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It Takes a Village: The Inside Story of Albany Law’s Transition Online—and Back Again

Orientation - 2020

In higher education, drastic changes don't happen overnight. But the COVID-19 pandemic forced institutions across the country to make quick decisions, moving operations to the virtual space while maintaining continuity, quality, and community.

THE CRISIS UPENDED DAILY LIFE FOR EVERYONE AT ALBANY LAW SCHOOL. Suddenly, student organizations started holding video meetings from their members’ apartments. Admitted students visited campus virtually, through video tours and podcasts. Zoom became the default medium for students, faculty, and staff alike.

In early March, Albany Law School’s plans changed almost daily as guidelines shifted and coronavirus cases multiplied across the state and nation. Initially, large group events were postponed and travel was restricted; then the law school went fully remote for the remainder of the spring semester. Cases in New York State climbed, businesses closed, and the important work of providing—and receiving—a legal education went on from home.

By late spring, the months of self-isolation started to make a difference, and conversations on how to welcome the community back to campus blossomed. By August, the doors at 80 New Scotland Avenue were cautiously ready to open for the fall semester.

It has been a year unlike any other. These are just some examples of how Albany Law School—and its people— responded to the challenge.

NEW WAYS OF LEARNING— AND TEACHING

Transferring Albany Law’s  100-plus courses online took a tremendous amount of labor by faculty and ITS staff. Faculty worked long hours to upload their coursework some having to use unfamiliar technology from their homes, according to Associate Dean Antony Haynes.

“We have faculty that have spent 30 or 40 years teaching in a face-to-face format who have never taught online before,” Haynes said.

Some faculty members, once they adjusted to online teaching, found room to use the technology for more than by-the-books learning. Professors Christine Chung and Louis Jim hosted weekly Netflix watch parties through a browser extension that allows students and other guests to watch the same show, banter, and chat.

“Our students are amazing. They’re working so hard to deal with all of the challenges caused by the pandemic,” Chung said. “There are all kinds of life consequences. I am so grateful for their patience and their persistence.”

Then there was the return to campus in the fall. Some students and faculty opted for a fully remote semester, which presented a new challenge: bringing a seamless classroom experience to both in-person and online participants. Classrooms were outfitted with microphones, cameras, screens, and other updates. Throughout the summer, staff trained faculty on the new systems; for courses in which the professor chose to be remote, work-study students were hired to tend to the technology, so that in-person students could see and hear their professors “in the front of the room,” via Zoom.

“It’s an extra set of hands, eyes, and ears,” said Tom Rosenberger, director of instructional design. “It’s to help monitor the chat, or point out to the faculty member when someone is using the raise-hand feature.”

Rosenberger said that, between the in-person component and the new technology, many feelings of isolation from the spring will be mitigated. “Logistically and mechanically, teaching this way can be quite the challenge, but I am amazed at the level of openness to change and adaptation that I see in our faculty.”

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT FROM A DISTANCE

Some students saw their summer job placements dematerialize or had their workloads reduced. The focus for the Career and Professional Development Center shifted to assisting those students in finding something new, while also encouraging them to make the best of the situation.

It also turned out that the virtual landscape of the spring helped expand the pool of alumni who could offer advice to students—they could give back without making significant time or travel commitments.

“Because we [conducted programming] via Zoom, I was able to get an alumnus from Florida, and one who is in New York City. It’s really a chance for us to engage alumni from locations that aren’t close by, who haven’t been engaged because of the distance,” said Joanne Casey, director of the Career and Professional Development Center. “This technology is a nice way to engage alumni.”

The Career and Professional Development Center also developed specialized programming to help bridge the gap for law students starting internships and recent graduates entering an uncertain job market. As part of the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI), the center hosted a seven-part series on topics such as starting your own firm and taking an inside look at the in-house counsel role.

“Our guest presenters prepared and delivered exceptional content, and we are so fortunate for their generosity of time and expertise,” said Mary Walsh Fitzpatrick, assistant dean for career and professional development. “The [WLI] Summer Series was one of the most well-attended programs we have ever created, with over 200 attendees over the course of the series.

Many students and alumni reached out to tell us how helpful they found these programs and were deeply appreciative of the opportunity to gain knowledge.”

IMPACT, UNINTERRUPTED

For students within The Justice Center, interacting in-person with clients, and dealing with sensitive and confidential matters, is a huge piece of the law school experience. They progressed on their cases with “a little bit of improvisation and a lot of anticipation,” said Professor Sarah Rogerson, director of The Justice Center and its Immigration Law Clinic.

