By Jennifer Rosato
Northern Illinois University College of Law
An increased commitment to professionalism is becoming more evident in law schools today. There are a number of possible reasons, including the "Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of TeachingReport" recommending that law schools include more educational experiences that integrate legal doctrine, skills and values. Other influences include the role of lawyers in high-profile ethical breaches; the frequency of ethical transgressions in law schools; inexperienced lawyers; and pressure on law schools to make graduating students more practice-ready, including the ability to navigate ethical issues. Whatever the reasons, this commitment to professionalism is most welcome.
Determining that a commitment to professionalism in law schools is desirable requires us to ask: What is the content of the professional responsibility we should be teaching? This content can be defined broadly, so long as it leads us to achieve the highest values of the profession. They are defined as much more than the behavior necessary to avoid a disciplinary proceeding or a malpractice claim. They are sometimes referred to as "aspirational values" and include values such as diversity, civility and access to justice. These are values that all law students should be learning. For example, achieving diversity in the legal profession (and law schools) should be a core value and yet the goal eludes us in the hiring and retention of lawyers of color (among other areas). As a profession, we need to continue to understand why our efforts to diversity so far have had such limited results, better understand the barriers toward greater diversity and make an unwavering commitment to diversity — which begins as students in law school.
Countering incivility in the profession also begins in law school by modeling civility as professors in the classroom (professor Kingsfield would not have been such a good role model); then by discussing the harms that incivility causes to the profession; and teaching students how to be effective, zealous advocates for their clients without having to resort to "scorched earth tactics."
Access to justice is a goal that many law schools have made a strong commitment to through clinical programs that serve needy clients in their communities and pro bono opportunities for their students. The challenge is inculcating the commitment to pro bono beyond law school, when there are greater pressures on lawyers to serve paying clients and balance personal commitments.
Above all, teaching professionalism means guiding students in developing their own moral compasses. Many students have not learned how to make ethically based judgments in their personal or professional lives. They need safe educational spaces for guided discussions to identify moral dilemmas and to think carefully about the implications of their decisions for their clients, third parties, the court (or other decision-maker) and themselves. When it is not clear what the most ethical decision may be, students need to be able to navigate through and balance the appropriate considerations in any given context.
Guiding students in developing their moral compasses and aspiring to the highest values of the profession is not an easy task. In the past, ethics training had been relegated to a required two- or three-credit class, often in the third year of law school. Many students did not take the course or the subject seriously and that attitude was justified in part because law schools did not take ethical training seriously. One course at the end of law school certainly was not enough for effective training and it sent the message that this subject did not matter very much. More law schools are recognizing that ethics training — like any other training — requires the teaching of fundamentals and the building of deeper, integrated knowledge over time.
First, professionalism "basics" must be taught in the first year of law school and allow students to grapple with ethical dilemmas as well as understand the core values of the profession. They need to understand that professionalism and acting like a lawyer begins at orientation and is reflected in everything they do: From e-mails they send to how they comport themselves outside of class.
Second, professionalism training must be broadened and deepened throughout the students' legal education. This integrated training should be part of doctrinal classes, clinics and externships or other experiential learning as well as co-curricular and extracurricular activities. They should consistently be asking the "ethics questions" and thinking about the right thing to do in every context until it becomes part of their professional DNA.
Law schools need not embark on this undertaking alone. They should partner with organizations with a similar devotion to ethical training, such as local and state bar associations. The Commission on Professionalism is committed to initiatives and collaborations that further values such as civility and diversity. The American Bar Association has been involved with activities that range from issuing reports on diversity to sponsoring programs on implicit bias.
Successfully training the next generation of lawyers — who are ethical as well as knowledgeable — is one of the most important challenges today. It will make a profound difference in the future of the profession.