Illustration by Katie McBride
Illustration by Katie McBride

When considering whether to represent a client, a lawyer takes many factors into account. They determine whether their skills are the right match for the client’s problem, in addition to matters of budget, timeline, and other logistical considerations.

But what happens when the client wants to pursue a course of action that, although technically legal, the lawyer finds morally repugnant? Perhaps a client in a divorce case wants to try to gain the upper hand by creating a needless custody dispute, or a client suing for damages in a liability case wants to prolong litigation just to drive up the opponent’s costs. The American Bar Association’s Rules of Conduct allow for an attorney to withdraw from representation under such 
circumstances — but what values guide the attorney in making that decision?

Lawyers and lawyers-in-training are tackling questions like these as they increasingly embrace the concept of “professional identity formation.” And the idea is gaining momentum in legal education. A new proposal by the American Bar Association would require law schools to offer professional identity formation to students. Law schools have begun launching their own special programs or courses in professional identity formation, and, in 2019, Richmond Law joined those ranks with the hire of Janice Craft. The former legal services director for the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Alliance heads the law school’s new Professional Identity Formation program, working in partnership with other faculty members to develop courses and experiential opportunities in professional identity.

What, exactly, is professional identity formation?

At its simplest, it’s the process by which a law student decides what kind of lawyer they want to be — not in the sense of “trial attorney” versus “real estate lawyer,” but what values and traits they intend to embody. Craft offers a more comprehensive definition, describing professional identity as a lawyer’s awareness of their skills, strengths, attributes, and motivating interests relative to the values, competencies, and conventions of legal practice.

“I tend to think of professional identity as that in-between space in decision making,” Craft said, “where a student, and later a practitioner, has to decide on a course of conduct that’s not explicitly prescribed by our ethical codes of conduct or our professional rules of conduct.” Take, for example, a concept as simple as boundary setting. Rules of conduct call for lawyers to keep clients “reasonably” informed and to “promptly” respond to clients’ “reasonable” requests for information. But when a client calls an attorney at 11 p.m., it’s up to the attorney to decide whether to take the call, balancing personal priorities against professional expectations.

The ABA’s Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools address curricular requirements in Standard 303, which calls for law schools to provide “substantial opportunities” to students in the form of legal clinics, field placements, and pro bono services. The proposed amendment would add “the development of a professional identity” to the list of required offerings.

An illustration of a lawyer holding up a mirror and seeing themself and a courtroom in the background. The proposed change is part of a larger national movement that has its roots in medical education. Medicine “sort of bested us,” Craft said, in teaching identity formation. Professional identity also gets attention in other health care fields and in social work — areas that, not coincidentally, have a focus on customer service. Beyond developing an awareness of self, students who engage in identity formation “begin to internalize that ours is a service profession,” Craft said, “and they become very deeply client- and other-oriented.”

Professionalism versus Professional Identity

Proponents of professional identity formation are quick to clarify its difference from the concept of professionalism. Professional identity formation is not a replacement for the professional responsibility course that’s already part of the law school curriculum. “Professionalism really refers more to the external norms and expectations of the profession,” Craft explained. “Professional identity formation is the flip side of that — the internal development of the professional.” If professionalism is an external rule of etiquette — say, deference to a judge in the courtroom — then professional identity is the internalized decision-making process over how to address a judge who, for example, persistently misgenders a client.

Professional identity also plays a role in areas like pro bono service and mentorship. “We have aspirational goals for pro bono service, but it’s not required of attorneys,” Craft said. Similarly, while the profession recognizes the importance of mentorship, no one is required to be a mentor. Through the examination of professional identity, a new lawyer might develop a better sense of why and how they want to contribute.

Professionalism and professional identity formation intersect in several ways at Richmond Law. Each year, dozens of students complete a summer public interest fellowship administered through the career development office. Craft now meets with the students to unpack their work; the idea is to talk about what the experience was like, what they learned about the profession, and how it affected the direction they were headed. Students continue that work through curricular and co-curricular offerings that open the door to self-reflection and self-assessment.

In the Classroom

Craft dedicated the inaugural year of the Professional Identity Formation Program to the process of research and discovery. A team of Richmond Law faculty laid the groundwork for that study in the lead-up to Craft’s hire — work that included consulting with other schools that have created similar programs, as well as visiting the Holloran Center at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, a pioneer in emphasizing professional identity formation.

One of Craft’s first steps was to recruit a student advisory board to help inform curriculum development. Starting in the 2021–22 academic year, 1L students will have a required course in professional identity formation in which they’ll consider hypotheticals and examine the role of lawyers in society. They’ll also engage in what Craft described as “reflection and metacognition exercises — really thinking about how they learn best and how they most effectively integrate what they have learned.”

That course will lay the foundation. “One thing that’s critical for us is that identity formation is something that starts early and intentionally and continues throughout the law school endeavor,” Craft said. That means offering upper-level specialty courses, too, on topics such as professionalism, leadership, or the relatively new area of trauma-informed lawyering — best practices for working with clients who have endured a traumatic experience such as an abusive relationship, a flood or fire, or a death.

We want students very early on to normalize the concept of wellness.

