PUBLISHED:April 23, 2020

A spring semester like no other: Duke Law responds to COVID-19


As the scale and scope of the novel coronavirus became known in early March, the Law School moved quickly to transition to remote instruction and operations.

In early March, when the proliferation of the novel coronavirus in the United States was quickly becoming apparent, Duke Law School students had just begun their spring break.

Scattered around the country and the world, few would have been aware of the extraordinary measures being taken to protect the Duke and Duke Law communities and continue their teaching, research, and service missions in the face of a growing pandemic. But by the time they returned to Durham or their hometowns the following week, the university and the Law School were focused on responding to COVID-19, transitioning to online learning for the remainder of the semester; canceling, postponing, or virtualizing events; moving staff in every department to a fully at-home work environment; and expanding resources to assist students through unprecedented upheaval in their personal and academic lives.

Dean Kerry Abrams
Dean Kerry Abrams

Law School administrators began contingency planning for operational disruptions well before Duke University’s official announcement on March 10 that on-campus classes and events would be suspended. Because mobilization began early, Duke Law students were able to resume classes online on the Monday following spring break, as originally scheduled, while other units of the university delayed classes an extra week. To keep the semester’s continuity for students, many faculty and staff members interrupted their spring break weeks to prepare to shift teaching to remote platforms — “a logistical and technological challenge unlike anything we have ever attempted,” James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean Kerry Abrams later wrote the Law School community.

“Navigating this uncharted territory has required immense amounts of expertise, hard work, flexibility, and teamwork from our faculty and staff. It has also demanded extraordinary patience, resilience, and engagement from our students.”

Indeed, in the days that followed, the Duke Law community stepped up to the challenge. Staff worked quickly to contact vendors regarding event changes, clinics assured clients that case work would continue, and student groups began devising ways to conduct pro bono and other extracurricular activities remotely. By Monday, March 16, the Law School building was largely vacated and most faculty members – with help, hardware, and software, from the Academic Technologies staff – were ready to employ online teaching tools such as Zoom, Sakai, Panopto, and Box, many from home or other remote locations.

“I am very proud of what our staff achieved,” said Wayne Miller, associate dean for Academic Technologies. “For many of us, it meant countless hours of consulting, testing, documenting, training, and supporting. For others, it was a steady stream of equipment prep and distribution, end-user support, and remote connections to remedy problems. The whole world had to pivot, of course, but Duke Law did a tremendous job. Everyone was on board with getting done what had to be done, and we were happy to see it work so well.”

Remote teaching leads to new ways of engaging with course material

While the shift to remote learning was not without technical hurdles, many faculty members have been pleasantly surprised by the ease of using online platforms such as Zoom to conduct classes with students logging in around the globe — from Durham apartments to a family kiwi farm in New Zealand. But it meant adapting teaching methods to a virtual classroom, something few had experienced before.

“My colleagues and I have all needed to be creative with our pedagogy, of course,” said Candace M. Carroll and Leonard B. Simon Professor of Law Lisa Kern Griffin, who taught Criminal Procedure and a seminar, Lying and the Law of Questioning, this semester. Griffin provided students more information in advance of class sessions, added more visual and video breaks to presentations, incorporated more hypotheticals and questions that created clear opportunities for students to enter the discussion, and made use of “breakout rooms” to give students time to check in with each other. She said she was “enormously impressed” with students’ efforts to continue engaging with the material and grateful for their strong attendance.

“It takes a lot of energy to teach into a camera without the sense of collective endeavor that comes from a room full of people,” Griffin said. “But I also think there are ways in which we have grown closer. I am certainly more open and vulnerable with my students, and we have begun a conversation that will last long after classes end about our shared future and the role of lawyers on ‘the other side.’”

Professor H. Jefferson Powell said that while he found Zoom easy to use, he missed the emotional connection and instant feedback of the classroom and tried to compensate by increasing communication through daily follow-up emails and sharing office-hour conversations of general interest. Powell taught Constitutional Law to 72 first-year students and worked with 11 third-year students in the First Amendment Clinic, of which he is director.

“I greatly admire the way my students are adapting to the drastic changes they are dealing with,” Powell said.

