Extraordinary Work in an Extraordinary Time

The College of Law Meets the COVID-19 Challenge

Throughout March, as many law schools transitioned to online instruction because of the coronavirus pandemic, the College of Law’s rapid transition was that much smoother thanks in large measure to extensive experience with JDinteractive, the College’s interactive online law degree program.

“We’re very fortunate that we’ve already spent years thinking through how you bring law school online in a way that works for students,” explains Faculty Director of Online Education Nina Kohn.

The best practices that faculty and staff developed through JDi’s careful development enabled a relatively seamless transition to teaching and supporting all students remotely. Throughout this magazine, you will read many examples of the College’s successful pivot to online learning in the second half of the spring 2020 semester.

Here we gather more of the extraordinary work that met the challenges of an extraordinary time…

In March the College rapidly stood up Law Preparedness, a website resource for the College community that provides up-to-date information on changes in campus operations, academic continuity resources, tips about staying healthy, travel guidance, and more. As leader of the College of Law’s COVID-19 Planning and Operations Group, Dean Boise pledged in a memo—announcing the unprecedented move to online instruction—that the College would “both push ourselves and support one another through this crisis.”

The 2020 College of Law Commencement ceremony— originally scheduled for May 8 at the Oncenter in Syracuse while the Dome is under construction—has been postponed to May 2021. Nevertheless, the College held a proud awards celebration for graduating students on May 7, despite being kept physically apart. The next day—the original commencement date—the College published a moving tribute to the resilient and talented Class of 2020, watched more than 1,500 times on YouTube.

47th Vice President of the United States Joseph R. Biden Jr. L’68 and Commencement speaker and JetBlue President and COO Joanna Geraghty L’97 joined Dean Boise, faculty, and staff in the tribute. To watch the video, visit lawcommencement.syr.edu. You can send a congratulatory message for the Class of 2020 to SyracuseStrong@law.syr.edu.

Student life continued online smoothly, according to Director of Student Affairs Sarah Collins, thanks to existing infrastructure that remotely integrates JDi students into the Student Bar Association, clubs, and other activities.

“We were able to pivot quickly and effectively,” observes Collins. “Annual end-of-year events occurred virtually, including the Syracuse Law Review and Travis H.D. Lewin Advocacy Honor Society banquets, as well as the Justinian Society Induction Ceremony (pictured). For the annual elections of student leaders, candidate speeches were delivered via Zoom, and the passing of the gavel to newly elected officers also happened virtually.”

Collins adds that the Blue Book exam—which must be completed if a student wants to work on a student- run journal—was conducted via Zoom, with Q&A sessions offered beforehand to explain this year’s process.

Throughout March and April the Office of Student Affairs held online coffee hours titled Camaraderie with Collins. Special guests, including Dean Boise and Associate Director of the Office of Student Affairs Academic and Bar Support Programs Courtney Abbott Hill L’09, answered student questions, offered support, and continued “the open door practice that we use when we are physically together,” according to Director of Student Affairs Sarah Collins.

Alumni were also resilient and flexible—and characteristically supportive of their alma mater— during the move online —even as their own work and family lives were severely disrupted—continuing to teach, lecture, and coach advocacy teams via teleconferencing platforms.
On April 16 and 22, the Syracuse University Law Alumni Association convened two town hall discussions with students on “How to Plan for the Future During a Time of Uncertainty.”

Offering an essential service to the disabled community, the Burton Blatt Institute Office of Interdisciplinary Programs and Outreach (BBI OIPO) established the New York State COVID-19 Online Resources webpage, gathering and curating Syracuse, Central New York, and New York State COVID- 19-related information centering “on the rights, access, and experiences of disabled people during the pandemic,” according to BBI OIPO Associate Director Diane Wiener.

Executive Director of the Betty and Michael D. Wohl Veterans Legal Clinic Beth Kubala spoke on WSYR’s Dave Allen Show on March 30, describing how her clinic’s essential work continued online during the shutdown. “We’re still able to keep in touch with clients via telephone and access case files remotely,” Kubala told Allen. “We’re still able to provide quality representation to veterans in our community.” In April alone, the clinic recovered more than $500,000 to help assist its clients.

The pivot to online learning was sudden and dramatic, leaving law school faculty members nationwide asking questions about the nuts and bolts of virtual classrooms.

Professor Nina Kohn’s experiences designing JDi and supporting the College’s faculty in preparation for its launch made her a sought-after expert. During March— as a free public service—Kohn offered a series of web conferences for law school faculty across the country who wanted to learn more about how to do online right. “Through these virtual workshops, the knowledge we’ve accumulated in Syracuse was on full display,” Kohn says.

The COVID-19 crisis left Innovation Law Center students and faculty in uncharted territory as their spring end-of-semester research for start- up companies had to be presented virtually. Students, professors and clients came together to finish the semester strongly, with presentations held via video conference.

“Although it was a somewhat sudden shift from preparing in-person presentations, the experience was a good one,” says rising 3L Sohela Suri. “In practice, we will likely utilize technology to communicate with colleagues and clients regularly, so it was a unique and timely experience to conduct a presentation via Zoom with a real client.” The virtual format had at least one unexpected benefit: allowing more students to attend client presentations.

Among other examples of alumni and students helping their communities, Christopher Jennison L’16 has been volunteering with the Bethesda- Chevy Chase Rescue Squad during the crisis.

His work is described in the ABA Journal article “Lawyer Certified as Emergency Medical Technician Calls on His Experience During COVID-19 Crisis” (June 1, 2020). “For someone like Chris, who is a lawyer, now married with a family, to have that all going and still commit to this organization, that’s dedication,” says Rescue Squad President Ken Holden.

Although in-person conferences and symposia were put on hold, faculty went online to offer their research-based perspectives in web conferences and other online forums. The photo shows Professor Corri Zoli discussing the “Islamic Law of Armed Conflict” during an Anethum Global webinar on May 19.

Among other virtual presentations, Professor Kristen Barnes spoke on “Homelessness and Cities” at the Real Property Trust and Estates Virtual Conference on May 14. Professor Nina Kohn joined the African American Policy Forum’s “Under the Black Light: COVID in Confinement” webinar on April 29. On April 23, Professor Doron Dorfman led a UMass Law/OUTLaw discussion on the FDA’s blood ban policy and recent changes in light of the pandemic. And on April 22, Professor Mary Szto took part in Syracuse University’s online “COVID-19 Anti-Asian Racism Panel Discussion.”