Many of the in-house clinics set up students with access to case materials so they could work with clients remotely. Secure phone lines and case management software were made accessible from home. Video calls replaced in-person client meetings, with precautions to avoid any lapse in privacy or a Zoom bombing—where uninvited attendees access a virtual meeting. The students made it work.

“We can do a lot to move a case forward [remotely] without revealing our client’s sensitive information,” Rogerson said.

TOGETHER AS A COMMUNITY

Working and learning from home looked different for everyone. For some, the experience brought about feelings of isolation. For others, it was a chaotic balance of occupying children without a structured school day, while sharing a workspace and doing their jobs.

President and Dean Alicia Ouellette ’94 hosted daily, then twice-weekly, virtual town hall meetings to share the latest news with students, faculty, and staff. The town halls also brought some special guests, including Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan ’94 and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack ’75.

“The deans [went] out of their way to make themselves accessible. I think that made this transition a lot smoother.

Knowing that the entire law school community is on one page makes this entire thing more digestible,” said then-3L class president Kieran Murphy ’20.

Day-to-day, Albany Law School community members—students, faculty, and staff—showed their tenacity, coming together to ensure the law school continued to be a great place to learn and work. In an effort to keep people connected, the Office of Human Resources organized frequent, virtual coffee breaks during which attendees played trivia, shared collective quarantine stories, and introduced their pets.

As the academic year concluded, the department organized an online graduation ceremony for the family members of faculty and staff. Those honored ranged from kindergarteners to graduate-degree recipients, and there was plenty of pomp—despite the circumstance.

UNEXPECTED BENEFITS

While many students, faculty, staff, and guests missed out on milestones and tentpole events, there were noticeable pockets of positivity.

The Government Law Center converted many of its in-person CLE events to a webinar format. The turnout—and efficiency—in the virtual space was a pleasant surprise.

“Being online lets us meet people where they are. It lets people tune in without spending time to travel. The in-person component is not as important,” said Professor Ava Ayers, director of the Government Law Center. “There’s some loss, but there’s also a big gain which is being able to reach many more people in a way that’s very convenient for them.”

For Haynes, this unexpected format brought an opportunity to reflect and expand the law school’s impact going forward.

“My expectation is that every institution of higher learning—including Albany Law School—will take a hard look at the curriculum and try to determine which modes of delivery make the most sense,” he said.

There were also some special moments. On April 29, during a session with students, former Citigroup chair Richard Parsons ’71 shared advice drawn from his work at the highest levels of law, government, and business. Earlier that month, former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason joined a Lawyers as Leaders class to share his perspective on leadership and his tips on public speaking. “It took up about an hour of my time, and it’s something that I really enjoyed,” Esiason told listeners the next morning on his New York City radio show. “These [students] are high achievers, and they’re paying attention to what’s going on in their world.............. Heck, it’s a great thing to be a part of.”

PEOPLE FIRST

Students—past, current, and future— are essential to Albany Law School.

The Class of 2020 has been unable to gather for an in-person celebration—at least for now. On the afternoon of what would have been Commencement Day, May 15, the community gathered on Zoom and toasted to a semester unlike any other. A month later, responding to the needs of the class, the law school reopened the library for graduates studying for the bar exam.

The spring semester also serves as a time for Albany Law School’s future students to begin making connections within the school. This year, the two Accepted Students Days had to be hosted virtually— a first for Albany Law School. The events followed a similar format as any other year’s—with opportunities to hear from deans, students, and alumni—and the turnout was notable.

Then there was another first: Orientation with pandemic safety guidelines.

The fall 2020 semester began with the majority of the incoming class on campus for orientation, and others attending remotely. The hybrid week had all the expected elements—swearing in, a sample class, meeting peers—with physical distancing and other precautions in place. Though the start of its law school experience was nontraditional, the new class brought energy and eagerness to learn the law and weave themselves into the Albany Law School community.

When it was all said and done, Albany Law School welcomed 211 new students, 189 of whom are pursuing a J.D.

And yet another first: coming off a successful virtual Spirit Day on May 1, the Office of Alumni Engagement organized a weeklong virtual Reunion in September, complete with the Grand Honors Awards, class meetups, and classroom visits.

“We’ve made some big decisions,” Dean Ouellette said. “I think through the isolation we [found] moments of incredible community growth.”

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