Farrah Bara ’20 called Duke Law professors “angels” for maintaining a sense of normalcy in highly abnormal circumstances. “They are doing a phenomenal job of making us feel like things are as normal as they could be,” she said in an interview with “They are encouraging us to do virtual office hours and talking about where we are and how we’re doing. That has been really nice.”

Professor Marin Levy and sons
Professor Marin Levy teaches via Zoom

In her Remedies course, Professor Marin Levy used Zoom as an opportunity to invite scholars she admires as guests in class, including a distinguished group of faculty from other top law schools who engaged with her students on the topic of qualified immunity.

“In a normal class we would read excerpts of scholarship, but aside from perhaps having one or two authors come to class or Skype during the semester, we wouldn’t have much engagement with them directly,” Levy said. “In this way, I think it’s made the community of scholars feel closer. And it’s been something special for the students. As challenging as things are right now, I think what we’ve done in the classroom has been a tremendous experience for all of us.”

Levy added that the glimpses into off-campus lives afforded by technology have, in many ways, brought greater intimacy and connection. With both she and her husband, Lanty L. Smith ’67 Professor of Law Joseph Blocher, teaching from home, their children, Ben, 6, and Sam, 4, occasionally made cameo appearances on screen. Sam drew laughs from a class when he interrupted to ask for help getting dressed.

“I had an absolutely wonderful conversation with several students in office hours on the complex relationship between rights and remedies, and I think at least part of that can be attributed to the fact that it felt like we were in someone’s living room,” Levy said. “We were all just comfortably exchanging ideas, and I think the shared camaraderie in a moment like that can lead to an even more meaningful intellectual experience.”

One spring semester class, Well-Being and the Practice of Law, has taken on particular relevance. The class, taught by Senior Lecturing Fellow Daniel Bowling ’80, helps students develop skills such as resilience, learned optimism, avoidance of catastrophic thinking, and navigating isolation and loneliness.

“Each class has a writing assignment afterwards, and they became increasingly personal and moving throughout the last few weeks, as students found the practices taught in the first few weeks are more than theoretical concepts but of great applicability during these trying times,” said Bowling. “Several have said this was the right course at the right time.”

Events, summer programs, and graduation ceremonies canceled or “virtualized”

In accordance with university policy restricting all on- and off-campus events and activities until at least June 30, Law School events such as 1L Blueprint for Success, Admitted Students Open House, and Reunion, as well as all in-person conferences, symposia, workshops, visits, and tours were canceled or postponed. However, faculty, staff, and administrators moved quickly to “virtualize” any organization meetings, faculty workshops, guest lectures, and other special events that could be conducted via online platforms. Prospective members of the Class of 2023 were even able to share their excitement and have questions about Duke Law answered at the virtual 2020 Admitted Students Open House on March 27.

Duke Law-sponsored summer programs have been adapted to accommodate restrictions on in-person gatherings. While Duke Law’s Pre-Law Undergraduate Scholars Program (PLUS) was canceled, the Duke-Leiden Institute in Global and Transnational Law, a required program for rising 2Ls pursuing an LLM in international and comparative law concurrently with their JD, will be presented online to allow students to gain credits needed for graduation. This year’s D.C. Summer Institute on Law and Policy also will take place online, with live virtual courses and special events and faculty available for one-on-one counseling sessions. The JD/LLM in Law and Entrepreneurship program has altered its 1L Summer Immersion session, with the course component to be taught online by Clinical Professor and program director Erika Buell and the experiential component in Silicon Valley postponed. And the Master of Judicial Studies program delayed until May 2021 the first semester for the class of judges that was to arrive in May of this year.

The new policy also meant the postponement of University Commencement and the Law School Convocation. Duke University President Vincent Price announced plans for an online celebration called “Marking the Moment: Duke Class of 2020” this spring in addition to an in-person Commencement ceremony in the next academic year. Associate Dean for Admissions and Student Affairs William Hoye and Assistant Dean for Student Affairs Lewis Hutchison, Jr. addressed the Duke Law Class of 2020 in a joint message, sharing in their disappointment at not being able to celebrate the culmination of three years at Duke Law, but reminding graduating students that the friendships and memories formed during their time at Duke remain.

