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Where were you when legal education went virtual?

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By Leah Teague

We were on spring break! In past years, I might have been glowing in the sun (literally, glowing from too much sun on my fair skin despite my best attempts to heed my doctor’s warning); in other years, we were skiing in the mountains. But not this year. I was in Waco preparing for the Baylor Law Vision 2020 conference, working on our textbook, and trying to whittle down that ever-growing To-Do pile. It was not going to be a leisurely week no matter what! But a pandemic was not in the plan. Spring Break 2020 will forever be remembered for COVID-19.

On March 11, Dr. Linda Livingstone, our University President, announced the University would take an extra week of Spring Break and that we should be ready to start teaching online March 23rd, making up the lost week before finals. The extra week off caused us concern with only 4 weeks left on our quarter system (we normally have 9 weeks of class with 70-minute class periods). Making up a full week’s worth of classes in the remaining 4 weeks amidst all the other challenges would have been nearly impossible! So, true to the Baylor Law spirit, our law faculty sprang into action and began teaching using online platforms the following Monday with only 5 days to learn technology that most had never heard of (like Kaltura, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams). A few understood WebEx but who knew you could narrate PowerPoints?! Yes, a few classes needed extra days to get up and running, but oh my goodness, did they rise to the challenge! Converting a traditional brick and mortar law school to a virtual one in five days – WOW!

Like all of you, we at Baylor Law are now fully online AND our faculty is serving as the front line for communication with their students to offer help and support for those in need. I have seen hard-nosed professors reach out to individual students to listen, counsel and advise or direct those struggling. They are making a difference in the lives of their students and I am so proud! Together we will get through this!

Kudos to the faculty and staff across the country who are working so hard to make it happen! We are witnessing countless examples of leadership in action!

We’re now in our third week of online classes. Our faculty have been meeting (virtually, of course) every few days to make important decisions. We decided early on to stay with our grading system and to address accommodations on an individual basis. Because we are small – student population of 430 – we are better equipped to manage this decision. We spent the last three weeks determining what adjustments we can make to our policies and procedures to help our students. We quickly extended the exam period and doubled the normal number of reading days. Instead of our typically tight exam schedule, they now have a break every few days during the exam period providing more time to study in between exams.

We committed to giving students easier access to accommodations without having to pay additional tuition to take away that financial burden. We adjusted our policies with regard to drops, withdrawals, and incompletes. We added grade relief through a new tuition-free, retake policy that only applies to courses taken this term. No student will lose any scholarship, now or in the future, because of these grades. These operational decisions were thoughtfully considered and debated during numerous faculty meetings and countless emails in between. The faculty focused on prioritizing the current needs and wellness of our students while balancing the short-term vs. long-term implications to their education and professional training. I truly am blessed to work with colleagues who care so deeply for our students while also remaining dedicated to our mission of preparing our students to be ready to serve and to lead in times such as these!

Our staff also has been amazing! A skeleton crew is here with me every day to support the work of the faculty and staff working from home and to meet the needs of our minimum and essential business operations. Although they are adjusting to working from home, they want to stay connected and to help, especially to support and encourage our students. They are offering tips and advice about best practices. They are reaching out to check in. We are scheduling virtual gatherings and socials for student groups. All the while our colleagues are juggling their own home daycares, schools, delivery services, and whatever else is needed for their loved ones. I am meeting virtually with the staff once a week and our conversations focus on what can they do to help one another and our students. Truly inspiring!

Our Student Relations Committee (student leaders along with appointed faculty and staff representatives) also meet once a week to give voice to the students’ concerns and to brainstorm solutions to issues. We are hosting a leadership summit next Monday to visit with the officers of our student organizations about leading virtual meetings and events focused on their missions.

And oh my goodness has the number of emails, phone calls, and texts exploded! We are using all manner of communication vehicles to attempt to alleviate the anxiety of our students, as well as others (including us!). Faculty and staff are putting in long hours each and every day to assure the well-being, education, and professional training of our students continues, albeit, virtually.

As we tell our students, it is in times such as these that lawyers rise to the occasion. We know our alumni are out there working just as many hours, and more. They are carrying the weight of not only their clients – who are greatly impacted by the COVID-19 disruptions – but also that of their children who must be home-schooled and their high-risk loved ones who must be cared for and protected. We thank them for what they are doing to model for our students what professionalism and leadership looks like.

I had hoped to get this message typed and delivered last Thursday or Friday to mark the time that was supposed to be the Vision 2020 Leadership Conference. We were so looking forward to welcoming many of you to our beautiful city and law center. I knew, however, you would understand that a message from me could wait. A month ago, as we were deliberating what to do about the conference and I really wanted to continue with the conference but convert it to a completely virtual conference. Clearly, one of the silver linings of our current situation is the shove we all got toward acquiring new skills using technology to work and congregate virtually. How innovative it would have been to be the first to host a virtual leadership conference for law schools!

Two realities stopped us from going forward. First, the chaos of the transition for all of us to a pivot on a dime towards a new work dynamic and to learn new tools and techniques to teach and do our jobs. We have all been consumed. We were concerned about the time to pull together such a novel concept and for it be a “wow” event, which is always our goal. Second, and for me even more important, there is great benefit through the personal connections of people gathering in the same room, sharing stories over cocktails, brainstorming during breaks, and focusing on a live speaker rather than multi-tasking at your computer at home. I am not advocating that these benefits cannot occur in a virtual world. Clearly they can. Last Saturday evening I participated in my first virtual Happy Hour and I loved it! The difference is that my Happy Hour was with a small group of people with whom I already have a relationship. Developing relationships that allow for effective sharing of ideas takes time. It is hard to “meet” people and spend any meaningful time getting to know them if they are in a group gathering online with 100 people for a one-time event. This is one of the challenges of this online world of education – how to connect at a personal level when the class is large.

All that to say, we were greatly disappointed that our conference, like the rest of our events and our lives, was disrupted by COVID-19. We will set a date in the Fall as soon as we can. We hope even more of you will be able to attend in person or virtually, but mostly hoping you will be able to travel to our fun city and our beautiful building on the Brazos River to fully engage with one another.

I hope you are all doing well in our new, temporary reality!

-LJT