The University of St. Thomas

The Meaning of Professionalism in Law: A Preview of Research at the Holloran Center

Published on: Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Part 1. The Meaning of Professionalism: A Preview of Our Research and Approach

(c) Verna E. Monson, Ph.D., Research Fellow
Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions

The following is Part 1 of a four-part series that offers a preview of the Holloran Center’s research on professionalism in law. We welcome your thoughts or questions. Verna Monson,

The Holloran Center is observing some milestones this winter with our research agenda: One, an article on professionalism and its relationship to effectiveness in legal practice, just published in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics; a second article on entering law students’ understanding of professionalism, in press with the Journal of the Legal Profession; and three, the completion of interviews with 12 exemplary attorneys and 7 alumni, plus an survey of 40 alumni, all focused on the meaning of professionalism. This four-part blog series previews some highlights from our results. This research stems from the Carnegie Foundation’s report on the importance of ethical professional formation or professionalism, and the need for law schools to focus on scholarship and research on how best to foster its development in law school.

Part 1 gives an overview of the theory that guides our research, from education in the professions and moral psychology. Part 2 reviews our approach to assessing identity formation. Part 3 delves into one of the themes that emerged through the data analysis process, that of the role of mentors in fostering growth of professionalism, along with the implications for women entering the legal profession. In Part 4, the connection between the growth of professionalism, ethical climate in law firms, and impact of gender stereotypes and bias is discussed, drawing upon some recent research findings out of Stanford University, a summary which is contained in Discover magazine’s blog. In the full versions of our research articles, there will, of course, be many more themes and topics addressed.

Last summer, Professor Neil Hamilton and I conducted interviews with professionalism award winners recognized as exemplars by their peers through Minnesota state and local bar associations. Ten interviewees worked in large and medium law firms, and two were from small not-for-profit agencies. All were randomly selected from lists obtained through the web. How do some of the exemplary lawyers in the Twin Cities think about professionalism?

To funnel almost 100 pages of interview transcript data into a single sentence might look like the following: The meaning of professionalism in law evolves from less to more complex as lawyers deal with the internal conflict that occurs in the process of defining the self and one’s professional role. Note that our focus in the final analysis was more about the experience and stories of these lawyers that related to professionalism, than about their personality characteristics or upbringing. However, our exemplary lawyers did come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were more extroverted, some introverted. We found exemplary professionalism to be a phenomenon that cuts across personality, background, or religious background, and is instead unified by core tenets that comprise a more complex, manifestation of professionalism.

Where We Are Coming From: Theoretical and Empirical Grounding
We drew upon the work of Mickey Bebeau at the University of Minnesota, a nationally recognized scholar on ethics education in the professions, whose work in development and validation of assessments of moral capacities provided us with a guide. Mickey’s work focuses on moral issues in the context of the professions. The centerpiece of her work is the curriculum and assessments used in dental ethics programs, based on the Four Component Model (FCM) of moral behavior of the late James Rest. The FCM states that awareness of a moral problem is necessary before the problem can be addressed through reasoning and justifying our decisions. One must also be internally motivated to follow-through on one’s decisions, and possess the interpersonal ability to carry out the plan of action.

Mickey led ethicists and exemplary practitioners in a process of defining the highest levels of ethical decisions in the profession of dentistry. Similarly, through our interviews with exemplary attorneys, we are taking a first step in defining the highest levels of professionalism in law. In the future, we plan on further replication with expert groups, including judges and law professors.

Why did we choose the FCM? Why not an approach that draws on virtues, ethical theory, or personality traits? We chose the FCM because (1) it integrates thought and emotion, (2) it takes the view that people are capable of change, growth, or development, with education and with sufficient challenges; (3) it is associated with best practices in the field of measurement and assessment; and (4) it encompasses multiple variables associated with moral development, including motivation, perception, religion, interpersonal skills, and religion, to name a few.

When we speak with audiences about our work, particularly those unfamiliar with moral psychology, we’re sometimes asked if our approach is one that leads to moral relativism – that no one moral stance is superior to another’s. The answer is no, but we’re not surprised by the question. In recent years, a wave of interest in “social intuitionist” moral theory occurred in scientific journals, as well as the popular and trade press, led by psychologist Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia. Social intuitionist theory posits that most moral decision making results primarily from intuition or emotion, not reason. Haidt contends that most moral reasoning is a post hoc justification process. The idea suggests that moral decisions spring forth from the least evolved or complex part of our minds, leading to a view of morality as an individualistic endeavor, unmoored from core social values that hold society together. David Brooks, op-ed columnist from the New York Times, got on the bandwagon last year declaring “The End of Philosophy” – stating there is a new “emotional approach to morality.” In his critique of Haidt’s theory in his new book, “The Moral Landscape,” neuroscientist Sam Harris states:

Haidt is right to notice that the brain’s emotional circuitry often governs our moral intuitions … but it does not follow that there are no right and wrong answers to questions of morality. (p. 89)

Haidt’s more recent writing contains some self-admitted contradictions, such as “Morality is universal, yet culturally variable.” Noting the universal need for social cooperation and the moral implications that are essentially universal, Haidt calls for further research on the social aspects of morality, and in particular, the role of religion. For example, in a 2007 article in Science magazine, Haidt points out research on religiosity and the brain. Citing research of Andrew Newberg and his colleagues, authors of “Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief,” he points out that these researchers “found that religious experiences often involved decreased activity in brain areas that maintain maps of the self’s boundaries and position, consistent with widespread reports that mystical experiences involve feelings of merging with God or the universe.” We find this recent scholarship valuable, but not necessarily new. Jim Rest’s Four Component Model foreshadowed the importance of emotion, cognition, and the role of social institutions in fostering enduring values and perspective taking as early as 1983.

To summarize, we are building on a work in ethics education that utilizes a conceptual approach that while it was articulated almost three decades ago, but is enduring, contemporary, and most importantly, is empirically validated, permitting us to build on existing measures and applications to professions education. In our study with exemplars and alumni, we began with moral identity. Building on the work of Robert Kegan, we view identity as a balance of tensions between the need to expand our awareness of others, including the profession and society, and the need to retain the core elements of our identity, in a type of yin / yang dynamic. Part 2 of this series will preview our approach.

What is the meaning of professionalism to you, personally? I’d like to hear from you either by commenting below, or sending me an email, at

One Response to “The Meaning of Professionalism in Law: A Preview of Research at the Holloran Center”

  1. Your blog is a good resource. Thanks so much.