The Colorado Law community finds innovative ways to support one another during the coronavirus pandemic.
Teaching With Heart
In 2008, Associate Professor Rabea Benhalim was preparing to graduate from law school in pursuit of a career in litigation. The financial crisis changed all that.
"I remember my classmates getting calls that their job offers had been revoked," she said. "I could remember the stress of it all, thinking, oh, my gosh, did I just take on all this debt that I can’t pay back? I remember the terror."
She was asked to defer her postgraduate associate position for a year and a half, and by that time there were no open positions for litigators at the firm. "The firm informed me that to work there, I needed to be a transactional attorney," she said. So she pivoted, never expecting that a decade later she’d be happily teaching Secured Transactions and Contracts.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Benhalim asked herself what she wished her law school professors had done for her during 2008 and 2009. She started with a student survey.
"I asked if students were experiencing any food or housing insecurity, and how they were doing generally," she said. "Once I had the survey results, I saw the range of student experiences—some were taking care of parents, others were in a one-bedroom apartment with children, some were potentially facing eviction. Others had full-time jobs waiting for them that were now in question. Recognizing students’ struggles in their own words was important.”
Students selected and discussed articles about topics like home loans, the state of oil and gas markets and how those secured transactions worked during previous dips, and how big-box retailers have been impacted—all ways to connect the class to the present moment.
"One important part for students entering a competitive job market is to be able to speak intelligently in real time about what’s happening in the world," she said. "With secured transactions, there’s a lot happening in regard to foreclosures, loan rates, and renegotiation of terms."
For Benhalim, it was critical to recognize that students were going through a phenomenally challenging time.
"I tried to devote at least five minutes at the beginning of class to check in and see how they were doing," she said. “I created links on our class webpage to mental health resources and the Law Student Emergency Needs Fund. I talked to them about what members of my own family went through. I tried to reduce the stigma and let them know they’re not alone in feeling really challenged. It felt important for the students to know that I know they’re human beings."
And then there were farm animals. On the last day of class, and for some the last day of law school, Benhalim replaced her usual baked good- laden celebration with a surprise virtual visit with farm animals from Clover Brooke Farm in upstate New York. Students and their family members gathered around Zoom to visit with bunnies, goats, llamas, and alpacas.
"My primary goal is that students have a really robust understanding of the law and they feel loved in that process," she said. "This was my gift to them."
Changing Client Needs
The pandemic presented unique challenges to each of Colorado Law’s nine legal clinics, but changing client priorities and the need to find creative solutions was a constant thread.
As the pandemic spread, the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic became an exercise in helping clients navigate emergencies at a time when student attorneys’ lives turned upside down, too, said Associate Professor Brad Bernthal ('01).
"I am proud of the way Colorado Law students, even amid their own set of challenges, offered empathy and substantive help to entrepreneurs under distress," Bernthal added.
In the Samuelson-Glushko Technology Law and Policy Clinic (TLPC), “almost everything we worked on was inflected with COVID-related issues,” said Clinical Professor Blake E. Reid ('10).
The TLPC continued its long-term work on closed captioning issues by working with federal officials on accessible emergency briefings. This effort including helping people who are deaf or hard of hearing report issues with the visibility of American Sign Language interpreters in livestreams presented by state governors.
Another major concern of TLPC clients was the accessibility of the shift to telework and telehealth for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
"The experience of going to the hospital always raises accessibility issues. But during COVID, it can be even worse if you can’t get a qualified interpreter or access to the tools you need to communicate with doctors," Reid said. To help deaf and hard of hearing patients who need to go to the hospital or attend a telehealth appointment, the clinic helped draft consumer guides that were distributed nationwide.
The Sustainable Community Development Clinic’s work with mobile home owners also took a COVID-related turn. The pandemic put a damper on responses to the Colorado Department of Local Affairs’ recently launched dispute resolution program, intended to provide a mechanism for mobile home residents to address pent-up frustration with park owners.
The clinic planned on conducting information sessions around Boulder County last spring to teach mobile home owners how to file complaints and address questions. Those sessions had to be canceled due to public health guidelines, and the clinic is now looking at other ways to collect community feedback.
