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Legal Education’s Ethical Challenge: Empirical Research on How Most Effectively to Foster Each Student’s Professional Formation (Professionalism)

78 Pages Posted: 15 Feb 2012 Last revised: 31 Oct 2012

Neil W. Hamilton

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)

Verna Monson

University of St. Thomas; Cultural Dynamics Consulting

Date Written: July 30, 2012


How law professors can integrate best practices in instructional methods that are empirically shown to foster professional formation or professionalism is the topic of this literature review. This nascent field of inquiry in legal education draws upon constructive-developmental approaches to professional formation, informed by an extensive body of empirical research and scholarship from ethics education in other professions. This interdisciplinary approach to defining, measuring, and teaching professionalism produced a definition that is a synthesis of scholarship across the professions that also is grounded in research with exemplars in the legal profession using in-depth interviews. Professionalism in law is thus defined as “an internalized moral core characterized by a deep responsibility to others, particularly the client, and some restraint on self-interest in carrying out this responsibility, a standard of excellence for technical skills, integrity, honesty, public service (particularly for the disadvantaged), and independent judgment and honest counsel.”

This review of pedagogies of professional formation drew upon peer-reviewed scholarship and research in applied fields of law, management, dentistry, medicine, and higher education as well as adult learning theories, lifespan developmental psychology, moral psychology, and the social psychology of education. Using a dynamic process model of morality as a framework for our inquiry, we identified four principles of effective instruction to foster formation, including (1) students arrive with unique backgrounds and abilities, and instruction should consider each student’s unique developmental level along a continuum of lifelong growth; (2) positive conflict, in which the learner is both sufficiently challenged and supported, is an essential element of professional formation spurring cognitive, emotional, and social development and growth in a holistic fashion; (3) throughout the curriculum instructors should foster in each student the habit of actively seeking feedback, moral dialogue and reflection (FDR); and (4) integrate opportunities for self-assessment and formative assessment throughout the curriculum.

Keywords: professional formation, legal education, pedagogy, professionalism, ethics education, ethical professional identity, lifespan developmental psychology

Suggested Citation

Hamilton, Neil W. and Monson, Verna, Legal Education’s Ethical Challenge: Empirical Research on How Most Effectively to Foster Each Student’s Professional Formation (Professionalism) (July 30, 2012). University of St. Thomas Law Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, 2012. Available at SSRN:

Neil Hamilton

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

MSL 400, 1000 La Salle Avenue
Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
United States

Verna Monson (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas ( email )

Minneapolis, MN 55403
United States

Cultural Dynamics Consulting ( email )

612 (Phone)

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