In March of 2020, just as Katie Peterson’s first year of law school was nearing its close, everything changed. As Katie rounds out a full year of remote law school, she and ALPS Claims Attorney Martha Amrine reflect on how 2020 upended long-held law school traditions and created new ones. They talk about what aspects of that transition were hard, what current law students might be missing out on, and the unanticipated ways that the graduates of ‘virtual law school’ may ultimately change the practice of law for the better. Katie Peterson is a Class of 2022 JD Candidate at the American University Washington College of Law, a Teaching Fellow with the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, VP of Membership with If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, and an Intern with Women Lawyers on Guard.

Transcript: 

MARTHA AMRINE:

All right. Hello. My name is Martha Amrine and I’m a claims attorney with ALPS Insurance, and we welcome you to the ALPS podcast. Today, I’m talking with Katie Peterson. She is a law student working, going to school and living in Washington, DC, obviously during the pandemic, which gives her a perspective that most of us didn’t experience. We’re talking with her today about how that experience has been and how that might shape her experience and getting her ready for her future career. Katie, thank you for joining us.

KATIE PETERSON:

Hi. Yes- [inaudible 00:01:02] … for having me. I’m excited to be here and talk a little bit about my experience.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

KATIE:

Of course. So I moved to Washington DC, as you mentioned, for law school from Georgia. I went to the University of Georgia for undergraduate and I studied women’s studies and sociology. So I think that really set me up nicely for law school, especially in terms of what I’m interested in, that being advocacy and legislation that’s centered around advocacy. So I feel that has led me to sort of where I am now. I basically grew up in the south. DC is the furthest north that I’ve ever lived. So I always tell people that I’m in the north, even though I get pushed back on that saying I’m still the south. I refuse to believe it. [crosstalk 00:02:04] I say, “No, I’m a North easterner now.” I feel like I basically live in New York. Yeah, that’s just a little bit about me. [crosstalk 00:02:14]

MARTHA:

Awesome. What about school activities, internship? I know you’ve got a lot of other things going on. What else are you involved in?

KATIE:

Absolutely. So I am currently on the board of If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, which is a national organization, but I’m on the board of the Washington College of Law chapter. I was on the board this past year and will continue in my role as vice president next year. I also am currently interning for Women Lawyers On Guard, which is a small nonprofit that focuses on sexual harassment in the legal profession.

MARTHA:

Awesome. Let’s say March of last year was the beginning of all of the changes. Tell us about that first part of your first year and what was important, how things went with school and studying and social life and all of that.

KATIE:

The first part post-pandemic after everything-

MARTHA:

Pre, yeah.

KATIE:

Pre pandemic. So pre pandemic, I felt like I had a very normal law school career. I was really close with my sort of section mates, which seems to be pretty common amongst law schools. Your section mates or the people you spend most of your time with. So I spent a lot of time with my friends that I made in my section in class and then going and having our lunches together in the cafeteria, going for coffee, spending a lot of time in the library, studying together and really forming connections that we all expected to carry on through our law school careers. Whether or not that’s happened, obviously everything was interrupted by this global pandemic. So it’s been an adjustment definitely, and we’ll get into that.

But pre pandemic, it really felt like a normal law school experience. It was stressful and it was exciting, it’s new. It was fun. Then obviously, it had its less fun moments. But ultimately, I think something that was present my pre pandemic law career that is a little less present now is just sort of that sense of comradery and being able to… When that big assignment’s coming up or that really difficult test or project is coming up, you kind of have that support system around, whether it’s just commiserating and talking about how difficult everything is or getting good advice from people, that was a really beneficial part of being in person.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Yeah. Tell us a little bit about how things change March 2020 and what differences there were to your entire life basically.

KATIE:

Yeah. Like so many people, my entire education moved online in March 2020 pretty close to our spring break. Everything changed really. The school buildings closed down. We were unable to access the campus that I had been going to every day for almost a year. It was much more difficult to get together with friends and talk about assignments. It was fairly close to the end of the semester, relatively. So it was around the time that we started outlining. So studying started to look a lot different. I remember when we first went online, definitely talking to my friends saying, “Oh, we have to we have to Zoom or FaceTime during class or after class,” or basically trying to kind of hype ourselves up almost to stay connected, which is a lot easier said than done.

