On reading the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers and Best Practices for Legal Education, I was immediately struck by the recognition in these works that professionalism is, to a great extent, about one’s internal values. If a lawyer consistently acts in a way that conflict with her values, she ought to expect consequences. Psychological literature has in recent decades paid closer attention to the concept of a person’s identity—how they seem themselves, what they value, whether they recognize their departure from those values or recognize when they do so.
I am reminded of an article by Reed Elizabeth Loder, Integrity and Epistemic Passion, 77 Notre Dame L. Rev. 841, 876 (2002) in which the author observes how lawyers who act inconsistently with their values “can fall prey to a kind of self-loathing.” That phrase has stuck with me because I remember seeing lawyers who, having practiced in a way that few would be proud, obviously did not like themselves very much. Not surprisingly, these lawyers also drank heavily or used drugs, seemed depressed, and from all appearances were not satisfied. When I saw Loder’s description, I began to realize that these lawyers simply had come not to like themselves, perhaps even to loathe themselves.
What’s the remedy? Well, it’s not new. In the Fifth Century B.C., Socrates taught it. “Know Thyself” was a consistent theme of his teaching. And, to know oneself, one had to know one’s values, one’s limits, what one was willing to stand for, and (in Socrates own case) what one was willing to die for. When I read great spiritual writers of our time, like Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen, I hear the same message—know yourself and seek to stay true to what you find to be important.
The challenge for law professors who take up the call to help students form a professional identity before they enter law practice is a new one. We are used to asking questions that requires students to think about legal concepts and application of different facts to the concepts—i.e., cognitive reasoning. Asking students to recognize the value conflicts in ethical and professional dilemmas—and then to work through a process by which they come to a resolution of the dilemmas—requires a different approach from that to which we are accustomed. Fortunately, methods for helping students work through such questions have been developed in other disciplines. We can borrow from these teaching methods to better prepare our students. I have found, for instance, after raising a professional identity question such as a document request that is technically accurate but likely misleading, that students are able to work through such issues more effectively than I expected. I do try not to force my answers on students. Conversely, I always conclude a section of class devoted to professional identity questions by asking: “Just remember to determine, with whatever resolution you reach, that you can live comfortably in your own skin.” If the answer to that is “yes,” the student is less likely to fall prey to the self-loathing that too many lawyers experience. Moreover, such students are not only far less likely to need alcohol or drugs to escape from the internal consequences of their decisions, but also are more likely to actually enjoy practicing law. But the topic of how to enjoy practicing law is the subject of another blog to follow.
--Professor Ben Madison, Regent University School of Law