Building an Ethos of Self-Directedness Among First-Year Law Students

By: Mary Walsh Fitzpatrick, Assistant Dean for the Career and Professional Development Center at Albany Law School

Background

I attended a workshop on professional identity formation sponsored by the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions last June. In preparation for the workshop, I read a number of articles on professional identity formation, including “Self-Directedness and Professional Formation: Connecting Two Critical Concepts in Legal Education.” The article posits “[f]or law students to move towards real professional identity formation in their career, they must be self-directed.” Self-directedness, some of the hallmarks of which are self-reflection, goal setting, seeking and receiving feedback, and using sound judgment, is integral to finding meaningful employment and career satisfaction. I know from first-hand experience working within law school career development for the past 13 years, students who are most successful in gaining meaningful employment take ownership of their experiences and make intentional choices early in law school. I believe self-directedness more than any other factor, including grades, leads to meaningful careers for law school graduates. The challenge is to cultivate self-directedness in all law students by creating an ethos of self-directedness with regard to career development beginning in the first year.     

While at the Holloran Center workshop, I devised a career development program to introduce first-year students to professional identity formation with emphasis on self-directedness. I subsequently shared the proposed program with my team at the Albany Law School Career and Professional Development Center and we collaborated on the program presentation and exercises. At Albany Law School, students are assigned an individual career counselor with whom they work one-on-one over the entire course of law school. Thus, in planning and implementing the program my colleagues and I chose to each lead the program for our sections separately, beginning individual relationships with our students and setting expectations.     

We decided upon a method of teaching that would allow students to practice self-reflection, seeking and receiving feedback, and using good judgment in the context of career development. The overarching goal of the program was to help students recognize self-directedness as a key component for successful professional identity formation leading to meaningful careers.

The Program – Setting the Stage

We communicated the program as a mandatory one-hour program and emailed to first-year students several weeks before the program the Individual Career Plan (ICP), a self-assessment tool we created several years ago, and our handbook for developing a legal resume. The students were asked to complete their ICPs and draft their legal resumes in preparation for the program. 

  • Reflection

We began the program by introducing professional identity formation and self-directed learning, emphasizing curiosity, initiative, feedback, self-reflection, resilience, judgment and ethics. We provided students with the Holloran Competency Milestones Assessment of Student’s Ownership of Continuous Professional Development (Self-Directedness) and asked them to take a moment to reflect upon and identify their current stage of development on the continuum. Recognizing each student comes to law school at a different stage of self-directedness we did not ask students to share their findings with the group, rather we called attention to law school providing students with the opportunity to move along the continuum with the goal of graduating competent learners who take full ownership over their careers by setting goals and seeking resources to meet those goals.

Next, we asked students to form small groups and to reflect upon and share with each other why they chose to attend law school, skills they hope to build, and experiences they hope to gain during law school. After this breakout session we asked one student from each group to report back some of the group’s findings. Two distinct motivations for attending law school emerged from this exercise, students: wanting to utilize existing strengths they identify as befitting a legal career; and wanting to acquire the skills necessary to be catalysts for change. Notably, both motivations evidence students’ strong desire to align their skills and values with meaningful employment.

  • Seeking and Receiving Feedback

In the second portion of the program we focused on seeking and receiving feedback in the context of career development. We began by educating students on critical thinking skills sought by legal employers, such as analyzing, evaluating, reasoning, and problem solving. We then asked students to provide peer-to-peer feedback on their resumes utilizing the resume handbook we provided before the program and tools we discussed during the program. Students worked in couples or groups of three to seek and provide each other with constructive feedback on how to better formulate existing resume descriptions for a legal audience. After the exercise we asked students to contribute one piece of valuable feedback they received.    

  • Judgment

In the final portion of the program students were divided into groups and provided three different hypotheticals related to career development decisions. Each group was asked to analyze the issues and report back how they would address the situation presented. The hypotheticals included issues of reneging on a job offer, misrepresenting grade point average on a resume, and failing to follow up with a professional connection. Through dialogue following the exercise we emphasized the importance of reputation, impact of reputational damage, building professional relationships, and the imperative of follow-through.  Many students acknowledged although no single hypothetical scenario would necessarily determine success in finding meaningful employment, the decisions made with regard to these issues could impact one’s professional reputation and future opportunities.   

Conclusion

We hope to have initiated student appreciation for the impact of self-directedness on professional identity formation that is integral to beginning meaningful careers after law school. The next step is for each student to take the initiative to complete an online strengths assessment, the VIA Character Strengths Survey, make a first career counseling appointment where they will receive individualized feedback on the ICP and legal resume and identify next steps in planning their careers.  

Thanks to all our wonderful readers and contributors, we WON!

Best Practices for Legal Education” blog won first place in the ABA Journal Blawg 100’s Careers / Law School category. Our blog garnered more than 150 votes and was one of 13 popular vote winners out of 100 blogs.

The Blawg 100, as selected by the ABA Journal, was featured in the journal’s December 2014 cover story. As a winner of the popular vote, “Best Practices for Legal Education” will be featured again in the February issue.  The ABA Journal‘s Blawg 100 is an annual list of the best in blogs about lawyers and the law.

We also have a cool new BADGE featured on our site! Booyah!

A special thank you to Michele Pistone of LegalEd  for her great work on getting out the vote!

So keep those contributions, posts and comments coming!

 

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