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.  

Jumpstart Outline: Ideas to Help You Make a Plan to Teach “Public Citizen” Lawyering in Any Law School Class

Best Practices for Legal Education and Building on Best Practices urge legal educators to help students develop their professional identities. One aspect of a lawyer’s professional identity is performing the role of “public citizen.” The Preamble of the professional conduct rules in most jurisdictions explains that lawyers are “public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.”

We can help students begin to understand what it means to be a “public citizen” if we address the issue in concrete ways across the curriculum. The following outline provides some ideas for integrating public citizen lawyering into your course.  This is a long list, but there should be an idea or two that will work for your course, whatever its focus.

Use (or Adapt) Existing Course Materials, Exercises, and Activities to Make Explicit Connections Between the Course and the Lawyer’s Work as a Public Citizen

  • Find the Public Citizen Lawyers in Your Current Textbook. Are there lawyers in your textbook that are fulfilling the public citizen role? Discuss them when you see them.
  • Use Course Materials to Help Students Identify and Discuss Injustice. Help students become justice-seeking lawyers by helping them identify injustice. In the chapter Social Justice Across the Curriculum (in Building on Best Practices), Susan Bryant identifies seven questions that can be used in any class to help students explore injustice.
  • Discuss Needs for Law Reform in the Subject Area of the Course. When you encounter areas of needed law reform in course material, discuss how lawyers can play a part in making that change.
  • Use Writing Assignments to Give Students Experience Advocating for Law Reform. For writing assignments that require students to recommend or draft proposed changes to the law, make the explicit connection that this one way that lawyers fulfill the public citizen role: they advocate for improvement in the law. Provide them avenues to publish, discuss, and otherwise publicize their work.
  • Lawyer Speakers Should Be Asked to Discuss How they Serve. If you ordinarily invite lawyers to class to talk about course related topics, prompt them to talk about the things they do to serve the public and the legal profession.
  • Integrate Social Justice Issues Into a Course Exercise. Is there an exercise you currently use to develop knowledge or a skill in which you can introduce an issue of social justice? For thoughts on designing and debriefing that exercise, see Susan Bryant’s chapter Social Justice Across the Curriculum in Building on Best Practices: Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World, at pp. 364-66
  • Prompt “Public Citizen” Discussion in Journaling Exercises. Prompt students to reflect upon public citizen issues in their course journals. What are areas where they see a need for law reform? What could they do to address those issues now and in practice? Suggest that students talk to lawyers (with whom they work) about how they serve the public and the profession. Ask the student to reflect on those discussions in their journal.

Create New Activities and Exercises that Integrate Course Material and the Lawyer’s Role as Public Citizen

  • Prompt Students to Create a Professional Development Plan.Particularly in classes where students may have common career goals (such as in an externship or capstone class), prompt students to write about their values, interests, and strengths, and to make a plan for the future, including a plan for service.
  • Integrate Pro Bono or Service Learning Into the Class. Find an opportunity for the class to represent a client or clients or serve a community organization or population that is connected to the subject matter of the class.
  • Create a Law Reform Activity for the Class. Engage in action as a class to reform the law in an area of need connected to course material. For suggestions see Mae Quinn’s article Teaching Public Citizen Lawyering: From Aspiration to Inspiration, 8 Seattle J. for Soc. Just. 661 (2010).
  • Require Students to Interview a Lawyer. The interview should cover course-related material as well as the lawyer’s service to the poor, the public, and the profession.
  • Organize a Book Club. Identify a non-fiction law-related book with a connection to your course material and that provides a springboard for discussing the lawyer as public citizen. A great book about pro bono service and its impact on both client and lawyer is William H Colby’s Long Goodbye, The Deaths of Nancy Cruzan. A book that prompts lawyers to think about the ingredients of a happy life – including pro bono work and “serving a larger social purpose”– is Nancy Levit and Douglas Linder’s book The Happy Lawyer: Making a Good Life in the Law.

Share Information about Yourself as a Public Citizen

  • Be Inspiring. Tell an inspiring story about what another lawyer’s service meant to you or about what your service may have meant to someone else – and how that made you feel.
  • Talk About Yourself as a New Lawyer. Tell stories about your experiences as a new lawyer attempting to fulfill the public citizen role. What did you learn from those activities? Did you have mentors that inspired or encouraged you?
  • Note the Times When You Struggled. Share the times in your career when you have struggled with balancing the demands of practice, your personal life, and serving the public. What worked for you and where do you continue to struggle?
  • Incorporate Examples Connected to Course Subject Matter. Weave in examples of what you currently do to serve the public and the profession and explain why you serve.
  • Revise Your Faculty Webpage to Emphasize Your Public Citizen Work. Include your pro bono service activities, service to the profession (committees, CLEs, etc), and board service on your law school profile – not just your C.V.
  • Promote Your Service to the Public and Profession on Social Media. Alert your law school communications person to stories about your service activities so that students and alumni can learn about what you do through law school social media. Also, promote these same things in your own use of social media.

