2005 Paul & Daisy Soros Fellow Meera Deo is the Honorable Vaino Spencer chair and professor of law at Southwestern Law School and the director of the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), which gathers and studies data from law school students across the United States and is based at Indiana University-Bloomington. LSSSE is all about rigorous data collection, but really, law school students are at the core of the organization’s mission. Afterall, how can law schools improve or understand their work if they don’t understand the student experience and perspective?
Every year, for the past 17 years, LSSSE has surveyed thousands of law students across the country about their experiences in and out of school. The 2021 report, “The COVID Crisis in Legal Education,” which was published in October, drew on survey responses from 13,000 law students at 61 law schools and focused on COVID’s impact.
“Overall, remarkably, students actually reported really high levels of satisfaction—78 percent of law students said that they are satisfied with their law school experience. That means that 78 percent of survey respondents rated their experience as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ and that's right in line with the percentages that we've seen from students in the previous few years,” Meera explained over the phone in November. She noted that a huge majority of respondents were also appreciative of how their law school professors showed care and concern for them over the course of the pandemic.
COVID did have a major impact on law students though. 87 percent of law students managed anxiety that interfered with their daily functioning and 85 percent reported that they suffered through depression that interfered with their daily functioning. In addition, half of all law students faced significant increases in loneliness.
Beyond mental health, COVID also compounded issues like food insecurity. 43 percent of respondents reported an increase in food insecurity because of COVID-19 and 63 percent of respondents reported an increased concern for how they would pay their bills. In both cases, students who were Black, Latinx, and Asian American were more likely to have been impacted.
Meera explained that food insecurity is measured in the survey by asking whether students are concerned about “having enough food.” Increased food insecurity means they were considering choices like whether to pay their rent or eat dinner. “I knew that we were going to see some disturbing trends with COVID. But I was shocked to see that over half of our students of color experienced an increase in food insecurity.”
“If you're dealing with something like eviction concerns or food insecurity or the anxiety that comes with not being able to pay your bills, how are you possibly going to be able to read 40 pages of Evidence and prepare for class?” Meera explained. “Your mind is not on creating a case brief or studying for your midterm.”
When we spoke in November, the 2021 report had only been released for a week but Meera had already seen significant progress on the issue of food insecurity at law schools. Law schools that did not previously have a food pantry opened one up and other schools were looking at how they could make their university pantries more accessible to law students. Meera had been contacted by a state legislator who wanted to address the issue in their state, and by a state bar association that wanted to help educate individuals in the legal profession on the issue of food insecurity.
“I’m encouraged by the response to the report because we really have to work together if we want to meet the needs of our students,” Meera said. “We can't expect the students to do it themselves and we can't expect administrators at individual schools to do it themselves either—this is really something that's going to take some collective effort and a real commitment to make the changes that we need.”
While the report does highlight several alarming trends, Meera is focused on building on the positive findings. In addition to students having positive relationships with their professors and appreciating the ways their professors showed up for them during the pandemic, law students also benefited from more innovative approaches to technology.
“There's a big jump even between 2020 and 2021 in students reporting that technology contributed to their knowledge skills and personal development and that's something that I hope we can continue to develop overtime even when we're not necessarily remote or online learning.”
Meera is an expert in legal education, diversity, equity, and inclusion, all of which was at the forefront of her book Unequal Profession: Race and Gender in Legal Academia (Stanford University Press, 2019). The book was an analysis of her groundbreaking Diversity in Legal Academia project, which was a national empirical study of law faculty based on qualitative and quantitative data. In addition to studying law school students, Meera has been collecting data on law school faculty in the pandemic and will be working on that data this spring during her sabbatical. An introduction to her ongoing Pandemic Effects on Legal Academia study was published in June 2021.
For Meera, this LSSSE report is about developing evidence that will empower students, faculty, and law schools to understand themselves better and make meaningful changes. “This report is a wakeup call for us to think about ways that we can do better.” ∎