The clinic also fielded questions from its small-business clients related to regulation of home school operations and evictions, particularly around the time that Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order discouraging evictions and foreclosures for residential and commercial real estate properties, explained Professor and Director of Clinical Programs Deborah Cantrell. The clinic will continue to serve as a community resource as the situation develops.
Boot Camp Prepares Students for Burgeoning Practice Area
With the pandemic catalyzing a "tsunami" of expected consumer and business bankruptcy filings in the near future, Professor Erik Gerding recognized an opportunity to prepare Colorado Law students to meet the impending demand for high-quality legal representation in this area.
For six weeks over the summer, Colorado Law students and recent graduates got a crash course in bankruptcy law through a virtual brown bag series taught by legal experts and federal bankruptcy judges.
"The COVID-19 crisis will likely create a legal emergency, with a tsunami of bankruptcy filings from individuals and small businesses, as well as larger businesses," Gerding said.
"There will be an incredible need for young lawyers, both litigators and transactional attorneys, to deal with this crisis. This is an area with growing job opportunities. It also presents an opportunity for service to respond to what is becoming both an economic and a social justice emergency, as households and small business owners struggle to recover."
Nearly all of the federal bankruptcy judges in Colorado and New Mexico signed on to teach sessions, in addition to Colorado Law Associate Professor Nadav Orian Peer and law professors at Tulane, Brooklyn College, and the University of New Mexico. Topics ranged from the basics of bankruptcy law and general practices to major players and how to find a job in the field.
In the early stages of the pandemic, many lenders were able to work with their borrowers. But eventually the lenders themselves will come under pressure and then a domino-like wave of filings will occur, explained the Hon. Elizabeth Brown ('86), a judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Colorado and Colorado Law adjunct professor who taught brown bag sessions. When it does, lawyers will need to transition into collection, insolvency, and bankruptcy work.
"Few law firms in the Rocky Mountain region have staffed bankruptcy departments these days. And there are even fewer young attorneys trained to assist in bankruptcy cases," Brown said.
"Today’s bankruptcy bar is an aging bar, with most attorneys at or nearing retirement age. This is a wonderful opportunity for new lawyers to step into this breach. We know that bankruptcy is a difficult area of law to learn on the fly, and we want to help train new attorneys."
Ryan Boepple ('21) was somewhat interested in bankruptcy law before this, but given the situation surrounding COVID-19, he said it now seems like bankruptcy will be an important area of the law to be familiar with as he enters practice in about a year.
"The bankruptcy brown bag series was a great way for students to be introduced to bankruptcy law by allowing us to hear firsthand from bankruptcy judges and professionals in the field. Most of us are either out of work or working remotely, so it was a welcomed opportunity for students to continue to learn and stay engaged during the summer months," he said.
Gerding hopes the boot camp will encourage students and recent alumni to seriously consider a career in bankruptcy law and serve as a pipeline to get students into the field.
"Lawyers are needed and still incredibly valuable and have a very important role to play,” Gerding said. "We want to show students that this is an area where they can make a difference."
Connecting During CrisisCOVID-19 wasn’t the first time Amber Paoloemilio (’20) used service as a way to work through difficult emotions. As an LGBTQ organizer from Orlando during the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting, Paoloemilio, who uses the gender-neutral pronoun "they," immediately sprang into organizing mode, seeing what people needed, and connecting with those grieving.
"I’m used to jumping into service in order to cope with emotions. It makes me feel more connected to people and what they’re going through," they said.
Something similar happened with COVID-19.
After classmate Ariel Amaru (’20) sent around an email with a few volunteer opportunities, Paoloemilio put them in a Google doc and thought their work was done.
"Suddenly, I found myself online, calling people, finding out who needed help, finding Facebook groups," they said. The culmination was a document brimming with opportunities to get involved, which they shared with the Class of 2020.
"It was a helpful way to cope. Not only was I seeing people asking for help, they were also mentioning how they were feeling about going through all of this," Paoloemilio said.
The week of spring break, Paoloemilio planned to travel to El Paso, Texas, with the Immigration Law and Policy Society to work with asylum-seekers. When their trip was canceled, they redirected their energy to helping transgender women who were being released from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Aurora. Paoloemilio heard of a need for clothing for these women.
