Clinics at the University of Virginia School of Law, which provide students real-world experience in lawyering, haven’t slowed down in light of the pandemic. If anything, they’re Zooming.
“There’s still plenty of work going on,” said Professor Sarah Shalf ’01, director of clinical programs.
Adaptation has been key, as students in the Law School’s 20 clinics have been allowed to either take courses in person or remotely this school year through hybrid learning. Remote conferencing tools such as Zoom have been essential.
Lisa Lorish ’08, an assistant federal public defender who would ordinarily teach the Criminal Defense Clinic, decided to shift to a different type of clinic this fall. Her new Federal Criminal Sentence Reduction Clinic is helping to handle the onslaught of compassionate release cases instigated by the COVID-19 crisis in prisons, which has already claimed the lives of more than 1,200 incarcerated people.
“There’s no sign the need is going down right now,” said Lorish, who added that the clinic is taking compassionate release cases out of the Eastern and Western Districts of Virginia because she’s admitted to practice in both courts. “Our clients could be incarcerated in Texas or Massachusetts or elsewhere, but their cases are out of those districts. We’re also assisting with sentence reduction motions under the First Step Act out of the Western District of North Carolina.”
Each of Lorish’s 10 students has four clients, so at least 40 people will have their requests considered by the courts. Age, pre-existing health conditions and time served are all factors a judge will take into consideration when deciding whether to release a defendant to community supervision.
Meanwhile, the Innocence Project at UVA Law, which hosts both a for-credit clinic and a student pro bono clinic, has taken on more DNA-related cases this year, which require fewer personal interviews, as well as responded to a new opportunity.
“We’ve had a slew of parole hearings for clients who are newly eligible under Virginia legislation that passed last year,” said Juliet Hatchett ’15, a staff attorney with the Innocence Project and the Jason Flom Justice Fellow, who explained that parolees no longer have to make a statement accepting responsibility for the crime. “Normally, those hearings would be in person with one to two family members or significant others present, but we’ve been doing them via Zoom.”
Clinic students have already been able to participate in three hearings, with at least three more scheduled.
The Appellate Litigation Clinic has been engaging in its normal approach, although that clinic’s students ordinarily fly out to appeals courts throughout the country to argue cases.
“The clinic has probably been affected by the pandemic less than most, since appellate work is primarily focused on research and writing, and the moot court sessions they do to practice for oral argument work very well over Zoom,” said Professor Scott Ballenger ’96, the clinic’s director.
The clinic’s four arguments since March have all been by audioconference or Zoom, he said. Students argued two appeals via Zoom in September, in the Fourth and Sixth circuits, and have another argument in the Third Circuit coming up in early November.
“The students in this year’s clinic have been thrown right into the deep end,” Ballenger said.
As in recent years, seven of the Law School’s clinics are offered in association with the Legal Aid Justice Center. The clinics coordinator for LAJC, Amy Walters ’09, said caseloads have varied based on the public’s needs due to the pandemic and changes in the law.
Walters teaches the Child Advocacy Clinic and the Health and Disability Law Clinic, which she said are “bustling.” In a recent case that fell under Child Advocacy, students working from Colorado and New Jersey were able to help a high school student with severe disabilities get back to in-person instruction.
But with fewer opportunities for student-counselors to connect with a client in person, is the human touch getting lost in the process?
“The crucial thing that students hopefully are learning is how not to make it impersonal to communicate by Zoom or by telephone and to make a more intentional effort to build rapport with the client,” Shalf said.
LAJC hosted discussions early on to discuss the challenge.
“The first week or two of clinics we held a session over Zoom about interviewing clients in the time of COVID,” Walters said. “We wanted students to find out what are the things potentially lost and what are the liabilities.”
Confidentiality at times may be an issue, she said, given that it may not be clear who is listening in, and the capacity for the client to understand what’s being communicated may not always be obvious on a call or even Zoom.
Lorish said that for post-conviction work, developing empathy over distance is standard, and crucial.
“You’re always trying to maintain the relationship through the phone and trying to be a good listener and trying to demonstrate compassion and care for your client,” she said.
Even with so much remote work being done, where courts are meeting in person, students such as those in the Prosecution Clinic and the Immigration Law Clinic have been able to participate in person on a limited basis.
The Criminal Defense Clinic is scheduled to return in the spring.
With more courts forecast to be opening by then, Zoom access to those proceedings could become less common. Clinic administrators said it may be a challenge to figure out how to best incorporate students who are still participating remotely if that happens.
On the flip side, for clinics in which there isn’t much client interaction, such as the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, not much has changed. With students meeting in classes spaced 6 feet apart instead of around a table, though, they can no longer face each other and interact as easily, said Professor Dan Ortiz, the clinic’s director. “That small change really affects class discussion.”
Otherwise, “The only official change is handling some discussion through Zoom and some in class,” Ortiz said.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.