Minnesota’s 2020 Law Graduates Leaders in Resilience and Compassion

The COVID-19 outbreak has challenged all lawyers to find new ways to serve clients and solve unprecedented problems. Among the lawyers who joined in this call-to-action are the 2020 graduates of Minnesota’s law schools. Without skipping a beat, this group of new lawyers put their advocacy skills to work by building community support programs and fighting for equitable and safe solutions to the problems brought on by the COVID-19 crisis. This article showcases the ways that Minnesota’s newest cohort of lawyers embraced their roles as legal leaders during the outset of the pandemic.

Supporting the Law Student Community
Mutual Aid for Students
Student efforts to ensure access to necessities were in the works the moment that Governor Walz announced Minnesota’s Stay-at-Home Order in March 2020. With the leadership of 2020 graduate Emily Franco, the University of Minnesota Law School (UMN Law) created a mutual aid group for fellow students. This provided a space for students to offer and ask for assistance in light of the Stay-at-Home Order. For example, students picked up essential items for those without access to private transportation, distributed grocery-store gift cards to those with financial challenges, and phoned those who were sheltering in place alone to check on their well-being.

The law school community’s willingness to support each other was paramount to maintaining student wellness. The University of Minnesota reported in 2018 that more than one in six students fear running out of food before they have enough money to purchase more.(1) With the sudden closure of all on-campus activities on March 17, 2020, and Governor Walz’s Stay-at-Home Order commencing shortly after, this fear became a reality for many law students who lost their part-time income or access to public transportation. The student community’s efforts to support their peers offered a necessary lifeline to these individuals.

Connectedness Kept Law Students Engaged
The connected culture at St. Thomas Law was a shining guidepost for its students as they navigated the COVID-19 crisis. Despite the move to online instruction, student leaders at St. Thomas Law maintained the institution’s collaborative ethos by promoting virtual connection opportunities. Through these efforts, students engaged in at-home baking competitions, virtual happy hours with their professors, and legal-themed movie nights. For St. Thomas Law’s 3Ls, the students put together a virtual memory board filled with photographs of the various activities and accomplishments that had occurred during their time as students.

Mitchell Hamline School of Law’s students similarly kept colleagues engaged by organizing daily health and wellness activities that promoted connection within and beyond the law student community. For instance, the student body organized a letter-writing campaign to thank first-responders for their work on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis. These initiatives helped students maintain a connection to Mitchell Hamline and the surrounding communities despite their physical separation.

While such efforts may appear at first glance to be inconsequential, these actions espouse the relationship-driven and teamwork-oriented qualities of student bodies at Minnesota’s law schools. By putting these skills to work, student leaders ensured that the shift to remote-learning did not interrupt collaborative skill-building and, in fact, helped prepare students for future remote-work scenarios.

Supporting the Surrounding Communities
The 2020 law graduates also worked hard to support communities beyond the law schools. One student who made a significant impact on her community was 2020 UMN Law graduate Rebecca Hare, who led a tenant advocacy effort for individuals who were at risk of eviction. Most notably, Hare drafted a letter that tenants were able to adapt for their own use to request leniency from landlords for rent payments, rent increases, and so on.(2)

The impact of Hare’s efforts reverberated much further than she had expected. HomeLine, a nonprofit Minnesota tenant advocacy organization, shared Hare’s tenant advocacy letter on its own webpage for tenants across Minnesota to access. Further, after assisting her own living community, Hare’s neighbors stepped up to help one another. One neighbor felt empowered to purchase essential living items for those in the community who needed but could not afford them.

The rippling effect of Hare’s efforts shows the significant leadership role that even Minnesota’s newest lawyers play in their communities. By using our skills to help people maneuver through thorny legal issues, those individuals are then freed to use their own special skill set to give back. As we all continue to move through this murky time, we can take bigger strides knowing that when we use our role as legal leaders to clear the way for someone else, that individual may then be empowered to do the same.

