The Legal Beat
Hofstra Law’s Judge Gail Prudenti On Pandemic Safety And The Future Of Legal Education [Sponsored]
Posted on Thursday December 03, 2020
There’s no question that Judge Gail Prudenti knows the makings of an effective lawyer.
Before taking over as Hofstra Law dean in 2017, she served nearly three decades on the New York bench and as the state’s top administrative judge, a role in which she oversaw the operation of a statewide court system with a budget of over $2.7 billion.
This fall, though, Judge Prudenti faced a new dilemma: How to prepare law students for practice in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
At Hofstra Law, a painstakingly created balance of remote and in-person classes led to a successful semester — albeit one that saw some sleepless nights on her part.
Now, as Hofstra Law marks its 50th anniversary, Judge Prudenti sat down with Above the Law to discuss how her institution has adapted to the pandemic, as well as her own approach to training the workforce for an industry marked by rapid innovation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ATL: To start off, can you walk us through some of the safety measures you’ve been pursuing at Hofstra Law amid the coronavirus pandemic? What was your thinking on balancing the importance of in-person learning with the need for social distancing?
Well, we’re really fortunate at Hofstra Law, that not only did we have leadership from Governor Cuomo and the state and the CDC, but we also have the support of Hofstra University and Northwell Health, Hofstra’s partner in the schools of medicine and nursing. With this guidance, our faculty and administration developed safety protocols, reconfigured the law school and law library spaces, and redesigned the classroom experience to support in-person and remote learning.
Our incoming first-year students really wanted to be in-person: When we took a poll originally, it was a significant percentage who wanted to be in-person. We restructured our first-year class schedule to allow for smaller in-person classes while adhering to all safety protocols. We also invested a tremendous amount of money in technology, so that any student who needed to attend an in-person class remotely could do so. In our upper-level classes, we were able to have classes that were fewer than 25 in-person, but students were then given the option of being in-person or being online. So that worked well.
Based on the faculty meetings I have had, most of our faculty believes in us being at the law school in person, to the extent possible. They’ve also been very pleasantly surprised at how well this semester went. It was challenging, but also heartwarming at the same time, because everybody really did pull together and did their best. We started the semester early and completed exams just before Thanksgiving, so that students traveling wouldn’t have to worry about returning to campus before the end of the year.
There were people who thought we would never get through weeks three, four or five, and here we are. I am very happy that all has worked out for us and we were able to complete the semester.
ATL: While the pandemic has reshaped life at law schools, it has also, of course, reshaped the outlook for law school graduates and future law school graduates. How have you adjusted your career services efforts at Hofstra Law?
I have to tell you, we have a fabulous Office of Career Services. I’m very proud of them. And we’ve worked hard to build it over the last five to seven years, and it’s gone really well. But the legal market has had to adapt to COVID as well.
Many law firms, especially the law firms that send lawyers to court on a daily basis, have been adversely affected by this. We recognized early on that we needed to offer our students some new training opportunities. Many of our students had jobs, summer jobs or internships that were shortened or postponed due to the pandemic.
We still wanted to create a learning environment for students to build their resume and where they could gain valuable skills. So that’s why the Summer Skills Institute was put into place — we modeled it after what leading law firms with summer associate programs offer. The Institute focused on legal technology, transactional law and litigation.
We were also able to continue everything we do in career services with virtual programming, whether it be one-on-one advisement or on-campus interviews, and our mentorship program grew incredibly because we had many more students who wanted to participate. We also had an increase in alumni mentorship participation, which was terrific. Our alums realized the need and they stepped up.
We also partnered with a number of law firms. Different firms reached out and said: “We can provide this for your students. We can provide this forum for your students. We do this type of work.”
ATL: What other steps did you take to create the full law school experience in at least a partially remote environment?
I think it was also really important that we provided a lot more student support. One of the things people love about law school is that it creates a community, and creating community when so many people are at home is a challenge.