MARTHA:

Yeah. So how has that been? Have you been able to maintain connections with online and limited ways of seeing people?

KATIE:

Yeah. It’s a lot different. I feel that I’ve been able to maintain closer friendships more easily, and it’s been much more difficult for me to maintain those sorts of acquaintances and keep in touch with acquaintances. A lot of that sort of connecting is done via just social media now. I do have acquaintances from my section or my law school in general who are not super active on social media, which obviously is fine, but it’s just harder to kind of stay in touch with them. I have no clue what some of the acquaintances that I had made my first year pre pandemic, I don’t know what they’re up to now, which it’s just different. I won’t put a value judgment on it, but it’s just a very different experience now.

MARTHA:

Then what about connections with faculty or decision-making by the university as things change and things develop? How has that been?

KATIE:

I’d say that everything now is generally done a bit more slowly, especially in terms of trying to communicate with faculty or administration. It’s more difficult now than it was pre pandemic when we were in person. It was so easy to see a professor in the hallway and stop them for a quick comment or question or go into their office hours, which almost all professors offered. It was just really… I felt like our professors and the administration as well were very accessible. Whereas now, I know everyone’s trying their best, but it’s just more difficult to have those sort of quick informal conversations that you might have with a professor or administrator that you really like.

MARTHA:

Yeah. So when we were chatting and planning for the podcast, you and I talked a little bit about the importance of the first year finals. Back in the day when I went to law school, it sounds like not much has changed, but you basically studied and you prepared all year for this one set of tests that not only determined your grades for the first year, but really put you in a place where you either did or didn’t have… You either had opportunities or maybe your opportunities were limited, or you kind of had your place in class rank all based on this one set of tests. We could probably debate for three days about how that is fair, not fair, good, bad, but that’s the reality, is that these tests that at the end of the first year, are very, very important. Based on the timeline, these came about right after lockdown came into effect. So tell us a little bit about that and how that worked, how that has found its place for you in terms of the importance of your experience in law school and any other details.

KATIE:

Yeah, you’re absolutely right and it stays the case that your first year of law school grades and GPA are a paramount importance in a lot of students’ lives, particularly those interested in working at a law firm or maybe corporate law or, “big law.” I put quotation marks around that because people might interpret that to mean different things, but they’re extremely important to this day. So my school did have, after the pandemic really became very serious in America and we decided to close the school down and moved to virtual classes, there was a pretty intense debate over whether we should maintain the A through F grading system or transition to a pass/fail grading system, which some law schools adopted very early on because of the pandemic, the change in circumstances that everybody was undergoing and trying to cope with.

There was a lot of discussion amongst the community. A lot of proponents for pass/fail were of course, making arguments that our circumstances had changed drastically. Some people working from home have to care for other relatives, or maybe don’t have the best environment in which to study. There’s just a host of variables that could affect someone’s performance on an exam, which I agree with all of those points. Then others who were in favor of keeping the A through F grading system made a lot of the same points that you just made in terms of how important GPA is to law students entering the workforce, especially because it’s was not, to my understanding, it was not 100% uniform throughout law schools in the country, whether or not it was going to be pass/fail or graded A through F, so there was discussion there as well in terms of our students who maintain the A through F grading system and apply to a job, will they have some advantage over a student whose school adopted pass/fail?

So those were kind of the arguments on both sides. [crosstalk 00:13:37] I personally did not feel super strongly about either one. I understood both sides of the argument. That’s sort of the, I think, maybe a future politician in me trying to be moderate. But ultimately, my school adopted pass/fail. In retrospect, I appreciated it personally based on my performance on my property exam. I really, really appreciated the pass/fail aspect of it, but I really think that people still continued to study and work hard. I don’t think anyone’s work ethic really changed because of it because at the end of the day, we all have to take the bar anyways and we’re all paying a lot of money to attend law school. So it really doesn’t make sense to not try. So I think some of the concerns that people had, while I understand them, were just mitigated by each individual’s work effort and an ethic and personal desire to do well, regardless of being greater than not. You’re completely right that we could debate for a long time about the- [crosstalk 00:14:52].

