By Judith Areen
Two-thousand and twenty was a very difficult year for legal education and the nation. The year began with the Senate deciding not to convict the president the U.S. House of Representatives had impeached at the end of 2019. In February, media began to mention a new virus was spreading in China. By March, higher education was ahead of much of the nation in understanding the seriousness of the virus’s risk and responding. On March 6, both the University of Washington and Stanford University announced they were suspending in-person classes beginning March 9. Harvard announced a similar move to online courses on March 10 and told students not to return after spring break. By March 13, scores of universities and their law schools had announced similar moves to online instruction. Briefly, there was some criticism of universities for leaving some students in difficult positions but, in retrospect, those closings were an important start of the move toward social distancing that was soon seen as one of the best ways to bend the curve on hospitalizations and deaths from the virus. On March 13, the federal government finally declared a national emergency, and soon, much of the country—and the economy—were shut down.
All AALS staff began working from home on March 16. We immediately faced the challenge of how we could best support law schools during the pandemic and what to do about the annual Conference on Clinical Legal Education scheduled for April and the New Law Teachers Workshop in June. After consulting with the respective planning committees, AALS canceled the 2020 Conference on Clinical Legal Education as well as the New Teachers Workshop.
A core part of the mission of AALS is providing law school deans with opportunities to work together on matters of common concern. Those opportunities became particularly important once the pandemic began. Starting in March, AALS joined with LSAC to offer regular video conferences to all law school deans. Called the “Deans Dialogue,” the series was initially weekly, although by late summer it moved to every other week. The more than 20 sessions in the series to date have regularly included Bill Adams of the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Jim Leipold of NALP, and Judith Gundersen of NCBE, as well as presidents and provosts who formerly were law school deans. The sessions have covered a broad range of topics from crisis communications to grading systems to moving the on-campus interview sessions, with each discussion led by three deans.
In recognition that COVID-19 affected the normal rhythms of the legal academy in ways that could be particularly disruptive for early-career faculty, AALS began hosting “Faculty Focus,” a series of hour-long webinars. Each webinar features expert advice from law school leaders and faculty, including early-career faculty. The sessions in this ongoing series are structured to encourage conversation and connection, with opportunities for participants to discuss common issues across schools and teaching areas. Topics over the summer included work-life balance and the demands of scholarship; excellence in online instruction; racism, justice, and fall classes; and a special session on becoming an excellent teacher while starting a career during the pandemic. The Faculty Focus webinars took a late-summer hiatus and resumed in mid-October for three additional sessions on the 2020 election and the classroom, support for struggling students, and pathways to leadership. Jeff Allum, Director of Research, moderated the summer sessions and Elizabeth (Ginger) Patterson, who returned to AALS as Senior Counselor in August, moderated the fall series.
AALS also created new webpages with resources related to online teaching, information on how the pandemic is affecting legal education, and a calendar of online events hosted by AALS Sections. The association added new sections to its legal education news and blogs digests related to the pandemic and addressing systemic racism. In June, AALS launched the Law Deans Antiracist Clearinghouse Project, a new webpage for law deans, faculty, and the public that contains resources and information related to addressing racism in law and legal education. The webpage is curated by five Black women law deans: Danielle M. Conway (Penn State Dickinson Law), Danielle Holley-Walker (Howard Law), Kimberly Mutcherson (Rutgers Law), Angela Onwuachi-Willig (Boston University Law), and Carla D. Pratt (Washburn University Law).
The website also serves as a collective voice from the leadership of the legal academy condemning racism. Statements that law school deans sent to their communities regarding racism have been archived as part of the website.
In September, AALS launched a page honoring the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her impact on legal education and the law. The new page features a collection of AALS videos and interviews with Justice Ginsburg, including her conversation at the 2020 Annual Meeting with AALS President Vicki Jackson.
AALS continues to showcase the innovations and accomplishments of member and fee-paid law schools for policymakers, leaders of the bar and bench, the media, prospective law students, and the public. The homepage of the AALS website is designed to celebrate the accomplishments of colleagues.
We rely on your schools (and your communication directors) to submit material to be featured on the website. Most national reporters do not follow all of the nearly 200 ABA-accredited law schools, but most follow our website—so it is an effective way to share your accomplishments with a national audience.
