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Professionalism in the Postmodern Age: It's Death, Attempts at Resuscitation, and Alternative Sources of Virtue

16 Pages Posted: 7 Oct 2007 Last revised: 30 Aug 2009

Robert F. Cochran

Pepperdine University School of Law

Date Written: 2000


There is a new emphasis on professionalism within legal education and the organized bar. Lawyers are being called on to go beyond the incentives of the market and beyond the requirements of the professional rules - to seek justice, to be more honest and tolerant, to be less adversarial and selfish, and to give more of their time and resources to the poor. The moral basis for this call to services is lawyers' status as professionals. This focus on professionalism comes at a time when the reputation of the legal profession has fallen to new depths. This article examines whether in this postmodern world the traditional concepts of professionalism can be resuscitated or whether a new moral ground is needed. The traditional professional ideals were built on a deeply rooted moral foundation that was widely shared among the bar. In the 1960s and 70s, however, the elitist foundations of professionalism began to crumble. Increased diversity in the profession and postmodern thoughts that there was no moral truth undercut the possibility of a pervasive professional ethic. The result of these postmodern teachings have left each lawyer to create his or her own meaning of "professionalism." The modern concept of professionalism is both too weak and too dangerous to yield the responsible exercise of professional power. Instead, the key to renewed virtue in lawyers is to look within the diversity of the profession for moral insight. As the traditional idea of professionalism has failed, lawyers now need to look to their own personal traditions to define virtue. Morality is likely to take hold and to affect one's life when it is drawn not from the ethical considerations of the profession, but from the deepest source of values of that person.

Keywords: professionalism, legal ethics, morality

JEL Classification: K49

Suggested Citation

Cochran, Robert F., Professionalism in the Postmodern Age: It's Death, Attempts at Resuscitation, and Alternative Sources of Virtue (2000). Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2000. Available at SSRN:

Robert F. Cochran (Contact Author)

Pepperdine University School of Law ( email )

24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263
United States
310-456-4684 (Phone)
310-456-4063 (Fax)

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