“You may not have a ceremony marking it just yet, but you still have the memories — and you still have each other,” they said. “You still have the great relationships you formed in this tight-knit community. You have the shared highs and lows that naturally came with this rigorous experience. Even with a postponed graduation ceremony, you still have the experiences that you all have shared together.”

Classes moved to credit/no credit grading

Acknowledging the extraordinary circumstances of the spring and the differing burdens felt by students, the Law School moved to a mandatory credit/no credit grading system for all spring semester classes except Legal Analysis, Research, and Writing, for which students can elect to receive a grade. The decision was reached with the unanimous support of the faculty members of the Curriculum Committee, Abrams wrote in a message to students, as well as consideration of more than 300 comments solicited from students and research on potential American Bar Association, state bar, and regulatory implications.

“Fundamental to our decision is our conviction that what makes Duke Law School great is our strong sense of mutual support and community,” Abrams said. “The reality is that we are all being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in different ways, some more dramatically than others. Many more will be affected in the weeks to come. A grading system that levels the playing field for all seems the most just, equitable, and compassionate.”

Abrams assured students that faculty and staff would make extraordinary efforts to advocate for all students for summer and permanent employment, including public interest positions and clerkships. Duke Law is not alone: As of April 6, every top 14 law school had moved to pass/fail grading for the spring semester, according to Above the Law.

Professor James E. Coleman
Professor James Coleman in his home office

Shortly after the grading change was announced, James E. Coleman, Jr., the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, emailed his Criminal Law class. Knowing some students would be concerned about the decision and its bearing on their careers, he offered reflections on his last semester of college in 1970, when student protests against the Vietnam War and the draft roiled campuses across the nation, culminating with the killing of four Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard. Many universities either canceled the spring semester or made classes pass/fail.

“As I was about to graduate, we had no idea what was going to happen, but the country seemed to be falling apart,” Coleman wrote. “Nevertheless we survived, and looking back there is hardly anything I remember about the courses I took and the grades I didn’t get that semester. In many ways, the upheaval and anxiety of that spring contributed significantly to our education; it turned some of us into life-long activists.”

Coleman said the decision to move to credit/no credit would have “no effect” on their careers, adding that most employers would understand and “you likely don’t want to work for those who aren’t understanding.”

OCI postponed, career and personal support expanded

With the spring semester drawing to a close, the economic disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on legal employment remains to be seen. Consistent with other top law schools, Duke has postponed on-campus interviewing (OCI) with Segment I – generally larger law firms – that ordinarily would have taken place this summer until, most likely, early 2021. The decision was based on extensive conversations with employers and alumni who indicated they would not be able to determine their hiring needs for summer or full-time employment until the new year, said Bruce Elvin ’93, associate dean and director of the Career & Professional Development Center.  

The changed circumstances give law schools an opportunity to reimagine traditional ways of doing things, he noted. For instance, even as law firms may look to recruit in 2021, some organizations – particularly government agencies or non-profit organizations that often hire through Duke’s Government & Public Interest OCI Segment – may be in a position to hire 2L or 3L students on campus in fall 2020. The Law School will remain flexible to meet the needs of all employers and students who may be interested in them, he emphasized.

In an April 6 message, Abrams told students that the Career Center and Law School are identifying opportunities to enable first- and second-year students to continue to develop skills that will benefit their legal careers and fill in gaps that may occur in summer employment this year as many summer positions will be shortened or involve varying amount of remote work. Many of these will likely be available to graduating students as well.

“Most employers are going to be operating in a very different way than they normally do, so the experiences you have with them will be different from the norm, and those you miss out on will be less important,” she said. “Just as grades would not have had the same meaning as usual this spring, this summer will be remembered by all as an extraordinary circumstance in which no one expects ‘business as usual.’”

