Ethical Professional (Trans)Formation: Early Career Lawyers Make Sense of Professionalism
University of St. Thomas Law Journal, November 6, 2010
48 Pages Posted: 1 Jan 2011 Last revised: 7 Dec 2012
Date Written: December 31, 2010
This study investigated early-career lawyers’ understanding of professionalism using Robert Kegan’s theory of lifespan identity development. Kegan’s theory posits that the capacity for growth in mental complexity (i.e., identity development) can increase throughout the lifespan, and that one’s level of mental complexity shapes how one makes sense of the self in relation to others and to society. We assessed Kegan’s stages of mental complexity using a short essay survey of lawyers four and five years into their careers after their graduation from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, Minnesota (n=37). We used content analysis of responses about the meaning of professionalism to identify themes, which included: (1) the importance of successful relationships; (2) competence at the technical skills of lawyering; (3) growth in understanding professionalism; (4) compliance with the professional rules; and (5) honesty or other personal characteristics viewed as central to professionalism. We also conducted in-depth interviews (n=7) to assess developmental stage and to gauge the construct validity of the online questionnaire assessment on professionalism. The implications for legal education are that ethical professional identity, or professionalism, can be empirically assessed, and that growth occurs from law school through the early years of lawyers’ careers. The ethical professional identity assessment can be used (1) by faculty, coaches, or mentors to assess and to foster student development of professionalism; and (2) to assess law school outcomes related to professionalism. Implications for law firms and bar organizations include the use of this assessment in professional development and coaching of associates and as an assessment tool in mentoring programs. This study also provides a baseline of identity development for early career lawyers.
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