The AALS website homepage also has a calendar of upcoming symposia at law schools around the nation that is updated regularly. Last year, AALS began to email the calendar on a regular basis to all law faculty as part of our effort to share new ideas and scholarly insights throughout the legal academy.
In addition to a weekly AALS Legal Education News Digest, interested faculty can now subscribe to a Legal Education Blogs Digest, a compilation of articles about law schools from blogs. An archive of blog posts and subscription information can be found at www.aals.org/news/legal-education-blogs.
Last year, AALS debuted a new page on its website that lists recent books by law faculty. The page contains brief descriptions of each book published and directions on how faculty can submit books for consideration. The page can be found at www.aals.org/faculty-books.
AALS also now hosts a regularly updated page with memorials of law professors at www.aals.org/memorials.
The AALS research team regained its momentum on the Study of the American Law School Dean, after the survey was delayed due to the pandemic. This fall, the team held seven regional online gatherings of deans designed to raise awareness of the study, seek advice, and garner comments on draft survey questions. In October, the association launched a pre-survey to roughly 400 current and former deans at AALS member and fee-paid law schools intended to verify existing and collect missing administrative information necessary to conduct the study. In the latter part of the fall, the team worked with researchers from the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago to finalize the survey in time for the February 2021 launch.
After careful consideration of the risks posed by COVID-19 and consultation with law school deans, AALS canceled the 2020 Faculty Recruitment Conference. Despite the cancellation, AALS continued to support faculty hiring through: Becoming a Law Teacher, an online resource for prospective law faculty candidates; the AALS Placement Bulletin, a listing of open law school faculty and administrative positions; and the Faculty Appointments Register (FAR), an online database of applications submitted by individuals interested in becoming law teachers. Faculty hiring, though slowed by the pandemic, continued with law schools reaching out to candidates directly and conducting initial interviews by videoconference.
On August 14, AALS held a virtual workshop where law faculty candidates discussed interview questions and solicited advice in small groups moderated by an experienced faculty member. The webinar was hosted by Sean Megan Scott, President and Dean, California Western School of Law and Darby Dickerson, AALS President and Dean, UIC John Marshall Law School. Three AALS Sections (Legal Writing, Reasoning, and Research; Minority Groups; and Women in Legal Education) also hosted webinars to support candidates during the interviewing process.
Sections are the primary point of contact most faculty have with AALS. The 103 sections of AALS have more than 9,000 law faculty and professional staff as members. The goal of sections is to increase excellence in both teaching and scholarship across the legal academy.
Over the past two years, AALS has made a number of improvements to the discussion lists and resources available to sections. First, section webpages were redesigned to make content such as newsletters, upcoming events, and announcements available to all member faculty. The design of the resulting webpages is both more inviting and more useful. The “Join a Section” page is another recent innovation. Previously, faculty had to email AALS to ask to join a section, requests are now sent automatically through an interactive form. Finally, staff continues to identify faculty members using the Directory of Law Teachers who do not belong to a section that corresponds to the subjects they teach and invite them to consider joining. Over one thousand additional faculty joined sections this year in response.
I am particularly pleased to report that the responsibility for leading sections in widely shared among our membership. This past year, for example, the 103 section chairs came from 77 different member schools.
We invite you to support this new focus on sections by reaching out to new faculty at your schools to explain AALS to them, and the value for them of joining a section. We also ask you to encourage your most productive faculty scholars to become more active in the AALS Section (or sections) in their field(s) of interest by volunteering to join the leadership of a section.
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I want to close by thanking the talented and hard-working staff of the AALS. It is a small group (only 26 plus a handful of students), yet they handle not only this first-ever virtual Annual Meeting, but all the day-to-day challenges of operating an association from their own homes.
It continues to be a privilege and honor for me to work with all of you and the more than 1,000 volunteer faculty, deans, and administrators who plan the AALS professional development programs, speak at those programs, serve as AALS and section officers, and work on our other projects and initiatives. Without your support and hard work, and that of your faculty colleagues and staff, AALS would not be able to function. On behalf of the entire AALS staff, I extend our thanks for all that you do.