Professional Identity Formation -- Legal Education's Early Emphasis on Character, the Evisceration of this Priority, and What the First Law Schools Can Teach Us

87 Pages Posted: 18 Aug 2013 Last revised: 1 Oct 2014

Date Written: August 16, 2013


The concepts of "professionalism" and "professional identity" are often used interchangeably even though they are different. As this article explains, professionalism refers to the appropriate conduct of a lawyer, e.g., honesty, civility, practical judgment. However, a law student or lawyer who has not internalized these professional values is not likely to consistently exhibit them in practice. The breakthtrough of the concept of professional identity formation, in both the Carnegie Institute's Report and the Clinical Legal Association of America (CLEA) Best Practices for Legal Education (both published in 2007) was their recognition that law schools needed to help students develop a "professional identity." One's professional identity would be comprised of the values that the student will contemplate, reflect on, and ultimately internalize as the values held by "the kind of lawyer she wants to be." A surprisng number of effective teaching methods have been developed, som in other fields and some in law teaching, to help students reflect on their values, decide whether to internalize the values and to develop a method for resolving ethical and value judgments. With such teaching and practice, someone will have a foundation for making sensitive ethical decisions in situations that represent challenges. Such a person is more likely to act according to her values. The notion is as old as Socrates' observation: "We are what we repeatedly do." For those who have had value formation part of their law school experience and have developed a professional identity based on those values, they are far more likely to act consistently in ways that reflect professional values.

The article surveys the earliest law schools in America and how they made it a priority to address ethical values and cultivate a professional identity in their students. The article reviews how law schools, for a variety of reasons, moved away from this priority. The article thus recommends in part that law schools consider the practices of the earliest law schools, or at least their focus on professional value formation. Moreover, the article reviews how the ideas in Carnegie and Best Practices are being carried out in a number of modern law schools. These schools combine the wisdom of the early law schools' priority along with modern teaching methods. The results are courses that can serve as models for schools seeking to begin greater efforts at professional value and identity formation.

This article is distinctive in two ways. First, it draws a connection between the recent proposals for professional identity formation and character formation that the earliest American Law schools made a priority. Second, the article explains how professional identity formation ought to begin in the first year of law schools. Although developing professional values and identity througout the curriculum is important, the first year of law school may be the most important in the process of having students begin to form professional values and an identity. If the efforts wait until later, the results are likely to be diminished, in part because the law school itself in the first year will have created barriers to education designed to cultivate professional identity. These barriers are discussed in Carnegie and Best Practices and recounted here. Therefore, the article encourages any increased cultivation of professional values and identity and, in particular, efforts in the first year to introduce students to professional values that go beyond academic achievent and include the professional values that have been shown to be as important to effectiveness in practicing law as analytical skills.

Keywords: Legal Education, Legal Ethics, Professional Responsibility, Professional Identity, Carnegie Institute Educating Lawyers, Best Practictes for Legal Education, Professionalism, Moral Judgments, Ethics, Legal History, Affective Domain of Teaching

Suggested Citation

Madison III, Benjamin V., Professional Identity Formation -- Legal Education's Early Emphasis on Character, the Evisceration of this Priority, and What the First Law Schools Can Teach Us (August 16, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Benjamin V. Madison III (Contact Author)

Regent University School of Law ( email )

1000 Regent University Drive
Virginia Beach, VA 23464
United States
757.226.4586 (Phone)
757.226.4329 (Fax)


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