What is "Professional Identity" and Why is it Important?

When discussing reform of the legal profession, the term “professionalism” is thrown around as if everyone understands what it means. However, what one lawyer considers professional conduct may be what another considers improper. Therefore, this entry explores more concretely the foundation of professional behavior.
Both published in 2007, two reports—the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s Educating Lawyers, and the Clinical Law Education Association’s Best Practices in Legal Education—explain more thoroughly than any recent work what it means to behave professionally as a lawyer. In an adversarial system, “vigorous advocacy for clients overshadows other demands of legal professionalism.” Educating Lawyers p. 127. Moreover, the process starts even in law school. Law schools’ emphasis on teaching “tough-minded analysis, hard facts, and cold logic” as the stock in trade of lawyering leads students entering the profession to abandon “their ideals, ethical values, and sense of self.” Best Practices p. 32.

Thus, both 2007 reports emphatically suggest that law schools engage more fully with students the scope of what it means to be a professional. Both reject the notion that teaching one course in Professional Responsibility will achieve this goal. Instead, they encourage professors to weave into their courses questions that require students to evaluate what they believe is the “right thing to do.”
But, you might ask, isn’t this imposing morality on students? Well, both studies accept that inevitably part of engaging professionalism requires students to grapple with behavior that they believe to be proper and improper. The encouragement they offer is that, unlike IQ, a person’s “code” of how they want to act “can be transformed quite dramatically in adulthood when individuals encounter conditions that are conducive to further growth.” Educating Lawyers p. 134.
How can law schools provide an environment that is conducive to students’ growth in ideals, ethical values, and sense of self? The studies are consistent in their answer. Provide students with more than a single course that concentrates on the minimum requirements to avoid ethical sanctions. Both studies suggest integrating of professional identity formation into doctrinal and clinical courses throughout the three years of law school. Students will not form instantly a concept of how she or he wants to practice law. However, a law school environment that cultivates questions about ethical and value judgments will inevitably encourage students to realize the importance of the student’s developing a concept of how she will practice. When a student has engaged such questions for a period of time, she will more likely than not evolve a sense of professional identity. Some might say that the student decides, in choosing how she will handle these matters, decide “what kind of lawyer she wants to be.” That, in short, is determining one’s professional identity.

- Professor Ben Madison
Send us your comments and tell us how you or your school defines “professional identity.” Our next blog entry will discuss methods for implementing professional identity formation in courses other than professional responsibility.

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