"To Thine Own Self Be True" Applies to Lawyers Too!

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


  1. I've really appreciated the opportunity to delve deeper into my professional identity. I have always believed that one has academic beliefs and true beliefs. Every belief is an academic belief up until it is tested. After it is tested, it becomes a true belief. But knowing what my academic beliefs are before they are tested helps so much more than having to figure it out in the heat of the moment. With the frightening statistics listing the increasing addictions among lawyers and law students, not to mention depression and dissatisfaction, I am thankful for one more tool to help combat these risks.

  2. I like how most of the professional identity questions presented me with situations where the decision made would, despite the decision being right or wrong, would most likely never be brought up and could be kept secret. Being raised with parents that set my moral compass in sync with the Word of God, most examples and decisions that will arise involving the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility are somewhat obvious. It is when these Model Rules leave room for grey that are when the truly hard decisions have to be made. It requires me to purposefully choose integrity over being just in compliance with the low bar standard of legal ethics.

  3. Being faced with Professional Identity questions throughout the semester in Professor Madison's Virginia Procedure class has forced me to evaluate my own personal moral compass, which will inevitably have a large impact on how I conduct myself in legal practice. Ultimately, an individual's personal convictions should guide him or her. The decisions that are made professionally should be in compliance with one's personal convictions.

    Consistency is valuable in an individual's personal and professional lives. A person that will not be prone to ethical violations with the Bar is likely to be a person that maintains strong personal convictions and standards for how they conduct themselves personally. Therefore, before diving into legal practice, students should be faced with ethical dilemmas in a theoretical environment where their professional lives and reputation are not on the line. Students faced with hypothetical situations will likely think through their own personal morals and beliefs before being faced with it in practice and will be better equipped to face any adversity that they will encounter in practice.

  4. When I was first tasked with answering some professional identity question I honestly was not enthused. I kind of thought of it as just another thing that had to be done if I wanted to pass a class. However, after doing a couple of journals I began to find myself really thinking about how I was answering the questions. I never really realized how many opportunities lawyers are given to essentially get away with something that is wrong because nobody would ever know or there was no way to be caught. I found myself time and time again answering the questions with something to the idea of 'yes, I would be able to get away with this and nobody would know but I would know (emphasis on the I).' I think that it is definitely good for students to start thinking about these types of situations and realizing NOW how destructive some decisions can be to them. I wonder sometimes that if actually in the moment I would have a knee jerk reaction and choose to not listen to what I know was right because I was under a lot of stress or the decision had to be made right then and there.

    By being presented with these situations now I have the time to stop and really think about how I would want to handle these types of things and really think about the consequences of choosing to not listen to myself. Since I have taken the time now to think about these things and I am fully aware of how one can slip which can lead to terrible self loathing in the future I think I am better prepared to deal with them in real life. These journals have really given me a chance to nail down the person I want to be and has helped come up with ideas to avoid becoming someone I do not want to be.
    I think that introducing students to these ideas now is really going to help in the long run. In a sense it gives them the chance to make the mistake without really suffering the consequences. This way you just learn what the consequences could be and are reminded of how much you do not want that to be your life. In the long run I want to be happy with myself and to do that one has to be true to their values and morals. I think asking students to figure out what those are now is definitely going to help in the long run.

  5. The Professional Identity exercise raised in Virginia Procedure is finally teaching that law students will be able to use in the real world. It is refreshing to not only find a professor that understands the limitations and failure of traditional law school teaching, but is actually doing something about it. If more professors and more classes and more schools implemented such teaching, I can only imagine how profound the impact would be not just in 3-5 years, but 10-20 year into the profession. The continual self assessment required of professional identity exercises will cumulatively allow for a much higher level of professional growth.

  6. I have seen a young attorney hungry for business, any business, who serviced clients that were not exactly ethical. The young attorney needed the billable hours and the shady clients needed an attorney that would “work with them” – so to speak.

    Eventually the shady clients went broke or left town or both. The young attorney was left behind with his main clients gone and few people willing to give him much of a shot at their business, for they all remember who he was associated with.

    I don’t think the young attorney was unethical or shady. But in the eyes of the business community the perception that he is associated with less than ethical characters persists.

    A better sense of professional (and personal) identity would certainly have helped this guy.

    Professor Madison above mentions “Know Thyself” as a consistent theme of Socrates’ teaching. One could add Sun Tzu’s “know the enemy” (from “know the enemy ad know thyself”). In some cases the “enemy” of an attorney’s good name and professional career may be a shady client trying to get away with unethical moves.

  7. As a student in Professor Madison's class, I also participated in the Professional Identity questions he posed, and tried to do my best to determine what I would actually do in any of the given situations. I found the questions beneficial, but not because of any particular fact pattern, or hypothetical that students were given to think over and address. Rather, it is the process of reflecting on a regular basis that I believe will have the most lasting and effective impact.

    They are very few changes to a person, their behavior, or decision making process that occur practically overnight. If I had to guess, the lawyers who have "fallen prey" to a type of self-loathing, did not become that way based on one or two decisions. If students get in the habit of reflecting on decisions, or realize the need to form a habit of reflecting on their decisions, while in law school, they are more likely to do so at a frequent or regular basis once they become attorneys.

    By reflecting on the decisions one has made recently, I believe it becomes easier from someone to prevent themselves from getting to a point of self-loathing. If you reflect back on decisions at a time where you have made one or two that were not true to yourself, you can likely recognize those decisions and take action to prevent further decisions along those lines. By frequently reflecting on the decisions one makes, the path that is leading one on, and the person one is becoming as a result of their decisions, a change in direction can be made before it becomes too late.