Advocating for Academic Equity
The graduating class at UMN Law also took a strong stance in favor of equity over prestige during the spring of 2020. Beginning in mid-March, several of the nation’s top law schools announced pass/fail grading systems based on the multitude of new and unequally distributed challenges that COVID-19 created for students and professors.(3) Students at UMN Law quickly jumped into the grading system debate, sharing their opinions regarding the propriety of an alternative grading system with one another and their professors.

On March 18, Michael Pettet and Corey Nevers—two 2020 UMN Law graduates—initiated a petition requesting that UMN Law adopt a pass/fail grading standard. This petition emphasized the fact that maintaining an A–F grading criterion during the spring semester would inherently grade how well students fared during the onset of a global crisis rather than their academic abilities.(4) The petition received overwhelming support, with over 300 signatures.

After much deliberation, UMN Law’s faculty reached a consensus decision to transition grades for all current courses to a mandatory satisfactory/not satisfactory basis for the spring of 2020. Among the considerations taken into account, faculty at UMN Law acknowledged the concern that nuanced differences in standard grading among professors would more likely stem from factors unrelated to ability or work ethic, “calling into question the accuracy of [the] traditional letter grade system.” Furthermore, the faculty recognized that “the impacts of this [pandemic] on students and faculty are endured in fast-moving and disparate ways” and that moving to the satisfactory/not satisfactory grading system recognizes “the significance of this disruption yet ensure[s] that all students move forward in their degree programs and maintain a baseline for a Minnesota Law legal education.”

While this decision was controversial at the time, it was made with utmost care and deliberation, thanks to the advocacy of the UMN Law student body. In discussing the decision to initiate a petition to change the grading standard, both Nevers and Pettet acknowledged that the binary grading system would impose inequities among students hoping to improve their GPAs, but this was a much smaller detriment than what would fall upon students who were suffering unprecedented challenges in light of the pandemic. In short, students who favored the petition prioritized the mental and physical well-being of the entire student body over maintaining the status quo.

Ensuring a Safe and Timely Entrance to the Minnesota Bar
In addition, 2020 law graduates advocated for contingencies to the July 2020 bar examination. In late March, several jurisdictions postponed their July bar exams due to COVID-19 concerns, which raised the question of whether Minnesota would need to delay its own exam. Applicants to the Minnesota Bar took it upon themselves to offer alternatives in the event that Minnesota’s July 2020 examination could not move forward. Students sent several petitions and letters to the Minnesota State Board of Law Examiners (BLE), including various proposals for expanded student practice laws, an online bar examination, or an emergency diploma privilege option, where passage of the bar examination would be replaced with receipt of a law degree from an accredited law school for May 2020 law graduates.

Students advocating for these solutions emphasized the detrimental economic impact that a delay in bar admission would have on May 2020 graduates, many of which will be expected to begin paying off their student loans in November 2020. Advocates also emphasized the increased need for legal assistance that communities are experiencing in light of the COVID-19 crisis.(5)

In response to these concerns, the Minnesota Supreme Court granted a petition by the BLE to update the student practice rules to expand the circumstances under which recent graduates can practice law in Minnesota, provided that such practice is performed under the supervision of a Minnesota licensed lawyer in good standing.(6) The BLE also offered an additional bar examination date on September 9 and 10, 2020, to ensure adequate social distancing during the examination.

