The University of St. Thomas

April 18th, 2011

Ethical Professional Identity Formation

Published on: Monday, April 18th, 2011

The Meaning of Professionalism in Law: Part 2
Ethical Professional Identity Formation

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

The following is Part 2 of a four-part series that offers a preview of the Holloran Center’s research on professionalism in law.

Professor Neil Hamilton recently spoke at a symposium on Leadership in Law at the University of Santa Clara about our study of ethical professional identity, or professionalism, on March 25th. In the study, we asked twelve lawyers, all peer-honored exemplars of professionalism in corporate, legal aid, or non-profit organizations, how they defined professionalism, and how that definition has evolved throughout their career. As we prepare the scholarly version of the paper, we wanted to share some of the ideas that influenced us, and continue to shape how we are thinking about professionalism.

Ethical professional identity, or professionalism, is about the question of “why be moral” as an attorney, a physician, a nurse, a professor, or a member of the clergy. We used an in-depth interview method to explore aspects of the “why be moral” question, borrowing from the work of Robert Kegan, a lifespan developmental psychologist at Harvard. Unlike theorists who compartmentalize concepts like “justice” and “care,” or examine just one element of decision making such as emotion, cognition, or social influences, Kegan’s approach is holistic – recognizing that these elements are interdependent, and can’t easily be parsed in the same way that your doctor’s lab can measure your LDL and HDL cholesterol levels.

Kegan’s theory emphasizes that people can change throughout a lifetime to become less egocentric, more responsible, and more effective and authentic, and that there is a pattern to how this development occurs. Kegan’s ideas run counter to more popular personality theories that emphasize “types,” or a common view of lay persons that by the time young adults finish college or prepare to enter a profession, it’s too late to influence how they think or how they prioritize moral issues in the professional role. In fact, in their book “Immunity to Change,” Kegan and his co-author, Lisa Lahey, report on over two decades of research finding significant variation in the complexity of ideas or stage of development within each age group. They find that most adults reach a developmental stage where the predominant emphasis is on belonging, mutuality, and reciprocity in social relationships – which although it is important, can substitute for a process of discerning one’s own distinct identity or point of view. According to Kegan, with this ability to self-define one’s identity, comes increasing ability to be authentic or to resist negative influences. This idea, of course, is not new and one can find elements of it in literature and philosophy throughout history (e.g., Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true” or Socrates’ “the unexamined life is not worth living”).

The importance of this critical process of self definition, in the professions, is that one of the main factors in ethical lapses is “getting caught up” in the social milieu of competition or cutting corners, ethically. The difference between being able to step back and take perspective of one’s self, and judge whether our natural need for belonging and affiliation are creating ethical blindspots, is the most important developmental marker of adulthood, according to scholars using Kegan’s approach.

Among our exemplars, we heard many stories of lawyers self defining their professional role, of holding fast to their ethical values, and upholding the highest ideals and core principles of the profession within the firm, clients, or the judicial system. But we also heard stories of leadership — of seeking out experts who could challenge one’s assumptions and beliefs, of leading change in the profession, or of devoting significant time and effort to serve those with the greatest need for legal services, among some of the world’s most oppressed and impoverished regions. We observed not only the highest levels of internalized professionalism, but also, highly effective and authentic leaders. We refer to this as “Transformational Professionalism,” a nod to Kegan’s highest stage of development, Self Transformation.

In sum, together with our studies of entering law students and early career lawyers, we see critical differences in the level of complexity, or stages, of ethical professional identity between our exemplars and younger, novice attorneys. Furthermore, ideas about professionalism evolve to a greater extent as challenges or failures offer us hidden lessons with which we can change the very way we see ourselves and others.

What are the implications for legal education? For law schools, clearly defining what we mean by competencies associated with professionalism, and pointing out the highest levels of professionalism to inspire future lawyers are important. Hearing the importance of self-reflection among our exemplars reinforced our view that the intentional examination of one’s professional role needs to begin in law school – through exposure to mentors who represent many of the ideas of exemplary professionalism, through teaching not only the rules of professional responsibility but the aspirational elements of professionalism, and cultivating habits of action, feedback, and self assessment throughout the curriculum and law school culture. Together, these elements of the law school experience are integral to equipping the next generation of lawyers to begin a lifelong process of learning professionalism – more as a “way of being,” as one exemplar told us, than a static body of knowledge or set of skills.

Future studies will examine exemplars within different areas of practice, e.g., criminal defense, prosecutors, or judges, and in different regions of the country. To learn more about our research on ethical professional identity, or professionalism, see working drafts of our papers on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) at the following:

Neil W. Hamilton & Verna E. Monson, Ethical Professional (Trans)formation: Themes from Interviews About Professionalism with Exemplary Lawyers (April 6, 2011), accepted for publication in 52 Santa Clara L. Rev. (2011),  available at

Verna E. Monson & Neil W. Hamilton, Ethical Professional (Trans)formation in Law: Lawyers Five Years After Graduation Make Sense of Professionalism, U. St. Thomas L.J. 11 (forthcoming 2011), available at

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