You’ve been recognized for your efforts to teach professionalism. How long have you been doing this, and what got you started?
We have always believed that a central tenet of our teaching in Legal Methods
is to show that professionalism is required both for successful law study and for successful law practice. The legal writing classroom is the perfect forum for raising professionalism issues, given that the basic skills we teach are required of all law professionals, regardless of substantive area of practice.
Our videos are one vehicle to foster a discussion of professionalism concepts that go beyond the skills that are at the core of the Legal Methods curriculum (those of research, case reading, case synthesis, statutory analysis and analogical reasoning, to name a few). The impetus for creating the videos came from our observation that students seemed to understand the importance of professionalism better when they are actively involved in the discussion of what is professional behavior. Our goal in creating the videos was to make stories about professionalism lapses "come alive" in a video format.
We were very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see our teaching idea come to fruition when we received a teaching grant from the Association of Legal Writing Directors in 2009. The grant provided the seed money for our video project, and we received additional financial support from Widener. With this money, we created our first three videos, now available on Widener Law's website at http://law.widener.edu/Academics/LegalMethods/ProfessionalismVideos.aspx
. These three videos each follow the pattern of demonstrating certain behavior in law school and the problems associated with that same behavior if it were continued in practice.
For example, one video shows the repercussions of a student arriving late for a conference with a professor, and that same student, as an attorney, arriving late for a court appearance. In addition to focusing on timeliness, the video raises issues of preparedness, professional demeanor, and respect for colleagues and the court. The similar conduct in different factual settings highlights that habits (good or bad) are formed early on, and that poor habits have negative consequences for the lawyer and his or her client.
After completing the first three videos, we had the opportunity to work with Aspen Publishing to produce six additional video vignettes that raise additional professionalism issues. Those videos and teaching materials are available to the public on Aspen's website at http://www.readyforpractice.com/Videos/ProfessionalismVideos.aspx
Our goal for all the videos was to provide professors like us with a platform to get students actively engaged in the discussion of professionalism concepts. Rather than lecturing students about professionalism, professors can use the videos to discuss professionalism issues with students and let students evaluate the behavior for themselves.
Presumably you believe this to be a necessary component of legal education. True? If so, why?
Yes, we do believe that it is our responsibility to provide professionalism instruction to our students. We want to be clear about what our videos and other materials aim to teach. When we use the term "professionalism education," we are referring to instruction that seeks to teach students the core "values" of a legal professional. This kind of instruction should go beyond the traditional legal ethics course and beyond the practical research, reading, and writing skills we teach in Legal Methods. Instead of talking about what the Rules of Professional Conduct require in terms of "lawyerly" behavior, we think it is important to engage our students in a broader dialogue about what the customs and mores of our profession are, to ensure that our students truly are "practice-ready" at graduation.
Thus, many of the tenets we mention above, i.e., timeliness, courtesy, preparedness, etc., are traits we would expect of a person engaged in the practice of law, even if the Rules of Professional Conduct don't specifically give guidelines on these kinds of behaviors.
As legal educators, we are responsible for teaching our students the importance of conducting themselves in a professional manner from the moment they enter law school. As Dean Ammons
tells students on the first day of law school orientation, each of them begins his or her legal career on that day. We strive to foster in our students the sense that upon entering law school, they are taking the first steps towards building a professional identity. We believe it's important to identify and teach traits, habits, and appropriate behaviors to which law students can aspire in forming their professional identities. Is there debate in legal education about the value of teaching professionalism?
To the extent there is the debate around teaching professionalism, it is often about whether it's possible. Some believe that values cannot be taught in law school since values are already set when students reach law school. But there's empirical evidence to the contrary, suggesting that the development of a professional identity continues well into early adulthood. Thus, law school is the perfect place to foster discussion of these issues.
What is the future of professionalism education in law schools?
The future of professionalism education is encouraging. Our scholarly research confirms that professionalism education is gaining increasing attention and focus in law schools' curriculum. One reason is that with so many new lawyers graduating each year, it's difficult to find enough mentors to guide all of them in developing the skills and traits expected by the profession. In addition, with the financial pressures on law firms, recent graduates are expected to "hit the ground running." Long apprenticeships are no longer the norm; law schools must help students acquire the skills, traits, and habits necessary to join the profession as full participants immediately upon graduation.
Widener has made a big commitment to professionalism education, not just supporting our video project, but also embedding professionalism instruction throughout the Legal Methods curriculum, including speakers at orientation, and devoting resources to Professional Development Day, to name just a few. We are excited to be part of the growing community of teachers and scholars developing this critical aspect of the law school curriculum.