continued to communicate with my pro bono clients, exchange draft contracts, and coordinate collaborative, virtual meetings via the internet. Although in-person meetings are preferred by both the CDL Clinic and our clients, we have still been able to effectively address legal issues and meet important deadlines.

During these unprecedented and trying times, one quote rings true every time fear creeps back up – “Those who bend cannot break.” I believe that law students, whether they realize it or not, have been preparing to live and study through the unparalleled age of COVID-19. Whether through conquering personal fears, pioneering legal innovations, navigating uncharted policy domains, or employing logical and analytical problem-solving skills to community-based problems – we have been preparing to surmount the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, we are utilizing remote learning and virtual interactions to continue our studies, and will similarly use virtual technology in the future as practicing attorneys to serve our clients, promote justice, and change lives. The grit, resilience, and tenacity we’ve gained through our experiences at UDC Law, combined with the flexibility, creativity, and bravery demanded by the challenges of COVID-19, will carry us through law school and beyond.

 

Jennifer Keane-Valdez is a rising 3L at the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law. She is passionate about business formation and entrepreneurship and aspires to practice transactional law in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. When she is not studying law, Jennifer operates a mobile coffee shop, Disciple Coffee LLC, with her husband, loves to cook and bake, and enjoys relaxing outdoors.