Legal Education and Professional Identity

I participated in a discussion group about teaching the formation of professional identity at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) conference in early August, led by Professors Ben Madison of Regent University School of Law and David Thomson of the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  It was clear there was lots of passion in the room to engage students in the formation of professional identity directly and throughout law school.  The real question was how to do it.  There were some very good ideas of how to do it within the parameters of traditional classes, such as Professional Ethics, and how to do it outside of classes by affecting the culture of a school and its environments.

One of the main problems in this area, it seems to me, is that the notion of ‘professionalism’ is often a foreign concept to students; after all, until someone becomes a lawyer, how will they understand what this means?  This is where learning science comes into play, specifically experiential education, the kind advocated by David Kolb in his famous experiential learning cycle way back in 1984.  Kolb suggested that experience should be used as a learning tool in stages. An experience serves as the first stage, and is then followed by reflection, abstraction and theorization, and finally, the transfer of knowledge to new problems or questions.

This learning cycle fits into real life quite well.  If one is learning to drive, for example, then it is important to progress from the classroom to the passenger seat to the driver’s seat.  Of course, the ‘driver’s seat’ need not be attached to a two thousand pounds of nuts, bolts and engine, but can at first be behind the wheel of a simulator.  Simulation and exercises in legal education also can serve as a platform for the formation of professional identity.  For example, a simulated oral argument about a case could involve two teams of students asked to argue different positions.  This division into groups requires collaborative work and presents an opportunity to explore how professionals participate and communicate on teams.

Students also could be given non-legal exercises that raise professional identity issues.  If students were walking home from school one night and see a $20 bill sticking out of an ATM machine with no one else around, would they take it?  Why or why not?  Does it matter whether the students were now working in a courthouse where the ATM is located or working as a lawyer for the bank that owns the ATM?

From a different perspective, what if the students were mountain climbing in the Andes Mountains and were roped up with the person closest to them in the entire world at 20,000 feet. In this hypo, the person roped to the student slips and falls off of the mountain.  The only way the student can save him or herself is to cut the rope, leading to a long fall for person #2.  Would the student cut the rope?  This question raises professional ethics of a different kind — what is the mountain climber code in this situation?  Also, what factors would the student consider in making such a decision? (A somewhat similar situation actually occurred in real life with two mountain climbers high in the Andes.  The mountain climber on the mountain cut the rope and the other climber, dangling below, fell, but survived.  I would have loved to have eavesdropped on their conversation at the bottom of the mountain. See Touching the Void (2003), based on a 1988 book by Joe Simpson of the same name.)

All told, the formation of professional identity can help students connect with and maintain the values that might have landed them in law school in the first place.  And it could weave into the understanding of law the importance of the lawyer’s role within the system – and how service to others might require a different application of values than service to oneself.

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