Cultivating Self-Directedness among Law Students

The Legal Academy’s efforts to respond to the Carnegie Report’s call for more attention to the “third apprenticeship,” i.e., helping law students to develop a “professional identity,” continues to gain momentum.   I see that not only in increased scholarship on the topic, but also personally from taking part in presentations.   One in particular was a symposium last year at University of St. Thomas Law School, co-sponsored by three other schools that have promoted this movement (Georgetown, Pepperdine, and Regent) designed to measure how far legal education had progressed in the 25 years after the MaCrate Report first introduced the idea that legal education should including features such as professional formation.

Schools that have consistently shown an interest in pursuing ethical professional formation met at that Symposium and form “working groups” to continue, since then, to meet by Skype conference calls and develop assessment rubrics.   Because many law schools have been adopting learning outcomes that implicate formation of professional identity, see, the working groups decided to develop the rubrics as a way of helping schools to have methods to assess progress in particular characteristics of professional identity formation.  I joined the workgroup on Self-Directedness, which includes Professor Neil Hamilton (St. Thomas), Professor Kendall Kerew (GA State), Professor Nicole Iannarone (GA State), Associate Dean Rupa Bhandari, Professor Ann Novak (Touro Law), and me (Regent Law).  Professor Kerew has organized regular video-conferences of our team to work on the rubrics, which we store in a shared site in the Cloud.

Self-directedness, in particular self-directed learning, is a skill that students (and lawyers) need. In his book Self-Directing Learning, Malcolm Knowles defines self-directed learning as “a process by which individuals takes the initiative . . . in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating goals, identifying the human and material resources for learning, choosing and implementing appropriate strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” (Malcolm Knowles, Self-Directed Learning 18 (1975).

Intrigued by this concept, my colleague Natt Gantt and I surveyed students at a number of schools in two sets of surveys to highlight the significance of self-directedness.  In an article for the St. Thomas Law Journal, we report the contrasting survey results.  See  The first survey sought from students their top goals leaving law school. One of the top goals, ranking even higher than paying off student loans, was to find meaningful employment.   The other survey, of the same schools, asked students to fill in a survey that assessed the degree to which they possess self-directedness.  The results showed that most law students are lacking in this quality.   We observe in the article that students need to understand—have us “connect the dots” for them on this point—that if they are going to find meaningful employment, they need to cultivate self-directedness.   We then describe some of the schools that have initiatives designed to do just that.

In short, the professional identity movement continues.  As it does so, its benefits for legal education become even clearer.   We only hope that more schools agree and take advantage of the efforts of the working groups seeking to move the ball forward in this important area.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for conducting this study and alerting us to the research results. I am impressed with your study and the ways in which your schools take professional identify formation seriously. Your results confirm anecdotal observations we made at Albany Law some years ago. Our Career and Professional Development Center started a program in which students create an Individual Career Plan (ICP) starting in first year. Our internal portal provides students with self-assessment worksheets regarding their values, interests and goals as well as information about development of necessary competencies, skills and leadership during law school. As a faculty advisor, I have found more of our students to be more mindful, informed and self-directed as a result of this initiative.

  2. This is a fascinating discussion of the utility of Carnegie Report’s specific directives, and more importantly an example of collaborative work by law professors for the greater good. We need more of this as legal education faces unrelenting external economic pressures, and for many schools, internal stresses as well. I really appreciate the work your ad hoc committee has done and plan to share it with my own faculty at Penn State Law. We’ve recently formed faculty committees around career development, and I chair the public interest placements committee. I think this poses several opportunities and confirms certain ideas we’ve been developing (like the student priorities survey) that we can use in our work with students to cultivate and support their pursuit public interest job opportunities.

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