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The Development of Professional Identity in Law Students

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The Development of Professional Identity in Law Students Daisy Hurst Floyd, Professor of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law June 2002 The Question My CASTL project has focused on the development of professional identity in law students, that is, the ways in which law students become lawyers. Because lawyers’ professional identities affect their relationships, career decisions, and a broad range of ethical and moral choices, the study of professional identity necessarily encompasses issues of personal satisfaction and professional success and must take into account individual personalities, experiences, and talents. The professional identities of American lawyers today are complex and troubled. There is a well-documented crisis of meaning among lawyers, evidenced by higher than normal rates of depression, substance abuse, suicide, and professional attrition. The consequences are very real for lawyers, their clients, and their families and friends. The legal profession is beginning to grapple with the reasons for this crisis and to offer solutions, but legal education has been slower to do so. In beginning my exploration of professional identity, I was interested in the roots of the professional crisis: what seeds do we sow in law school that are manifested, both positively and negatively, in the profession? To the extent that we are sowing the seeds for unhealthy, unhappy, and, therefore, incompetent lawyers, what can we do to mitigate that effect? I began with a loosely-formed idea: to ask students to help me discover and describe the law school experience and how that experience impacts lawyers’ professional lives. The result has been fascinating and powerful, for both me and the students. It has changed me as a teacher and has strengthened my belief that legal education needs reform. Unexpectedly, my students and I discovered that some of the methods we were using to reveal and understand this information were working to ameliorate negative aspects of their law school experiences. Therefore, the project has also provided a laboratory for trying out methods of reform. Gathering Evidence Most of the evidence that I have gathered regarding professional identity has come from three courses: two Seminars on Legal Education, offered during the Fall 2000 and Fall 2001 semesters, and Advanced Legal Ethics, offered during the Spring 2002 semester. I have also integrated some of my experiences in teaching Law and Literature, and an Independent Research book group that I supervised during the spring 2002 semester. Students in these classes completed a variety of assignments. They read and discussed assigned readings from a variety of sources, wrote reflective essays of varying lengths, completed extended research papers on some aspect of legal education, and regularly participated in a web-based discussion board. Some students read fictional accounts of law and lawyers as a basis for discussing issues related to professional identity, and others read biographies of lawyers, living and dead. In some classes, we brought lawyers and other professionals into the experience, which was quite successful. The two Seminars on Legal Education included one and one-half day retreats, which allowed for extended discussion with lawyers and other professionals about various issues. The 2001 Seminar on Legal Education seminar and the 2002 Advanced Legal Ethics class included a2co-teacher. Steven Keeva, a journalist who has written a book on the legal profession entitled Transforming Practices: Finding Joy and Satisfaction in the Legal Life, participated in on-line and classroom discussions from a distance and also met with the students several times. Steve brought a terrific perspective as a non-lawyer and astute observer of the profession. The topics explored include the following: • the meaning of profession; • becoming and being a member of a professional community; • the history of legal education; • the impact of difference on the ways in which students experience law school; • developing the inner life; • developing connections with colleagues and clients; • the role and nature of lawyers in society; • the legal culture, including adversarialism, competition, and the emphasis on winning; • the practice of law as a calling; • the law and lawyers as healers; • public perceptions of lawyers; • coping with fear; • making mistakes and surviving them; • finding meaning and satisfaction as a lawyer; and • the relationship between psychological wholeness and professional competence. Findings The project has revealed a number of different observations about legal education. Students’ experiences are not uniform by any means, but there is enough similarity among student responses and research to draw interesting conclusions about areas for further research. On the positive side, students report gaining valuable analytical and reasoning skills, increased confidence and independence, an improved ability to articulate arguments and to see an issue from a variety of perspectives, an ability to depersonalize disagreement, and pride in successfully completing a challenging educational program. These are consistent with the often-stated goal of legal education to teach students to “think like a lawyer.” The good news is that law school is successful at imparting that skill. However, students also report negative aspects of legal education. These include the following: Law school is a highly competitive environment and makes interaction both inside and outside of the classroom difficult. Students experience many classrooms as actively hostile, and the reason is not as much the professor’s demeanor or teaching style as it is the peer pressure that students feel to perform perfectly. This competitive environment mirrors the adversarial nature of the legal system itself. Just as lawyers do, students constantly measure their own performances against those of their peers and define success by performing better than their peers. Winning becomes the end-game, and winning is defined by the identified prizes of the law school culture. The prizes of law school are identified early on and are sought after by the majority of law students. They are high grades--particularly grades that place the student in the top ten percent of the class (which is, of course, mathematically impossible for


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