These were welcome changes for Minnesota bar applicants, who were assured that safety protocols would be implemented during the bar examination. However, applicants continued to advocate for alternatives to the exam based on their concern for immunocompromised populations who would be required to risk their health to join the Minnesota bar. These efforts continued up until two weeks before the administration of the July 2020 bar exam, when the Minnesota Supreme Court denied a petition filed by three 2020 UMN Law grads requesting emergency diploma privilege for applicants registered for the July 2020, September 2020, and February 2021 Minnesota bar examination.(7)

While decisionmakers did not rule in favor of these advocates, the efforts by bar applicants to rethink the 2020 Minnesota Bar Examination were far from fruitless. Over 120 public comments were submitted to the Court in support of diploma privilege. Across these comments was the common message that no cohort of bar applicants has ever faced the challenges that the graduating class of 2020 is facing and simultaneously been asked to risk their health to obtain bar admission. The Minnesota State Bar Association also commented that “many of the arguments advanced in favor of the Petition regarding the importance, efficacy, and potential disparate impact of the bar examination have merit and deserve further consideration.”

Thus, the efforts by these students initiated a public conversation about the bar examination in Minnesota that will continue beyond our current circumstances. As the world begins rethinking how we structure society to prepare for future pandemics, Minnesota’s legal community is primed to begin rethinking how we ensure that Minnesota bar applicants have an opportunity to demonstrate their competence to practice law in a safe environment. It is quite poignant that the members of Minnesota’s legal community who sparked this conversation are also the newest members of that community. Minnesota’s most recent law graduates are duly passionate in their desire to enter the legal profession and to ensure every qualified law graduate is afforded that same opportunity.

Ready for Practice
This article highlights only a fraction of the ways that Minnesota’s 2020 law school graduates supported their academic and local communities in the wake of COVID-19. These graduates plunged headfirst into their advocacy efforts, with the common good at the foremost in mind of every initiative. As a member of this class of soon-to-be Minnesota lawyers, I look forward to seeing the ways that my fellow graduates use the lessons learned during this time of advocacy, community-building, and crisis to support their new clients, employers, and communities.
Jenna Saunders
saund206@umn.edu
Jenna Saunders graduated from the University
of Minnesota Law School in May 2020, where
she focused her studies in intellectual property
law and civil litigation. During law school,
Saunders was a Note & Comment Editor of the
Minnesota Law Review, taught legal writing,
and participated in judicial externships with the
United States District Court for the District of
Minnesota and the Minnesota Court of Appeals.
She will be joining Faegre, Drinker, Biddle & Reath
LLP as a first-year associate in January 2021.

Notes
1 Boynton Health, 2018 College Student Health Survey Report, https://boynton.umn.edu/sites/boynton.umn.edu/files/2018-11/CSHS-2018-UMN-Twin-Cities.pdf.
2 Tenant COVID-19 Letter, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1vgvKoEz3hzoGq9VC4ihT_krq6GSqAc7fWW4mq49Zea0/edit?fbclid=IwAR0Y9yRRKkT4v80_6bq8-u8n-Gs5lU9OgH9r2toIxg07NCg3N3pbc9b314E.
3 https://www.law.com/2020/03/18/law-schoolsadopt-pass-fail-grades-as-they-move-onlineamid-covid-19/
4 https://www.change.org/p/university-ofminnesota-law-students-pass-fail-gradingoption-for-university-of-minnesota-law-schoolspring-2020-classes?recruiter=517597463&utm_source=share_petition&utm_medium=copylink&utm_campaign=share_petition&utm_term=petition_dashboard
5 Letter drafted by UMN Law 2020 Graduate Kati
Harris, https://docs.google.com/document/d/
1gvRljv6cYFWHfnXVmujfSXkJvsurzSZm7l
9V4gTj9uY/edit; Letter drafted by Mitchell
Hamline School of Law 2020 Graduate Hannah
Scheidecker, https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/
1FAIpQLSc9jCt5Spi0gExDPMPRXHL6nLyACYh
AQCVuKvGXfcUCUaXeQA/viewform.
6 https://www.ble.mn.gov/wp-content/
uploads/2020/06/Administrative-Order-
Adopting-Supervised-Practice-Rules-Effective-
July-1-2020.pdf
7 https://abovethelaw.com/2020/06/law-schoolgrads-
petition-for-diploma-privilege-statesupreme-
court-agrees-to-take-it-up/