Our student affairs office did a great job of bringing students together through a series of academic and team-building events. The academic success office did a lot of one-on-one Zoom sessions with our students as well.
This summer we also offered first-years our Edge Ahead Program, where students were able to begin their training before law school started. They were taught legal research and writing as well as exam prep strategies — how to answer multiple choice questions, how to do essays — all things that make law school a different discipline. The program was offered to anybody who was admitted to any law school. But of course, as you can imagine, the vast majority was Hofstra Law students. It got great reviews from the students.
And then I also met with students regularly because I was at the law school three or four days a week and worked usually virtually one day a week, and I had dean’s hours. During the dean’s hours, the students could choose to come and see me in-person or on Zoom. We did both.
One of the things I love — this is the good part of having been involved in the legal community for more years than I’d like to admit — is that I can pick up a phone and make a call to someone who can help our students.
I know legal service providers are struggling because budgets are getting cut. But I know that certain judges, because of the change in judicial elections and appointments, need law clerks or especially junior law clerks. Because we have a pro se legal clinic in the federal courts, I know which magistrates or judges would take interns. And I know which law offices are still hiring and are still looking for people.
It really gives me personal pleasure to help students with their job placements.
ATL: To shift gears: This year marks the 50th anniversary of Hofstra Law, and obviously it falls during unusual times. What events and activities does Hofstra have planned?
Well, the good news is we’ve been preparing this for a couple of years now. And what we did is we took a good, hard look when planning the law school’s 50th anniversary, and decided to do a major fund-raising campaign to celebrate the Law School’s past and prepare for its future.
Hofstra Law has always been at the forefront of legal education. We were one of the first law schools to integrate clinical education into the law school curriculum. We launched our Law, Logic and Technology Research Lab 10 years ago and have continued to build on our legal tech offerings with our Courtroom of the Future and courses in cybersecurity and cryptocurrency.
So we are using this momentous time as an opportunity to look ahead so that Hofstra Law can continue to be a leader in preparing students to be outstanding lawyers.
This is only the second major capital campaign for the law school. And I’m very proud to say that we’ve surpassed our original goal for the first phase of the campaign and are preparing for the next phase of the campaign in 2021.
Really, we are so grateful to our alums and friends, especially during these uncertain times. It’s not only a testament to their commitment to Hofstra Law, but also a testament to their commitment to the future.
ATL: Looking to the future, where do you see legal education and the profession?
The lawyer of the future has to develop an area of expertise, but also be an all-purpose player. They need to develop an area of expertise, whether that be labor law, health law, real estate, cybersecurity, and they also need to have knowledge of other areas of law and other aspects of business. Your clients want you to be everything.
Additionally, the pandemic has accelerated technology’s role in legal education and the legal profession. Our vision for the future is to continue expanding our legal tech and interdisciplinary offerings, so that our students graduate tech-fluent, business-savvy, and highly skilled in specialty areas.
We have partnered with Hofstra’s engineering school. We have a joint degree with our business school. We have a medical legal-partnership with our medical school — and what that involves is a training of lawyers and doctors together, which is a very unusual combination.
We are also working with partners on new joint degree programs. At present, we’re working toward a J.D./nurse practitioner degree program. We’re working with the medical school on courses in health law for both lawyers and medical students.
Diversifying the legal profession is another priority. I know from sitting on a very large appellate court that people from a diverse community create a brand of justice that is really reflective of our society. And it’s really important. So we also want to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
Lastly, we are investing in new technology to allow for a more flexible learning environment, and also to allow students to learn using the latest legal tech software and hardware.
Our fundraising campaign will allow us to realize our goals and this vision. We want to do everything we can to give all of our students an edge.
We’re very excited about our future.
Judge Gail Prudenti has been the dean of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University since May 2017. She previously served on the New York state bench for close to three decades in varied roles, including as the state’s Chief Administrative Judge.