Fulfill the Public Citizen Role with Students Outside of the Classroom (Not Necessarily Connected to a Course)

  • Provide Access to Justice. Participate with students in organized pro bono events or service activities.
  • Improve the Law. Enlist students to help you prepare to testify or do research about a suggested change in the law – and bring the student along when possible.
  • Serve the Profession. Ask students to help you with a CLE – from preparation to attending and presenting with you. Or invite students to participate in a bar committee or bar event with you.
  • Identify a Need and Fill It. Work with student organizations you advise to identify a group with interests related to the organization. Find out their needs and make a plan to partner with them.

 

The Heart of a Justice

It’s interesting that, regardless of his conservative bona fides, Justice Scalia’s “best friend” on the court was Justice Ginsburg, one of the more liberal Justices.  The two, and their spouses, apparently socialized regularly.   As a law professor who works with students on a daily basis, I hope this aspect of Justice Scalia can provide a lesson to students and us all. This friendship of opposites demonstrates that a person’s humanity is measured by far more than the sum of one’s political views.

A 21st Century “generalist legal education”? Skills & professional identity focused.

More musings on generalist v. specialist education, and how much doctrine law schools need to teach.

A conversation with one of our University of Washington alums — Leo Flor, Westpoint grad, Gates Public Service Law Scholar, Equal Justice Works Fellow at Northwest Justice Project, and spark plug for the new resource Representing Washington Veterans  — has me chewing on whether we need a new understanding of what a “generalist legal education” means.

Leo noted that the JD is often viewed as a relevant generalist credential, even though most law school grads move into traditional bar-passage-required “law practice” jobs.  And he observed that many job postings for alternative positions list an MBA or MPA as a relevant qualification, but not the JD.

The traditional generalist education of my era, and to a significant extent still, was intended to teach a set of analytical skills and and expose students to a broad range of legal doctrine potentially relevant to a general practitioner and to passing the bar exam. Though passing the bar remains important and is a significant factor in designing the educational program for lower tier schools, few 21st century lawyers are truly general practitioners.

Perhaps the generalist foundation needed in this era is built on skills, more than doctrinal knowledge.  And for Leo’s purpose not only skills in a technician sense.  Skills also in a “professional identity” sense.  Self-awareness & understanding of ones’ own gifts.  Leadership and interpersonal skills. Such an understanding of generalist could make the JD an appropriate credential for the types of job Leo described.

In a previous post, I suggested that that, at least for those students who come to law school with significant self-knowledge and experience, a substantively specialized curriculum could make sense, if combined with the general analytical and research skills to learn new areas.  This is not a new  idea.  Back in 2002 then-law-student Kevin E. Houchen self-published a detailed review of the trend toward certificate programs and concentrations, arguing that for a subset of students such specialization makes sense.

A decade later in 2012 the New York Times touted  NYU’s  limited moves toward greater specialization not just once, but again in an article  promoting specialization for law schools focused on Biglaw.

And in early May of this year 2015 at the National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services sponsored by the ABA and Stanford Law School, speakers reiterated these themes.   Richard Susskind (13:08) argued that legal education needs to train graduates for 21sth century jobs like legal project managers, legal process analysts, legal knowledge engineers, and legal risk management.  Prof. Deborah Rhode(13.29) observed that it “makes no sense to train Wall Street M &A lawyers the same way we train someone who’s going to be doing routine real estate and divorce work in a small town.”

It is not so very difficult to understand what acting on Prof. Rhode’s observation might mean.  As a practical matter, some curricular differentiation based on where graduates will practice already takes place, linked primarily to  different levels in the law school hierarchy.  Beyond that, many schools offer an extensive enough curriculum – both in doctrine and skills — to permit considerable specialization aimed at traditional law practice niches, even beyond formal concentration tracks and certificate programs.

For more specialized training law schools that offer extensive LL.M. programs routinely allow students to complete an accelerated JD/LL.M in three calendar years.  In the tax field, where the LL.M. has long been de rigueur, many schools provide such opportunities, including NYU, the long-time leader in tax LL.M’s.  And increasingly, schools educate students not just in substantive tax specialties, but also — using my own school, the University of Washington as an example — with  tax-focused skills and clinical training for both JD. and LL.M. students.

My hunch is that increasing numbers of students already opt to specialize, sometimes with a substantive law focus, often combined with a skills focus, e.g.  corporate deals with drafting or criminal & tort law with trial advocacy.

Richard Susskind’s challenge is a bigger stretch for legal education, though, again, some initiatives are visible, such as Michigan State‘s Reinvent Law Laboratory.

A key challenge for law schools is to learn how to identify prospective students or develop admitted ones who understand their life goals and values, and their intellectual and personal gifts well enough to make intelligent decisions around specialization.  To meet that  challenge, a holistic approach to education is needed –whether understood in the MacCrate framework of knowledge,  skills and values, or the Carnegie framework of cognitive, professional skills and ethical professional identity apprenticeships.

%d bloggers like this: