Last week, Cliff Zimmerman (Northwestern) and I presented at the 4th Applied Legal Storytelling Conference in London. The title of our talk was “At the Junction of Storytelling and Formation of Professional Identity.” As the title suggests, we attempted to draw several connections between the concept of formation of professional identity in the law school curriculum, and applied legal storytelling.
We made these connections primarily through references to the importance of each of our students’ personal narrative (PN). In the law school application process, we ask our students to tell us their stories – the stories about their lives that lead them to apply to law school. Dan McAdams, in his books The Stories we Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self and The Redemptive Self refers to this as the “personal narrative.” It is surpassingly odd, and perhaps quite telling, that after the student has enrolled in school we never again seem to care about their PN, much less help them integrate it with their evolving identities as lawyers.
Chapter 4 of the Carnegie Report contains one of its most significant criticisms of legal education when it suggests that we do a bad job – or simply neglect –helping our students form their professional identities as lawyers and professionals. This is a significant criticism because it sounds like it should be a fairly fundamental aspect of legal education – if our graduates are not ready to be lawyers in both the practical sense (the crux of other criticisms of legal education) and the formational sense, then what exactly are we doing?
Unfortunately, Chapter 4 is confusing in some ways. Many have read it to be a criticism of the teaching of professionalism, and have missed the emphasis on professional identity. From the report:
“The apprenticeship of professional identity….also include(s)
conceptions of the personal meaning that legal work has for
practicing attorneys and their sense of responsibility toward the
profession….[I]f law schools would take [this] apprenticeship
seriously, they could have a significant and lasting impact….”
I have argued – here and here – that professionalism and professional identity are mostly distinct from one another. And that we actually do a pretty good job of teaching professionalism, which I define as the baseline ethics course, together with emphasizing professional behaviors such as meeting deadlines, not cheating on exams or papers, and treating other students with respect.
But as the above quote indicates, the formation of professional identity – while it has some overlap with professionalism – is primarily about the individual attorney’s responsibility as an officer of the court, duty to uphold the rule of law, and how both are reflected in everything that lawyers do. Once we separate professionalism from formation of professional identity, we realize we have a whole new challenge. How do we as educators help our students to form their professional identity? Some have referred to this as our “teaching” them this subject. But of course, you can’t teach someone to form their own identity.
But there are things you can do, mostly in the context of coursework. In this presentation in at City University in London, Cliff and I described the two quite different courses that we teach in which we intentionally help our students to consider "conceptions of personal meaning that legal work has..." and thereby to form their identities as future lawyers. I described the Discovery Practicum, and Cliff described his seminar, Legal Professionalism and Narrative.
In the Discovery course, students prepare a discovery document every week in a mock litigation and serve their assigned opposing counsel. Crucially, they also prepare a memo to the file, describing their strategy and approach to the document, and – most importantly – they identify ethical issues they confronted, explain how they resolved them and why, and then reflect on how this process is helping them to form their identities as the lawyers they want to be. Each week, I provide feedback on the document (as to substance) but I also provide feedback on the depth and quality of the reflection that they have offered about the document they prepared. If you are interested in learning more about the course, a full portfolio is available online at the Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers website, here.
In Cliff’s Seminar, the students read and talk about stock stories (starting with reading Gerald Lopez's article Lay Lawyering), they talk about themselves (their likes and dislikes on a variety of matters), they study the elements of story and the concept of redemption. On professional identity, the students read and talk about personal moral codes, the ethics of storytelling, the ethics of counseling and interviewing, and talk through multiple ethics-based challenging situations (to learn more about how they will react when the situations are real). On the legal profession, the students study changes in the practice of law, myths about lawyers, and they talk with lawyers about their practice, as well as engage with them about ethical decisions they have made, and the morality of them. All of the assignments are reflective in nature – self-identification of likes and dislikes, exploring a formative moment in life (told themselves, to another), building lists of traits of good professionals, in discourse in class with guest speakers, and through the interview of an attorney and rethinking self in light of what they see in the interviewee. Many attendees to our presentation asked for a copy of the syllabus for Cliff’s course, which you may view at this link: Download Syllabus 4-1-13.
Next week, I will be presenting at the SEALS Conference in Florida about the next step in the formation process: how to go about assessing these aspects of our student’s legal education.