New resources being developed for students include:

  • A summer research assistant pool that will offer opportunities for students to work with faculty or as interns with other Law School and university organizations. Alumni who may be able to host interns either remotely or in person this summer, or who can host 2020 graduates prior to delayed bar exams, are encouraged to contact Elvin.
  • The continuation through the summer of some Duke Law pro bono projects that normally only operate during the school year and potential new opportunities for students to collaborate with alumni on pro bono work.
  • Virtual coffee chats with alumni for students and networking programs through employers over the summer.
  • The facilitation of additional summer learning opportunities through such modes as Coursera and online courses offered by Duke University, Duke Law, and other law schools and professional organizations.

With graduating students also facing the possibility of delayed employment start dates and July bar exams postponed in a number of states, Abrams reaffirmed Duke Law career counselors’ ongoing commitment to assist those with altered employment plans, including those in LLM programs.

All Law School students are also eligible for new Duke University initiatives to assist undergraduate, graduate, and professional students facing mental, emotional, and financial hardship due to the pandemic, including Blue Devils Care, a free 24-hour mental telehealth service, and the Duke Student Assistance Fund to help pay for such needs as living expenses, emergency travel, and technology for online learning.

Community shows its strength in uncertain times

In a message to students, Abrams praised students, faculty, and staff for nurturing the Law School’s culture of collegiality and support throughout the past month’s unprecedented upheaval of personal, academic, and working routines.

“I am so proud of how everyone in our community has pulled together. Indeed, in this time of challenge and uncertainty, everyone in the Duke Law community seems to recognize the importance of maintaining our strong bonds,” she wrote.

“Engagement with each other on a personal level is a hallmark of our culture, and we will have to be creative about nurturing these connections, even over many miles. We need each other now more than ever.”

The disruption was particularly acute for international students, especially for those worried about far-away family but compelled by global travel advisories to remain in Durham. Even so, some have marked joyous life milestones, said Jennifer Maher ’83, associate dean for International Studies, who has kept in close contact with international students and helped them navigate frequently-changing guidelines for study and travel. Taka Kitagawa LLM ’20 missed the March 11 birth of his daughter but was finally able to reunite with his newly-expanded family in Japan a month later. And Saeed Al Darmaki LLM ’20 and his expectant wife Mariam remained in Durham rather than fly to the United Arab Emirates; they welcomed a daughter on April 3 and plan to return home this summer. Both emailed Maher within hours of the births to share their happy news.

Professor Donald Beskind LLM ’77 said students in his Evidence class have not only shown remarkable engagement in class and virtual office hours, but many reached out with concern for his personal well-being.

“One thing that has particularly impressed me is the number of students who have contacted me offering to help with shopping or other things since I am in the ‘at risk’ category,” he said. “Duke students are the best. Thankfully, everyone in my family has been helping, but to know people were out there willing to help reminded me of why I love teaching at Duke.”

Zack Kaplan '21
Zack Kaplan '21 donates plasma after recovering from COVID-19 (CBS-17)

Zack Kaplan ’21 said he received extraordinary emotional support from the Duke community during his two-week bout with COVID-19, which he developed after a spring break trip to Alaska. Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Liz Gustafson ’86 has maintained continuous contact on behalf of the administration and Professors Doriane Coleman and Charles Dunlap, Jr., with whom he has never had classes, reached out to offer support.

While professors, classmates, and clinic and externship supervisors were “extremely understanding” and encouraged him to focus on recovery throughout his two-week isolation period, Kaplan was able to continue online classes and participation in the Children’s Law Clinic and an externship with North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Mark Davis MJS ’18. Now recovered, he is making up missed hours and is on track to fulfill requirements by the end of final exams period. Kaplan also donated plasma for use in an experimental treatment for other COVID-19 patients.

“The outpouring of care from the Law School community has been really uplifting and encouraging, and I hope that we can all show that same support to all students and community members, whether we know that they are ill or not,” Kaplan said.

“The fact of the matter is that we’re all impacted by this pandemic in one way or another – some of us will get sick, others will care for people who get sick, and even those with no direct connection will face personal, professional, and financial hardships. We all have an obligation, then, to do whatever we can to take good care of the people in our lives and communities right now. The incredible care and support that I received from the Law School community, shared broadly, is in my mind the most important ingredient in our collective recovery from this crisis.”