The University of St. Thomas

November 7th, 2011

How Exemplary Lawyers in Minnesota Understand Professionalism

Published on: Monday, November 7th, 2011

How Exemplary Lawyers in Minnesota Understand Professionalism
© Neil Hamilton, Professor of Law and Director, Holloran Center
Verna Monson, Ph.D., Research Fellow, Holloran Center

Oct. 11, 2011 

Accreditation Changes Emphasizing Professionalism

Important changes are coming in legal education that will affect how we determine if students or practicing professionals are benefitting from what they are taught in law school and through continuing legal education programs.

For example, it’s likely that the American Bar Association will change the accreditation standards for law schools to require far greater emphasis on preparing students to practice law ethically. The changes under consideration stress helping students understand and exercise professional judgment consistent with “the values of the legal profession,” including “professionalism,” according to the ABA’s Draft Standard 203.

The proposed standards also require assessing the effectiveness of a law school’s efforts to help students achieve these mandated ethics objectives. These changes bring legal education in line with education for the other professions, as well as with undergraduate and K-12 education in their emphasis on assessment.

Focusing specifically on the ABA’s emphasis on practicing law ethically, this framework requires each law school to be specific enough about what it wants students to learn so that the results can be assessed.  For example, what specifically are the “values of the legal profession” (mentioned twice in the proposed changes), “professional duties to society,” and “responsibilities of the legal profession”?  The required learning outcomes outlined in Draft Standard 302(b)(4) give some guidance by defining required outcomes to include students’ “knowledge and understanding” of “the legal profession’s values of justice, fairness, candor, honesty, integrity, professionalism, respect for diversity, and respect for the rule of law” and also “responsibility to ensure that adequate legal services are provided to those who cannot afford to pay for them.”

An Empirical Study to Define the Elements of Professionalism

To define the elements professionalism with the clarity needed to satisfy these new requirements, we conducted an empirical study of the concept of professionalism by interviewing twelve professionalism award winners in Minnesota.   From the forty-five lawyers who have won either the HCBA Professionalism Award or the MSBA Professional Excellence Award who are currently practicing law, we took a random sample of six men and six women, ranging in age from mid-40s to early-80s. The full study is forthcoming in “Ethical Professional (Trans)Formation: Themes from Interviews with Exemplary Lawyers,” in 52 SANTA CLARA L.REV (2011) accessible at

Asked to reflect if their individual meanings of professionalism changed over the span of their careers, all twelve reported growth in their understanding of the concept. All twelve also defined professionalism as including four primary, overarching themes:

  1. Professionalism is linked closely to a lawyer’s moral core or moral compass and includes internalizing a deep commitment to and responsibility for clients, colleagues, the firm, and broader society. A critical element of this moral core is trustworthiness, which serves as an important marker in both establishing and maintaining a lawyer’s credibility and reputation. A major part of this foundation of trustworthiness is honesty with self and others, and honesty serves as an internal mechanism that is part of an ongoing practice of self-reflection and growth. While all twelve lawyers discussed aspects of a moral core or moral compass, there was some variation in this theme. Three lawyers expressed views that core morality is stable and is significantly but not completely formed in childhood. Nine lawyers emphasized that moral formation involves reflection and self-awareness and is an ongoing process over a lifespan.
  2. Counseling the client with independent judgment and candid advice is central to professionalism. The exemplars we interviewed offered in-depth, rich examples from decades of practice elaborating on their mode of practicing law focused on independent judgment and candor in ways that permitted a deepening of the trust in the lawyer-client relationship.
  3. Developing a habit of self-reflection is perceived by exemplars as an important factor contributing to ongoing growth in a lawyer’s level and understanding of professionalism. The exemplars spoke of their experience of mistakes or failures, and all commented on how failure prompted reflection and self-assessment.
  4. A lawyer’s understanding of professionalism evolves over a career and is perceived as more of a process or way of being than a static definition. During the interview, the attorneys were asked to self-assess whether their understanding of professionalism had evolved throughout the years. The responses of our exemplars support the idea that an individual’s self-understanding of the concept of professionalism evolves to become more complex and internally defined. With this development comes increased cognizance of the dynamic tension between economic self-interest and fulfilling the roles of an officer of the legal system, a representative of clients, and a public citizen responsible for the quality of justice.

A Paradigm Shift in Ethics Education

Our Santa Clara article proposes a paradigm shift from a static definition of professionalism focused on ethics education about the Rules of Professional Conduct to a constructive developmental definition that emphasizes fostering the internalization of the elements of professionalism as framed by exemplary lawyers. In Educating Physicians (2010), the Carnegie Foundation states, “formation is the most fundamental goal of the learning process.” What is true for education in the medical profession should also be true for education and continuing education in the legal profession.

Last, we propose that just as the definition of professionalism as a growth process came through in our interviews, we invite readers to discuss the meaning of professionalism with colleagues. Defining a complex idea like professionalism should ultimately be a collaborative process that strengthens relationships and our understanding.