COVID-19 Collective Brings Together Faculty and Students to Research Coronavirus Legal Issues

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By Jamie Loo

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COVID Collective Zoom group photo

As Chicago shut down in March in response to COVID-19, more calls started coming in to the C-K Law Group from people seeking legal help. Meanwhile, Chicago-Kent College of Law students and soon-to-be graduates were watching their summer internships, summer associate positions, clerkships, and job offers disappear as the legal industry braced itself for the pandemic.

Heather Harper, clinical professor of law, says it was a scary time for students. The Vocational/Career Services Committee and law school staff immediately wanted to find a way to help.

“We recognized this as an unprecedented moment. How do we figure out how to engage and make it better?” she says. “How do we teach our students not to be defeated by this moment? How do we empower ourselves and our students to seize this moment for opportunity and growth?”

The solution: the COVID-19 Collective. Chicago-Kent faculty and staff quickly mobilized to give students underemployed this summer the opportunity to develop legal skills and expertise in emerging legal issues related to COVID-19. The C-K Law Group’s Entrepreneurial Law, Immigration Law, and Plaintiffs’ Employment clinics are also included in this effort, and are handling cases and projects related to COVID-19.

Twenty-four faculty members and 65 students on 15 research teams are currently involved in COVID-19 Collective research projects this summer. The projects cover a variety of legal topics such as privacy implications for contact tracing and potential antibody testing, courts and jury trials, constitutional rights and mandatory lock-down restrictions, corporate governance, and the history of quarantines and epidemics in the United States, including governmental authority to establish quarantines. Research groups are also looking into criminal justice issues such as compassionate release, world trade and global value chains, school district obligations and compensatory education for special education students, enforcement authority under international law for public health organizations such as the World Health Organization, and property law issues.

Students had the option of volunteering to be part of the collective or earning a single pass/fail credit for their work this summer. The research teams presented their final projects in early August.

“We could have instead put together a summer class to provide a broad overview of the legal landscape in light of COVID-19. This dynamic partnership between our faculty and students to take a deep dive into an array of topics allows us to do more—to be conversation and policy leaders on emerging issues,” says Chicago-Kent Dean Anita K. Krug. “I anticipate that many of these projects will yield scholarship and other guidance that will be helpful to legal practitioners and help us all better understand the impact of the pandemic on our laws and rights.”

Harper, chair of the Vocational/Career Services Committee, which spearheaded the COVID-19 Collective, says COVID-19 has unleashed countless legal questions and is a burgeoning area of the law that will need newly trained lawyers for years to come. When the law changes, everyone is learning together from the same spot, Harper says. The faculty and students are learning alongside each other.

“It’s a collaboration,” she says. “It’s an exciting environment to learn and work together for good, and an opportunity for students to do something that is impactful and meaningful to their careers.”

Chicago-Kent Assistant Dean for Career Services Vicki Ryan says that many Chicago-Kent students experienced last-minute setbacks or were faced with few options for obtaining legal experience this summer.

“Our students are remarkably resilient and have demonstrated that resilience repeatedly this summer,” Ryan says. “In addition to participating in the collective, some of them sought out creative ways to gain education and experience through classes, online professional development programs, and remote public-interest legal opportunities. They showed great maturity in recognizing the business uncertainties faced by legal employers and understanding that there were many things they simply could not control.”

Alan Gallivan (LAW ’22) hoped to get an internship in the Cook County Public Defender’s Office, but the program was suspended due to the pandemic. The collective gave him a chance to expand his interests. He is part of Ralph L. Brill Professor Adrian Walters’s research group that is examining small business reorganizations under Chapter 11, Subchapter-V, of the Bankruptcy Code. Prior to the pandemic, Gallivan says, changes were made to the code that qualify more businesses for relief at a time when small business needs have skyrocketed. The research project is allowing him to do practitioner-style research that “fills in what casebook-style approaches may leave blank.” It has deepened his interest in pursuing bankruptcy as a specialty.

“I have gotten some cutting-edge insights that will make me a better interviewee and a stronger candidate for externship and employment opportunities that I will seek over the next school year,” Gallivan says. “In this way, our collective truly may help me choose and launch my law career.”

Toulaye Ba (LAW ’21) originally had a law clerk job lined up for the summer and found out in late March that it was gone. She is part of Professor Edward Lee’s team that is researching social media platform policies and procedures to combat misinformation on COVID-19 and implications for content regulation online. Ba loves social media and says this is the perfect project for her.

“This lets me do something. I would hope that through this, employers will see that I was proactive in searching for and attaining a way to spend these uncertain times,” she says.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic was helping clients navigate the CARES Act, apply for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and address other business concerns. Harper says now they’re addressing PPP loan forgiveness and human resources questions such as creating a safe work environment under OSHA standards and how to handle situations involving an immunocompromised employee’s return to work. Her research team is looking into the history of PPP and current guidance to create an easily digestible guide for small business owners.

Clinical Professor and Director of Clinical Education Richard Gonzalez says as businesses reopen, the Plaintiffs’ Employment Clinic is hearing from people who don’t feel safe returning to work and is getting questions about continuing remote work and from employees who are eager to work but are not allowed to because their companies are selectively choosing who can return. In a separate project, Gonzalez and Institute for Law and the Workplace faculty members and students are compiling a guidebook for employers and employees on their rights. The Immigration Clinic is looking into issues such as inhumane detention conditions and a lack of protection from COVID-19, executive orders halting residency and immigration visas, and stimulus bans for mixed-status households.

Harper says the grassroots effort among faculty to spend their summers engaging with students on this innovative research project is amazing.

“We can’t make jobs come back, but we can tap into our colleagues. Without the entire faculty working on it this wouldn’t happen,” Harper says. “Our students really care, too. It’s really the entire Chicago-Kent community coming together. It shows what is special about Chicago-Kent.”

Photo: Members of the COVID-19 Collective collaborate during a meeting on Zoom.