MARTHA:

It really just hurts you if you don’t figure it out at the first opportunity. Yeah.

KATIE:

Exactly. That’s completely right.

MARTHA:

Yeah. So after the finals, tell us about your first summer.

KATIE:

Yeah. So my first summer, I decided to go down to Georgia to stay with my parents, live there mainly because of all of the uncertainty surrounding COVID and DC is a very populous region and I have a dog, so I would have to go out frequently to take her out. There was just a lot of uncertainties surrounding how contagious it was, what outdoor space. So all of that saying that I ultimately decided to go spend the summer with my parents so that I could sort of socially distance even more at their house and limit my exposure to other individuals.

MARTHA:

Right, because there is a big difference between, I’m imagining, where your parents are, in Virginia in the middle of DC in terms of space and contact with other people.

KATIE:

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. My parents are in Georgia. So I went down and stayed with them. They have their house and they have a backyard and their neighborhood is very… It’s just not very busy. I live in a neighborhood in DC. There’s always, always, always 100% people walking around outside near my apartment, or I will always, while walking my dog or even taking her out to go to the bathroom, I will always run into another person. So having a yard was a huge game changer.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Were able to work or do internships or be involved in law related activities from your home in Georgia?

KATIE:

I was. So fortunately, a lot of places adapted to work from home pretty quickly. One of the silver linings, I’ll say, of the pandemic, at least in terms of being a law student, was that I had access to a lot more opportunities that I maybe wouldn’t normally have access to just in terms of being online, you have the opportunity to work for someone who might be in a different state that you might otherwise being in person, not have access to that opportunity. But I was able to start my job with Women Lawyers On Guard, which I’ve been at for almost a year now, and I started working virtually for. I also did a corporate externship where I worked virtually for Boral Material Technologies, which is a company based in Australia. I did a seminar to accompany that, so I got some credit for it.

MARTHA:

Awesome.

KATIE:

[crosstalk 00:18:11] … do both of those virtual.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Great. All right. So you made the decision and made the move back to DC after this summer, but what about your fellow students, your colleagues in school? Did everybody make it back? How did the second year ago?

KATIE:

Yeah, it’s super interesting. I definitely have the thought of, is it worth it to go back if we’re going to be online? Just because it’s so expensive to live in DC. So I definitely had that thought, but I decided ultimately to come back because I really like DC and I like where I live. But I do know some people who have either not come back at all or have come back and then have been traveling a lot… I know one person, one of my peers who went abroad to Europe, I think, for a while and has now come back. I know a couple people whose families are in Florida. So especially during the winter months, they were enjoying the Florida heat while we were all freezing.

MARTHA:

Yeah, while doing online school?

KATIE:

Yeah. Yes, all of this while doing online school, which is a bit ironic just considering that our school decided to cancel our spring break out of concern that people would be traveling, which again, is just sort of funny because people were traveling already regardless. But people have really been able to sort of take their schedule and kind of take their life almost back into their own hands just in terms of being able to live where they want and do what they want in their free time while also going to school. So I think that there’s been a lot of flexibility for people online.

MARTHA:

Yeah. So you are in your early twenties, you live by yourself, your job, really, looking back, what I would say is to socialize and have those personal connections, especially when your family is all in Georgia. Has that been hard for you?

KATIE:

It has been. Yeah, it has been hard. I’ve been trying to really maintain as much social distancing as I can. I’ve really, really been trying in the past year to stay in as much and really avoid contact with people who are not in my bubble, I guess you could say, which is very small as it should be. But even with people within my bubble, it’s been difficult to try to find the time to hang out or get together. My friends are obviously just as busy as I am. They all have their own lives. So that’s been a bit disappointing just because when you’re in person, it is so easy to get lunch with someone between class or meet them at the library, or like I mentioned, to get a coffee or something.

But now, it really is you have to go out of your way to see people, which I think for a lot of people has just meant seeing people less. It’s just easier to stay in and maybe FaceTime or Zoom or something as opposed to actually taking the risk to go out. Especially, oh my gosh, in DC, you’re trying to find parking or if you’re doing public transportation, it really- [crosstalk 00:22:31]

MARTHA:

There’s a lot of people around.

