Teaching Professionalism

One of my favorite courses to teach is Legal Profession (i.e., ethics and professionalism) because it truly is an “ah-ha” moment for many law students. I tend to believe that not many students consider the “profession” part of the “legal profession” prior to attending law school. Rather, I suspect they view law school as a means to an end—landing a lucrative job (or at least that was the case in days gone by; see here,  here and here). They probably give little thought to the fact that they are preparing to join a “profession.”

I know that many even inside the legal profession question whether it remains a profession or is now just a business and all about the bottom line. (For interesting discussions of this debate, see here, here, here and here). I am very traditional in this respect, and I hold dear the notion that the law is an esteemed profession. (I particularly like Roscoe Pound’s definition of the legal profession as “a group…pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service—no less a public service because it may incidentally be a means of livelihood.”) And I am proud to be a member of that profession.

For this reason, I stress the nature of the profession and what it means to be a professional in the early days of Legal Profession. I often quote the Preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to emphasize that a lawyer does more than serve clients. “A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” I then use a series of hypothetical problems to work through what that triad of responsibilities means for lawyers. You can actually see the light bulb go off for some students.

I then tie the discussion into admission to the bar, which is a subject near and dear to the hearts of most law students. We talk about the character and fitness requirements of the bar application process (see example here), and how those relate to the professionalism expected of practicing lawyers. And one trait that I think always surprises students is financial irresponsibility—bar examiners have denied applicants’ admission to the bar for failing to pay or attend to their debt obligations, including student loans. As you might imagine, particularly given the current economic environment and the huge amount of debt assumed by students just to attend law school (see, e.g., here and here), this fact always gets students’ attention and sparks an interesting discussion.

You can never really tell how much students take away from any given class, but I think this semester’s Legal Profession class is off to a good start. Students are starting to incorporate a sense of responsibility to something greater than just a single client in responding to questions. And several students sent me email links to articles about professionalism (and financial irresponsibility) after class, which is always a good sign and something I appreciate. Hopefully, some of this newfound enthusiasm for professionalism will remain not only during law school but throughout their legal careers.

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2 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    “I know that many even inside the legal profession question whether it remains a profession or is now just a business and all about the bottom line.” — the question here is whether one’s looking at it normatively or positively. Normatively, I entirely agree with your position. From a positive perspective, perhaps the flag is still flying, but it’s definitely in tatters. The prominence of Chicago School economic thinking among law school faculty might be accelerating that shredding process, though the bigger contribution comes from the way market economics has hijacked the ethos of American society itself.

  2. Michelle Harner says:

    A.J.: Thank you for the comment. It will be interesting to see how the profession responds, particularly given the increasing use of outsourcing and packaging of legal products. Best regards, Michelle.