Developing a Professional Identity in Law School: A View from Australia

Phoenix Law Review, Vol. 4, pp. 19-50, 2010

ANU College of Law Research Paper No. 11-07

32 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2011

See all articles by Kath Hall

Kath Hall

ANU College of Law

Molly T. O'Brien

ANU College of Law

Stephen Tang

ANU College of Law

Date Written: 2010

Abstract

Preliminary results from our study of law student wellbeing at the Australian National University are consistent with results of studies in the US and elsewhere in Australia, suggesting that law students may begin to experience increased psychological distress, including symptoms of depression, in the first year of law school. In light of this evidence, the particular challenge facing legal education is to look at the study of law itself and examine how the pedagogy, substance, and approach of legal education impact students’ self concept and well-being. This paper begins that task by exploring the formation of professional identity in law school.

In making decisions about legal content, materials, and pedagogy, legal educators (often unconsciously) adopt and communicate assumptions about professional identity that may be outmoded, incomplete, and inappropriate for the students’ futures as legal professionals. The typical law school curriculum offers a conception of the lawyer identity that is impoverished by legal education’s over-emphasis on adversarialism, detached analysis, and competitive individualism. Each of these factors may contribute to undermining students’ sense of values, feelings of power and competence, and general sense of wellbeing. Students’ exposure to this inadequate formulation of professional identity comes at a critically important time in the formation of their identities, a time when we, as educators, ought to be particularly sensitive to the messages we send.

We encourage legal educators to correct the distorting effects of a poor conception of the legal professional identity by encouraging the development of key aspects of personality, such as empathy, that are currently under-emphasised in legal education. We also argue that by improving the ways in which the law school environment fosters resilience, legal educators will contribute to their students’ current and future well-being and to the revitalisation of the profession.

Keywords: Legal education, psychology, wellbeing, depression, stress, anxiety, identity, pedagogy, adversarialism, empathy, resilience

Suggested Citation

Hall, Kath and O'Brien, Molly Townes and Tang, Stephen, Developing a Professional Identity in Law School: A View from Australia (2010). Phoenix Law Review, Vol. 4, pp. 19-50, 2010, ANU College of Law Research Paper No. 11-07, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1802209

Kath Hall (Contact Author)

ANU College of Law ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200
Australia

Molly Townes O'Brien

ANU College of Law ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory Territory 0200
Australia
02-6125-0437 (Phone)

Stephen Tang

ANU College of Law ( email )

Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200
Australia

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