Best Practices and the Formation of Professional Identity

The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility held the 34th Annual Conference on Professional Responsibility this past week in Boston Massachusetts.  The program included a presentation entitled “Teaching Ethics and Professional Development: Legal Education at a Crossroads.”  Professors Judith Wegner, Peter Joy, and I (Barbara Glesner Fines) presented the program which focused on legal education’s role in developing law students’ sense of professional identity and purpose.  Professor Wegner summarized the Carnegie Report as it speaks to this issue and Professor Joy gave an overview of the Best Practices project’s discussion.  Most of the session was devoted to learning from the approximately 150 judges, attorneys and law professors in attendance.   The question  “What is professional identity?” generated a wide variety of responses that drew on themes of common purpose and values, relationship to clients, service, specialized knowledge, and others.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the program was to hear the suggestions for improvement generated by the participants.  In the order in which I heard them (and with all the errors in transcription of ideas solely my responsibility) here are some of the fascinating suggestions.  Some were suggestions for ideas to implement; others were examples of programs already in place.  I’ve tried to give credit to program descriptions where my feeble notetaking skills allowed, but hope that comments will continue the conversation.

  • Develop and promote pro bono programs in law schools
  • Increase the role of the law school in certifying “good moral character” of its students
  • Increase the presence of and tenure-track status of practicicng attorneys within law schools
  • Improve student access to bar association activities.  For example: The California Bar Association’s on-line journal for law students and provision of free membership in bar sections and annual meetings for registered student
  • Engage students in teaching ethics CLEs to the bench & bar.  (See example of program at University of Miami)
  • Hold disciplinary hearings in law schools
  • Redesign the third year of law school to improve engagement – involve all students in clinical practice
  • Involve the bench and bar in small group discussion programs with first-year students
  • Remove destructive messages from the educational program that suggest that personal moral values are irrelevant to professionalism
  • Require every student to complete a clinical program
  • Invite state bar disciplinary attorneys into the classroom to share their knowledge and insight
  • Improve mentoring opportunities
  • Give students an integrated program so that they can leave lawschool with a solid base of lawyering competencies (e.g., Thomas Cooley’s Professionalism Portfolio program).

Finally, we asked “How will we know if we have made progress?” — Outcomes the participants suggested we assess included:

  • More of our students will call their ethics professors with questions before they get into trouble
  • The number of students and number of student hours devoted to pro bono programs will increase
  • There will be a decline in attorneys exhibiting symptoms of work/life imbalance (e.g. alcoholism and other destructive addictions, burn-out, drop-out)
  • There will be a better effort at helping “problem” attorneys – those who’s difficulties do not result in disbarment, but nonetheless are recurring and problematic
  • There will be an increased access to justice for all
  • Surveys of the profession regularly conducted by state bar and disciplinary authorities will reveal fewer problem
  • The conversations we had at this program will continue

To share your ideas, comment here.  To get involved with the Professional Responsibility academic community as a catalyst for change, contact Laurel S. Terry, Chair, Professional Responsibility Section of the AALS.


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