I have an office. It has four walls, a door that can close, even a window … that looks upon an atrium. It is festooned with my college and post-grad degrees, an ever growing collection of pictures of my kids, and an assortment of Kansas basketball paraphernalia. I know my office exists. However, like many liberal arts majors, I took an undergrad class in cultural anthropology. We read Adorno, Horkheimer, and Baudrillard, discussed simulacra, and even watched Blade Runner. While I have memories of my office, and can even drive by the building, if I do not go in and see it with my own eyes, can I be confident it exists?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been out of the office and working from home since mid-March. Given the babytown frolics nature of the U.S. federal government’s response to COVID-19, it is highly likely that this exile will continue for the foreseeable future.
Considering that the virus has killed more than 150,000 Americans over the last four-plus months, including many in the legal industry — many are better suited to eulogizing the famed litigator, and COVID-19 victim, Stephen Susman, but I will use this space to mention two aspects of his life that might not get coverage elsewhere: first, were it not for his personal largesse, it is entirely possible that my salary earned during three years at the American Constitution Society would have been denominated in cans of Fancy Feast rather than dollars; second, without his unceasing focus and pressure on judicial nominations during the Obama administration, there would be far fewer judges able to push back against the ongoing Supreme Court auditions masquerading as jurisprudence currently unfolding in some federal courts across this country — my existential thoughts might come off to many as plaintive whines. But especially with law schools starting up, in some way, shape, or form, over the next several weeks, it feels worth exploring how those of us in career services can help students from a distance and how we all can cope with the ramifications of this ongoing isolation.
In the Before Times, otherwise known as February, I had a pretty solid routine established when working with the Vanderbilt students I counseled. If a student had a question, they could shoot me an email, and we could try and hash out a solution. For more complex problems, they could come by my office, and we could figure things out face to face. However now, unless Vanderbilt attempts to develop a NBA-esque bubble environment, such in-person meetings are unlikely to happen. Does that mean communication with students should become as sparse as rapid COVID-19 tests across the United States? Of course not. Instead, it means that those in career services will have to embrace different technologies, both old and new.
As someone who turns 40 this year, I sit right on the border between Generation X and Millennials. Yet despite this line straddling, I do have one overwhelming Millennial personality trait, a passionate hatred of phone calls. But desperate times call for desperate measures. If a student, or even an employer, has an issue or question that requires a lot of conversation, it might be best to pick up the phone and figure it out. I have given out my cellphone number more in the past four months than in the entirety of my nearly six years of marriage. But Alexander Graham Bell’s invention is not the only way to communicate during quarantine. Whether via text, FaceTime, or its corporate cousin that has come to embody 2020, Zoom, a plethora of ways exist to talk through CSO issues while maintaining social distancing.
The reason for developing multiple lines of communication is that for as many questions as career professionals might have in the midst of the pandemic and concomitant economic collapse, law students are going to have even more. Once again, in the Before Times, there was a familiar structure and process to acquiring a legal job. Experience alone was often enough to answer any question that a student could put forth. That is no longer the case as the industry undergoes seemingly daily changes. It is critical that as sources of information, those of us in CSO keep ourselves well informed. Obviously, sites like Above the Law should be daily reads, as should be The American Lawyer. But I would recommend not limiting one’s self to just traditional, well-trafficked blogs and websites. While I have previously questioned the utility of legal employment advice on Reddit, the ability to get on-the-ground updates from students either in summer associate programs or activity seeking out a job can provide much needed information about how things are changing in the legal employment sector. Twitter has also been a subject of derision in this column, but social media has proved remarkably valuable for students looking to harness their collective energy to tackle problems brought on, or even just amplified, by COVID-19. The best example of this is United for Diploma Privilege, which is working to highlight potential health issues that might arise from law school graduates having to spend multiple 12-hour-plus days in packed convention centers, where in some instances the more significant nod to COVID-19 prevention is that male test takers do not have to wear a tie. They are a must follow for anyone in the industry or really anyone just interested in basic concepts of justice. I even jumped on a National Association of Law Placement webinar the other day that featured a fantastic discussion of the ever-shifting obstacles being placed in the way of international law — as well as undergraduate and graduate — students.
Lastly, while vitally important to be there for your students and stay abreast of the ever-changing legal employment arena, it is also important to stay connected with the outside world more generally. In these isolating times, it is easy for people to become atomized and cut off from others. Everyone, whether they work in career services, elsewhere in a law school, are a law student, or could not tell the difference between a tort and a torta, needs coping mechanisms during the pandemic. As difficult as it can be while wearing a mask and socially distancing, try to engage with society and culture. Kevin Clark, the excellent NFL staff writer at The Ringer, has theorized that the reason so many NFL head coaches are fans of Bon Jovi, Guns n’ Roses, and other late ’80s/early ’90s bands is that once a coach rises to the level of offensive or defensive coordinator, their lives become too consumed with football to allow them to partake in new music, so their preferences become almost frozen in amber. While not roaming the sidelines, between four kids and a never-ending catalogue of podcasts, I similarly find myself slightly disconnected from the broader musical landscape, and this is coming from someone who not only has most of the albums on the Pitchfork Best of the Year list from 2005-09 but probably saw most of those bands live. So a little while back, I dove into the new releases section of the iTunes store and picked up, among others, Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters. By the time I got to “Relay,” which was Apple’s reaction to the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, my only thought was that the Recording Academy needs to treat the album like it was Ron Swanson ordering bacon and eggs from an Indianapolis diner.
Not everyone will connect to culture via music, but whether it is books, or art, or altogether something else, find a way to make sure quarantine is not a completely isolating existence.
Eventually, all of this, the pandemic, quarantine, most social distancing, will come to an end. While that ending might be less a happy drive through an idyllic countryside and more an origami unicorn which raises disturbing conclusions, it will still come about. Until then, it is vital for those in career services to be there for our students, stay abreast of the ever-changing legal news, and try to stay somewhat connected to broader society.
Nicholas Alexiou is the Director of LL.M. and Alumni Advising as well as the Associate Director of Career Services at Vanderbilt University Law School. He will, hopefully, respond to your emails at [email protected]