In addition to those courses, Craft anticipates that the core principles of professional identity formation — reflection, client-centeredness, and self-direction — will also be incorporated into existing courses. It doesn’t have to mean drastic changes to a professor’s teaching style; instead, it might be a slight adjustment in the phrasing of a question — asking a student, “If you were an attorney in this case, how would you frame this argument, and why?” Said Craft: “It’s about shifting the student’s perspective from, ‘What is the holding in this case?’ to, ‘How would I, as a professional, advocate on behalf of this client?’”

In some ways, professional identity formation is already at work in the classroom setting. “Even if we did nothing explicitly to inform students about what it’s like to be a professional, implicitly we are always telling students — by modeling behaviors, by talking about choices that people make,” said Laura Webb, professor of law, legal practice, who recently became associate dean for strategic initiatives. So, for example, “If I come in to class every day in sweatpants, I’m modeling for students what it means to be a professional in the legal world,” she said. It’s what’s referred to in legal education as the “hidden curriculum.” Webb explained, “One of the problems of the hidden curriculum is that because it’s not explicit, we sometimes inadvertently give students messages that we don’t intend to give them, like that it’s a good idea to wear sweatpants to work.”

Beyond the Classroom

In addition to coursework, another natural training ground for professional identity formation is experiential learning, where students put into practice the lessons and principles learned in class. The summer public interest fellowships are one example; others include legal clinics and externships. And, as with the summer fellowships, Craft wants students to “intentionally reflect” afterward, asking themselves what did or didn’t work for them and how they might do things differently. “Students occupy the role of a professional in clinical and externship settings,” said Craft. “Now, let’s be intentional about examining that role.”

The professional identity program also intersects with the law school’s efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion. According to Craft, it involves thinking about how race and gender might affect the core competencies of lawyering. A 2016 study by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) identified some of those core competencies; for example, an overwhelming majority of attorneys agreed that new lawyers must treat others with courtesy and respect. The study of professional identity formation might ask how race and gender stereotypes impact others’ perceptions of whether a lawyer is courteous or respectful. Craft offered an example: “If a woman joins a male-dominated firm and points 
to firm policies that appear less than inclusive, will a partner surmise that she is being disrespectful?” The issue is compounded, Craft said, for Black attorneys, who are up against “angry Black man/woman/person” stereotypes.

From Legal Education to the Profession

Professional identity formation may sound all well and good as a component of legal education. But what does it look like when it comes time to execute in the professional field?

The 2016 IAALS study identified the “foundations for practice” — the “competencies, skills, and characteristics new lawyers need to be ready.” According to Webb, those skills — such as initiative, emotional intelligence, leadership, and problem-solving — make better lawyers. “It’s not just knowing the law or being able to draft a contract,” Webb said. “It’s all the other characteristics that make you a whole, effective lawyer.” It might seem like a straightforward concept, but the shift in focus from exclusively teaching legal doctrine to adding skills-based training is relatively new. And the end result benefits not just the lawyer, but the employer and the client, as well. Janet Hutchinson, the law school’s associate dean for career development, put it this way: “Students who come to work having the skills that they’re learning in a professional development course are going to be better off because they’re going to make better choices about the kinds of employment that are a good fit for them.” That, in turn, adds up to longevity in employment.

An illustration of a hand holding a magnifying glass over a contract. It’s also clear to Hutchinson that employers value those skills. She pointed to the way many law firms have created their own professional development departments, teaching professional competencies such as critical thinking, judgment, and collaboration to their lawyers. “If our students have a jump start on that,” Hutchinson said, “that can only be a good thing.”

A Wellness Approach

Professional identity discussions include a lot of talk about lawyers’ own values, strengths, and interests — which begs the question: What strengths or attributes are particularly helpful for a lawyer to develop? In other words, what does good professional identity formation look like?

Ren Warden, L’22, is a member of the Professional Identity Formation student advisory board that Craft created early on. “I think as a society we have this idea of lawyers being heartless,” Warden said — “that we as lawyers aren’t culturally sensitive or empathetic enough.” For her, empathy stands out as a core trait for successful lawyers. “We need to be able to relate to our clients,” she said.

Webb sees it this way: A lawyer who has spent time developing professional identity might be more inclined to think about how they can be of service to a client and how they can make a contribution within the larger legal profession. “I’m not just drafting a contract,” she said. “I’m actually in some way serving justice. I’m representing you in a world where I believe people should be able to make promises to each other and those promises should be upheld.”

Another core concept of professional identity formation is empathy with one’s self, in the form of mental and physical well-being. Studies even suggest that wellness is linked to ethics. Said Craft: “We see attorneys run into ethical issues not because they’re inherently unethical, but because of burnout.” That burnout might take the form of unmet deadlines, missing a scheduled hearing, or even mishandling financial accounts. “We want students very early on to normalize the concept of wellness and to recognize wellness as essential to their professional success,” Craft said. Warden agreed: “The better we treat ourselves, the more efficient we can be for others, too.”

In many ways, that’s what the entire movement is about: becoming a better lawyer — a better advocate, a better employee, a better person — by fostering self-awareness.

Emily Cherry is assistant dean for communications and strategic initiatives at Richmond Law.