KATIE:

Yeah. It’s just a hassle to get together with people now, honestly. So I would say that my social life has definitely been a bit… It’s taken a couple steps back, I think, since I moved to DC.

MARTHA:

Yeah.

KATIE:

Yeah.

MARTHA:

So when you look at… Hopefully, new developments are coming and then we’re having more opportunities in the very near future. Going forward, what are your thoughts about how… We’ve all been through this pandemic. Not very many of us have been through it while essentially training for our career as you are in right smack in the middle of your law school experience. How do you think that hinders you in one way? And we can talk about benefits, but what do you see as the pros versus cons with you experiencing this at this point in your life?

KATIE:

Well, I think one of the biggest cons that jumps mind is just, I think it’s impossible to quantify the opportunity costs of missing out on over a year of in-person education. Law professors and administrators are such great resources for all types of reasons, but especially when it comes to finding work, finding a job. It is so much easier to be able to go up to a professor between classes or lunch and talk to them about what you’re interested in. It’s just a lot easier, I think, to find opportunities when you’re in person than it is now. Now being online, there’s almost a sort of formality to everything that was not there when we were in person. Now, I spend way too long writing simple emails questioning whether something should be a question mark, or if I should include an exclamation point, or does that make me seem too eager?

So it’s just kind of all of these extra considerations that you don’t really need to take into account when you’re in person because it’s much more natural to communicate with someone in person, I think. So that is, I think, one of the biggest detriments is just not knowing what kind of opportunities could have been available to me that I wasn’t able to take advantage of. But I also think at the same time, I’ve become more flexible. I think a lot of people have become more flexible because of this experience. It just really goes to show that you never know what could happen. I don’t think anyone foresaw a global pandemic happening. So I think at the same time while yes, I might’ve lost out on some experiences, at least now, I feel like I personally am a more flexible person and I don’t worry myself so much when something might go wrong.

MARTHA:

Yeah. What, if you know, does your last summer in law school and then your third year look like?

KATIE:

So this summer, I just signed up for a summer course and I will continue my work with Women Lawyers On Guard. I’m really focused on trying to fundraise for them and find some money for the projects that we’re trying to accomplish. In terms of my third year, my final year of law school should be pretty exciting. I will be teaching through the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project. So I’ll be teaching in DC public high schools about the democratic process and the US Constitution and some of the law that has been established by the constitution and through cases over the years. I also will be partaking in the Gender Justice Clinic at WCL. So I’ll have the opportunity to be a student lawyer, which I’m really excited about.

MARTHA:

Great. I know it’s looking ahead and maybe there’s not a clear plan, but what do you plan after law school?

KATIE:

That’s an excellent question. I ask myself that every morning when I wake up. I hope to work on legislation in some capacity, whether it be working with the government. I’m hoping to find a job on the Hill sometime soon in some capacity. So whether I’m working for the government on legislation or working for some sort of nonprofit or NGO, I know that I want to be involved in making the law through legislation.

MARTHA:

Has your interest in policy and legislation been formed by or been altered by your experience over the last year?

KATIE:

Absolutely. I think over the last year, I have really learned a lot more about particularly federalism and the role that each local, state and then the federal government plays in these important functions, such as administering vaccines or tests, or just sort of emergency preparedness in general. Also, I think in this past year, the pandemic has really exacerbated a lot of social inequalities that I’ve been passionate about for a long time and now, I think is a really good time for young activists and future legislators like me to really examine what our role should be in trying to end some of the inequality that’s present in recent American culture and society.

MARTHA:

Awesome. Well, gosh. It’s really great to hear from you and about your experience. I think that what you’re doing is… You can your passion about your future career, which is amazing. We’re really excited, not only to hear your story and have you here, but hopefully here what you end up doing in the future and your path forward. So I really appreciate your time. I’m sure a lot of people will think that your thoughts and your experiences have been… This has been really interesting. I’m sure lots of people will find it interesting, and we sure appreciate having you.

KATIE:

Great. Thank you so much for having me.

MARTHA:

Yeah. Thanks, Katie.

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