Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today

The Pre-Law Summer Institute at the University of New Mexico moved entirely online when the pandemic hit. 

Rodina Cave Parnall, director of the two-month program, said about 21 students attended, and it was a new landscape for everyone. It was so new that the program changed its title to the Pre-Law Online Seminar.

“We couldn’t have a year without it,” Parnall said. “So many other programs have been canceling. It was program after program that was just not ready to go online, and we just did it.”

The seminar helps Native American and Alaska Native students prepare for the first semester of law school by learning methods of law school research, analysis and writing.

The program normally offers four classes, but this year it was reduced to three. Books were shipped out immediately to students, and teaching assistants were brought in a week early. 

The revisions are among many changes facing law school students and graduates amid the pandemic, including challenges continuing their studies and securing clerkships and other positions.

Parnall said one of the main concerns about the seminar was reaching students who live in remote area or have limited internet access.

“Many times we had multi-generational households, many are at home with family. They’re sharing devices and sharing the bandwidth," she said. "When you have a number of people on Zoom at one time, it can really slow things down."

Seminar leaders also faced challenges ensuring learning remained interactive and supportive. The program took a different approach to teaching the curriculum by having frequent one-on-one interactions instead of giving students assignments and reconvening later.

“We still wanted to stay true to our mission of preparing these students for law school and addressing the sorts of challenges that many of our students are facing,” Parnall said.

She added the experience showed the students what to expect in future online classes during the pandemic and if there happens to be a case that forces their schools to close.

But it was not easy to make it feel like an ordinary learning experience. There were still a lot of real scenarios that could not take place.

“There aren’t those casual opportunities of walking past someone’s office, or seeing someone in the lunch line.” she said. “You have to create those opportunities in this environment. It just takes more effort.”

Parnall added the delayed bar exams in many states like Connecticut, Florida and Georgia have pushed back test dates until September, October or February. And that causes problems with students being offered jobs after the exams only to have them rescinded due to the delays.

“It's hard. I’m not going to say it’s not hard," she said. "There are a lot of challenges this year for pre-law students, for current law students and recent Indigenous grads."

But on May 29, Indigenous law students were able to celebrate their graduations online with more than 100 other students from 50 tribes.

Stacy Leeds, dean emeritus and law professor at the University of Arkansas, helped organize the Indigenous Law Graduation to show support from all Native Americans in the legal profession and to celebrate the graduates’ accomplishments because of the field’s small Indigenous community.

“There may be one or two Indigenous students at their entire law school that might consist of six- or seven-hundred students,” she said.

According to the American Bar Association, a 2019 report revealed Native American students made up less than 0.0005 percent of minority students enrolled in law schools across the country.

Leeds expressed particular concern for third-year law students and those who were planning to attend summer clerkships that may have been canceled, including work with their tribes.

“The legal profession is seeing the economic downturn,” she said. “A lot of the firms or institutions that would be hiring are either formally in hiring freezes right now or acting very conservatively about what money they’re going to spend for this next year.”

Mariah Black Bird from the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who attends the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor Law School, is one of those third-year law students experiencing some setbacks.

She said although she prefers in-person classes, she had some previous experience with Zoom courses and was able to adjust quickly when ASU moved online.

“I had all the time in the world to do law school basically, and so I was very hyper-focused on law school and very hyper-focused on passing the courses,” she said.

Black Bird initially was planning to go to Washington, D.C., for potential internships but decided to stay in Phoenix to clerk with the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. But she said the tribe was unable to hire her, or compensate her, due to the shutdown.

“I was really dependent on getting that money … not only for the experience: to be able to pay fees for the bar and looking at future options,” she said. “It just really put everything in a setback.”

She said even though the job market makes law students worried, they still wanted to stay busy and volunteer their time.

She also hopes firms will be lenient with graduating law students who choose the option of using a pass-or-fail grading system instead of a number-grading one — along with students who may receive a lower grade and those who have had coronavirus deaths in their families.

“A lot of people through this did really struggle and did have real life issues going on that don’t need to supply a reason for,” she said.

In addition, Leeds reiterated Parnall’s concern about Indigenous students who may experience slower connectivity or difficulty accessing the internet.

“These last few months have kind of continued to highlight those inequities that we already knew (were) present, but it’s so much more now in that that’s the primary way we’re communicating,” she said.

Black Bird added she knows some Native students who had a big issue with internet access, which should not affect their chances of obtaining an internship.

“If they didn’t have internet, they were most definitely not as prepared for class or for the final as other students who did have internet,” she said.

She said her access to the internet and a study place allows her to continue online, despite ASU reopening in-person classes. Yet, she's still concerned about the learning experience for the more advanced law courses to be online. 

“I’m really nervous about having to take a harder course, like clinic, online and being able to appear in court online and not being able to get that hand-on experience,” Black Bird said.

But Parnall said Indigenous students and recent graduates are doing the best they can, and programs like the Pre-Law Summer Institute are there to give information and resources.

“I do know some students have lost some opportunities, but it doesn’t stop them from looking for additional opportunities.” she said. 

Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com

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