May 22, 2020
President’s Message By Lori McMaster
During these challenging times, my thoughts are with our members, as well as the current law students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and Duquesne University School of Law, who are experiencing financial hardship.
The bar association continues to assist and provide resources for its members. The Sidebar includes regular updates regarding orders issued by the Governor, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County.
Our divisions and sections are hosting Town Hall Meetings to bring attorneys up to speed on changes in the various practice areas. The sections which have hosted a call or are planning to do so include Family Law, Civil Litigation, Construction Law, Solo and Small Firm, Criminal Litigation, Health Law, Environment and Energy Law, Probate and Trust Law and Real Property. Our committees continue to meet via telephone conference calls or Zoom Web Conference.
Committees, sections and divisions are sharing best practices and tips on utilizing advanced communication technologies and how to successfully serve clients while navigating a remote workplace.
The Allegheny County Bar Foundation Lawyers’ Fund is providing confidential, need-based financial assistance to area lawyers and their families. Funds may be available to help those struggling to make ends meet, manage student loan debt, cover funeral expenses of a loved one, pay for substance abuse counseling and more. Please contact David Blaner at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need assistance.
Our members are frequently contacting ACBA staff and officers to convey their appreciation for the updates regarding when and how attorneys can access their offices amid the Coronavirus crisis. Members are telling me how much they appreciate the opportunity to see and connect with their ACBA colleagues via Zoom, and that doing so makes them feel supported and less alone. The overwhelming sentiment expressed by members is one of appreciation, and a wish to protect the health and safety of their attorney colleagues, clients, staff and families through social distancing.
Our colleagues in academia, particularly law students, faculty and staff, are likewise experiencing challenges associated with operating a law school during a global pandemic. One of the first challenges faced by law students and faculty during the month of March at Pitt and Duquesne Law was the question of how to handle the grading policies for the 2020 Spring semester after the schools transitioned to online learning platforms. Faculty at each law school considered the best interest of their students, whose living and personal circumstances vary greatly, as does their access to resources, including internet service, while sheltering in place.
Pitt Law adopted a bifurcated grading policy that distinguished between courses with and without a final exam during the Spring semester. All courses with a final exam will be graded on a mandatory satisfactory (S) or no credit (NC) basis. Regarding courses without a final exam (i.e., clinical programs, independent studies, seminars, etc.), Pitt Law students may elect to take a satisfactory (S) or a no credit (NC).
Vice Dean Haider Ala Hamoudi of Pitt Law indicated that, “in adopting this policy, the faculty at Pitt Law wished to balance two competing concerns raised by various members of our student body. The first was to reward students who continued to work hard despite the difficulties. The second was to take cognizance of the fact that a pandemic has forced all of us into situations and circumstances that are strained, and that fall upon our students in a decidedly uneven fashion. Those with means, or who have families with means, have more resources to address it, including more reliable Wi-Fi, better computers and a more functional remote set up. Those of more limited means do not. This is to say nothing of the particular strains on students with young children, students facing a loss of household income from a partner who lost a job, or those dealing with anxieties over getting ill because they live with partners who are essential workers. In the end, having heard the students very carefully, and having looked to the policies of other law schools, the faculty thought that the policy it decided upon, while by no means perfect, struck that balance best.”
“Students at Duquesne Law have the option of keeping the grade they receive in a course, or, within a week, opting to take a “Pass” or “No-Pass” instead,” said Maria Comas, Director of Career Services at Duquesne. Comas acknowledges that such grading policies are “by no means a perfect solution to the difficult problems that the COVID-19 turmoil poses for equitable student assessment. Unfortunately, though, there is no perfect solution, and any alternative grading system that we might have adopted would have produced unforeseeable burdens and disadvantages for many students. The policy we have adopted is a sincere attempt to try to minimize as many adverse consequences as best we can.”
Law students were additionally challenged in March when summer employment start dates were being postponed, and prior job offers were revised or even rescinded as a result of the health crisis. Many law students were seeking summer positions when opportunities evaporated in March, and they continue to look for summer jobs. The practice of law is very much like an apprenticeship, and continuous learning opportunities need to be provided to law students during periods of economic disruption. I encourage our members to consider utilizing law students this summer (whether on a paid or externship basis). Attorneys may certainly assist law students by hiring them for discrete research projects performed remotely on a short-term basis. Judicial law clerks, associates and others whose availability during traditional work hours are impacted by obligations in the home such as care for a loved one or their children being home from school could receive valuable remote research assistance from a law student seeking an experiential learning opportunity.
There is a natural inclination on the part of attorneys to preserve their business in challenging times through continued client outreach and support, including through social media. Law students could readily assist with those efforts through blog posts, newsletters, and posts to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. The current crisis also presents opportunities for attorneys who are contemplating retirement to mentor a law student or recently admitted attorney, or to hire them as part of their own succession planning. Similarly, law students experienced in the use of technology (Zoom; Microsoft Teams; Excel; PowerPoint, etc.), and other online platforms that we are heavily relying upon while working from home, are eager to support practices where the adoption of these technologies may be welcomed to support the practice. As always, there is ample opportunity for law students and practitioners to be of mutual help to one another.
Rochelle McCain, Executive Director of the Professional Development Office and Co-Director of the Externship Program at Pitt Law indicates that her office “continues to serve as an intermediary between prospective employers and law students and alumni. Our office has hosted on-campus interviews through Pitt Law’s Zoom platform during this time and will continue to offer this service to employers interested in recruiting from our community. Also, we continue to discuss best practices, to offer guidance and support as it relates to on-boarding procedures and remote work practices, and to address general questions regarding the retooling of the traditional practice to a remote environment. We will continue to make ourselves available to employers as they navigate this new terrain to cultivate a mutually beneficial experience during this time and in the future.”
Likewise, Maria Comas states that Duquesne’s Career Services Office “is compiling resources that will help with scheduling virtual interviews and establishing remote work/internship environments. For example, we can schedule virtual interviews through Duquesne’s Zoom platform (which hopefully will prevent the Zoom security breaches that have been occurring). We can also talk through ideas, issues, and concerns about establishing a remote work opportunity in an effort to make the work or internship experiences successful for everyone involved.”
The law students at Duquesne and Pitt are current and future members of the bar association and essential to our continued success in serving the legal community in Allegheny County. I encourage our members to consider creative ways to collaborate with them. Maria Comas at Duquesne Law (email@example.com) and Rochelle McCain (PDO@pitt.edu) at Pitt Law invite their alumni to contact them if you have questions or require their assistance with employment-related questions.
I welcome hearing your thoughts about this message, so please do contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-2359.
All my best, Lori.