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Report on Legal Education Reveals Heightened Student Struggles due to COVID

BLOOMINGTON, Ind.—Newly-released data by the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) examines the impact of the COVID disruption on law students and legal education.  Data from this Report, The COVID Crisis in Legal Education, draw from the responses of over 13,000 law students at 61 law schools that participated in LSSSE in 2021.  The Report also features results from two new LSSSE Modules: The Coping with COVID module, which gathered responses from 1,521 law students and the Experiences with Online Learning module, which highlights responses from 3,450 law students.

The report shows that though the core of legal education remained relatively stable and overall satisfaction remained remarkably high, law students were more likely than in years past to be lonely, emotionally exhausted, and to struggle with anxiety and depression.  Furthermore, COVID also deepened ongoing disparities and inequities in legal education.  Vulnerable student populations faced even greater challenges over the past year.

“Our students have been struggling due to COVID. The LSSSE findings show that the pandemic exacerbated existing challenges, including food insecurity, financial burdens, eviction worries, and anxiety and depression,” said Meera E. Deo, Director of LSSSE. “Armed with this data, law schools now have a responsibility to act, to support students with the time, energy, and resources they need to not only survive, but thrive in law school and beyond.”

The Foreword highlights the voices of law students taken from the open-ended student comment section of the survey.  The comments reflect the struggle and toll of the pandemic: “We are exhausted, and we need more financial assistance/resources for mental health,” said one student.  Another student reported, “It is extremely difficult to form meaningful relationships with other students when we are all remote.

Noteworthy findings from the report include:

  • 78% of students in 2021 rated their entire educational experience in law school as “good” or “excellent,” which is similar to rates from recent years.
  • 93% of students appreciated that their law professors showed “care and concern for students” as the pandemic raged around them.
  • Law students reported positive student relationships with faculty and fellow students. However, the percentage of students reporting positive relationships with staff dropped from 68% in 2018 to 59% in 2021.
  • First-year students were less likely to report positive relationships than 2Ls and 3Ls—likely because upper-class students could build on foundations they had cemented pre-COVID while 1Ls were attempting to start relationships from scratch in the midst of the pandemic.

Prioritizing Basic Needs

  • 43% of all law students reported increased concern about having enough food due to COVID-19.
  • Significant racial disparities exist with food insecurity: over half of all Black (55%), Latinx (57%), and Asian American (52%) students acknowledged that the past year brought increased concerns about whether they had enough food to eat.
  • Almost two-thirds (63%) of all student respondents had increased concerns about their ability to pay their bills, with both gender and race-based disparities increasing challenges for already vulnerable populations.

Declining Quality of Life

  • 85% of law students reported that they suffered through depression that interfered with their daily functioning this past year.
  • 87% managed anxiety that interfered with their daily functioning, including one-third (32%) who reported that it did so “very much.”
  • Women reported that depression and anxiety interfered with daily functioning more than men.
  • 91% of law students reported that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in at least “some” increase in mental or emotional exhaustion; a full 49% noted that it did so “very much.” 57% of women reported “very much” mental or emotional exhaustion, compared to only one-third (35%) of men.
  • 69% reported at least “some” increase in loneliness due to the pandemic, with almost half of all law students (45%) facing significant increases in loneliness.

Barriers to Law School Success

  • 52% of all law student respondents noted that COVID-19 interfered with their “ability to pay for law school and living expenses.” Disaggregating by race as well as raceXgender reveals additional disparities at the extremes. 24% of White law students worried “quite a bit” or “very much” about their ability to pay for law school and living expenses, higher percentages of students of color were plagued by these anxieties at the highest levels— including 30% of Asian American students, 35% of Black students, and a shocking 45% of Latinx students.
  • First generation students were deeply concerned about their ability to pay for law school and living expenses, including 21% who expressed “very much” concern, compared to just 11% of students who have at least one parent with a college degree.
  • 90% of all law students reported that their concentration suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those noting an increase in their inability to concentrate were 86% of men and 94% of women.
  • Within every racial/ethnic group, higher percentages of women than men noted increases in their inability to concentrate
  • 79% of students shared that COVID-19 interfered with at least some of their ability to succeed as a student. 74% of men were affected, compared to 82% of women. In addition to gender disparities are racial disparities: while 18% of Whites noted “very much” decline in their academic success, one-quarter (25%) of students of color did as well, including 23% of Black students, 27% of Asian Americans, and 29% of Latinx students.