Together with Amanda Blasingame (’20) and Corian Zacher (’20), Paoloemilio collected six suitcases full of clothes, shoes, and other supplies from their classmates, which they delivered along with masks that Zacher made.
In coordination with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, Paoloemilio also picked up transgender women released from ICE, bringing them to their next destination, often a hotel or the airport, or to Paoloemilio’s apartment for a meal and conversation.
"There’s something so powerful about learning from an individual who has been in a detention center for months or years. They are almost always fleeing something terrible and scary. Additionally, as someone who identifies as nonbinary myself, I relate to trans women personally. It was and is so powerful to hear their stories, and also frustrating and angering. It’s important for folks to see a friendly face when they are first released, and I am happy to be that person," they said.
As far as completing the last semester of law school under quarantine, Paoloemilio has taken it in stride. They’ve stayed balanced with the support of classmates and professors, noting that classmates have stepped up to share outlines and notes, and regularly called in to check in on each other.
"As stressful as COVID has been for my last semester, I am thankful to have finished the semester with all my classmates being helpful to each other and making sure everyone’s OK."
Even under difficult circumstances, the law school community found ways to come together while maintaining proper physical distancing.
One welcome respite came in the form of a virtual trivia series, organized by Assistant Dean for Employer Relations and Outreach Marci Fulton (’04) and Professor Fred Bloom.
Nearly 300 students, faculty, staff, and loved ones tried their knowledge in categories spanning history, pop culture, and yes—the law. Thirty-five members of the incoming Class of 2023 also participated, providing a means of meeting fellow classmates and other members of the Colorado Law community before starting school.
Once the school went remote, Fulton started reading about the creative and interesting ways that others were using remote platforms to connect and was inspired to try putting something together for Colorado Law.
"Prior to COVID, I had talked to Matt Seligman (’21) about getting a law school trivia team together for the summer. I started thinking about how pub trivia might work in a remote format and got really excited about seeing if I could make it work. Once we got our excellent trivia master, Professor Fred Bloom, on board, everything else just came together. I actually didn’t realize how much I missed our community until I saw those faces in 125 screens on Zoom during our first event," she said.
With support from Dean S. James Anaya, Fulton also launched Colorado Law Cares, a community exchange that pairs volunteers in the Colorado Law community with those in need of assistance. This contactless volunteer network connected faculty, staff, and students willing to donate food and household supplies, run necessary errands, drop off collected items, advocate for those in need, or talk to people to help stave off feelings of isolation.
"I wanted a place where law students could come to seek support," Fulton said. "Colorado Law Cares provided a means of communicating specific volunteer opportunities and requests for assistance to an identified core of those willing to help."
The move to online events allowed Colorado Law to engage audiences from around the world. The Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law’s April Rothgerber Conference marking the centennial of women’s suffrage welcomed nearly 300 attendees, the most in the event’s history.
Colorado Law Talks have also seen a leap in attendance, with each lecture attracting as many as 400 participants from across the country and abroad. Recent talks have included timely discussions on immigration and citizenship, wrongful convictions, and leadership during a time of crisis.
Even moot court competitions transitioned to a hybrid format. The Rothgerber Moot Court Competition on March 17, normally held in Wittemyer Courtroom, relocated to the Colorado Supreme Court. Student competitors Paul Chin (’21), Aja Robbins (’21), Neil Sandhu (’21), and Danielle Trujillo (’21) argued before 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Allison Eid, Colorado Supreme Court Justice Richard Gabriel, and Colorado Court of Appeals Judge Jaclyn Brown during a livestreamed hearing—all while maintaining proper social distancing.
The Road Ahead
While the full economic and societal effects of COVID-19 are still unfolding, Colorado Law students are in as good a position as anyone to ride out the storm and find their way into different career niches.
"Colorado Law students are as well-versed as anyone can be at charting what the ‘next normal’ looks like,” Clinical Professor Blake E. Reid said. “Our graduates have long contended with and navigated their way through challenges and come out on the other side with a diverse range of interesting careers. We've always focused on supporting them in doing that. As new opportunities present themselves, our graduates will be in a good position to find their way, and we’ll be there to support them."