National Award for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching Professionalism
April 14, 2005
Thank you for the opportunity to be a finalist in this competition and to tell you more about the Legal Profession course at Mercer. I want to talk about the three goals of the course and how we are trying to meet them, and then I would be happy to respond to any questions.
The first goal, simply put, is classroom instruction in lawyer “Professionalism.” We believe that it is crucial for all students, at the outset of their legal education, to know what is expected of them and why. So the Legal Profession course is a required first year course, graded with the same weight and one the same scale as more traditional courses. All of our students emerge from the course with this instruction in common, as a baseline for all the learning they will do about professionalism, both in law school and beyond. We work early in the semester to a definition of professionalism and on an exploration of why lawyers are expected to comply with these expectations. We come eventually to a five-part definition that we use, and to some extent tinker with, throughout the rest of the semester. This is a crucial part of the course because students must have a vocabulary for talking about professionalism and a framework for analyzing questions of professionalism. One student wrote last year, as part of a reflection on the course, that the class had provided “a strange sort of legal lexicon, a way to approach ethical and moral problems of the profession and a system to work through them.” That vocabulary and framework are things that we believe every student should have, so that they understand what professionalism means and why it is so important, and so that they view the problems of the profession through the prism of that coomon understanding.
Also as part of this instruction in professionalism we survey a number of practice areas, from big firms through solo practitioners, and we discuss what pressures these various work environments put on the various values of professionalism. Deborah Rhode once wrote that “many students launch their legal careers with little understanding of what lawyers actually do and how the demands of practice are likely to affect their lives.” Our commitment is that this will not be true for Mercer students. For example, when we discuss the economic structure of big firm practice, and we look at the pyramid structure and the billable hour, the students begin to appreciate that living up to the values of professionalism sometimes, in context, will be difficult. With the knowledge of what professionalism means, why it matters, and how life as a lawyer can challenge it, we turn to a discussion of how the profession promotes and enforces professionalism. We touch on such topics as legal education, the bar exam, character and fitness requirements, malpractice liability, aspirational civility codes, and bar discipline, all in the context of how, and how well, each of these promotes professionalism among lawyers. This material is covered over thirty class hours in a conventional format, and is covered on the final exam.
Our second goal is to help students understand that life in the law is both more rewarding and, in many ways, more challenging than they might have expected. This part of the course focuses on the individual experience of the lawyer rather than the structural expectations and programs of the bar. The students begin this part of the course with an anonymous reflective essay that asks them to write about their hopes, dreams, and ambitions as lawyers and as people about to enter the legal profession. It continues with a series of five class meetings, which are held at different times and in a different venue form the “regular” class to emphasize that they have a different focus. In these classes, we look at questions such as why life in the law is a life worth choosing, quite apart from any economic rewards of practice. We examine causes, consequences and remedies for problems such as alcoholism and depression that are far too common among lawyers. The students also hear from distinguished guest speakers about ways to deal with the pressures of practice and, beyond coping, ways to find deep meaning, or a higher calling, in what they will do as lawyers. One of these classes explores the potential connection between faith and the practice of law. The students then conclude the semester with another reflective essay, in which they are asked in light of the course to comment again on their hopes and dreams and ambitions as lawyers and whether the course changed them.
This part of the course is also about professionalism, although at first less obviously so to the students. As the students begin to understand the rewards of practice that are not monetary, rewards that flow from becoming a being a certain kind of person in their profession, they begin to see the connection between the values of professionalism and finding happiness and meaning in the practice of law. When this course was first being discussed among the Mercer faculty, before I ever joined it, the course was described by my colleague Jack Sammons as being less about what to do and more about who to become. Through this examination of the individual journey of the lawyer toward finding meaning, it is our hope that we inspire the students to find that meaning in the intrinsic satisfaction of being the type of lawyer whose life and practice exemplify the values of professionalism. As one student commented:
“Now looking back at what we have learned in this class, after reading about lawyers, meeting with an outstanding one, I see that in order to be content with practicing law, I cannot escape professionalism and its principles. I could be the dirtiest, sleaziest, slimy character out there, serving my own self interests; but it seems that such a path would only lead to me being miserable. The true joy of practicing law seems to derive from being professional. If you had told me this before this class, I would have probably laughed. From all that I have read and seen, I see that the key to being happy as a lawyer is aspiring to meet the standards of professionalism that we discussed.”
This connection, between professionalism and the individual experience in practice, is what is crucial to this second goal.
The third goal is for the students to understand that they are not alone in facing the challenges of living up to the values of professionalism in the face of many difficult challenges. Mary Ann Glendon once wrote that one thing law professors can do for students is to help them understand the tradition that they are joining and to help them learn about the great lawyers who have come before them, so that in times of doubt or trouble they might find sustenance from that connection. We try to do that in two ways in the Legal profession course. The first is that the students are required to conduct a brief “oral history” of a local senior member of our Inn of Court. Many of the students found this part of the course to be the most meaningful experience they had, and you have in the packet some of their comments. They go, in professional attire, to meet a real-life lawyer or judge in the lawyer’s office or the judge’s chambers, and they hear the stories. They see in flesh and blood someone who has withstood the challenges of practice, who has found joy and satisfaction in doing so, and who wants to extend a welcoming and helping hand to new members of the profession. The students also read a biography of a famous lawyer or judge and participate in a discussion group about it. My hope here is to alert them to the abundance of stories about great lawyers and maybe even to get them started on a life-long habit of reading them. That history and tradition, as well as the memory of the living example of professionalism they interviewed, may stay with them as they leave the protected environment of law school and face the challenges that inevitably await them. They need to know the traditions of their profession, and feel a connection to it.
So these are our goals and how we try to fulfill them. We are constantly trying to improve the course, but I am convinced we are succeeding. As one student wrote at the end of last year:
“Knowing ahead of time of the stresses, pressures, hardships, demands and tensions that I will no doubt encounter along the way will surely make them much, much easier to deal with when they do arise. More important than whether or how my ambitions as a lawyer and as a person have changed is the fact that I know a lot more about how to achieve those ambitions. I think that most people in my class, whether we could articulate it or not, essentially wanted to be all of the good things we talked about lawyers being this semester. And I don’t think that anyone feels differently in that regard as a result of taking this class. The most important thing that I am taking away from this semester is that being a good lawyer and a good person at the same time is, without a doubt harder than I realized. But it is also very possible. There are probably a lot of lawyers along the way that have either given up on the profession or, worse than that, on themselves as a result of not knowing the things that we all now know. I don’t think that will happen to any of us because we know what to expect.”
Thank you for the chance to make those comments. Now I would be happy to respond to any questions.