The University of St. Thomas

August 28th, 2012

Professionalism’s Foundation is an Internalized Responsibility for Others

Published on: Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

Professionalism’s Foundation is an Internalized Responsibility for Others

© Neil Hamilton

Fourteen years ago, Minnesota Lawyer asked me to write some “Observations” columns on the ideals and core principles of our profession beyond just rule compliance. At the time I remember wondering if I had enough ideas for three or four columns but thought we should give it a try. Now, 100 Minnesota Lawyer columns and 20 larger law review articles on professionalism later, I am writing my last regular Observations column; it is time to focus on putting all of this work into a book.

What is “Professionalism”?

Writing these columns forced me to think deeply about the definition of professionalism and how to help my students grow in their professionalism. Over these last twenty years, all of education from K-12 through graduate education has moved toward a standard educational assessment model that asks: (1) what are the students’ educational needs; (2) what are the learning objectives (outcomes) that will meet the students’ educational needs; (3) what are the curriculum and pedagogies that most effectively help the students to achieve the learning objectives; and (4) how to assess whether the curriculum and pedagogies are actually helping the students to achieve the learning objectives.

When I started writing these columns, a major initial challenge was to define the elements of “professionalism” with sufficient clarity that legal education and continuing legal education can articulate clear learning objectives with respect to professionalism.  This is step 2 in the educational assessment model above. The Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions and I have a number of longer articles (many co-authored with Dr. Verna Monson, an educational psychologist) and shorter Minnesota Lawyer columns where we try to define professionalism by looking at the concept through different windows. The principal windows have been: (1) all the ABA and Conference of Chief Justice Reports on professionalism and the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct; (2) the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s influential study of legal education; (3) an analysis of the work of all 43 legal scholars who have tried to define the term; and (4) three empirical studies where we asked entering law students, early-career lawyers five years out of law school, and peer-honored exemplary lawyers who have won a professionalism award in Minnesota to describe how they understood the meaning of professionalism.

The most important finding of studies in professionalism is that a student’s or practicing lawyer’s understanding of professionalism depends upon each person’s stage of development. An individual can grow over a career toward the internalization of a later-stage understanding of professional formation. These studies also identify the key elements of a later-stage understanding of professional formation. The studies all agree that professionalism (professional formation) is an internalized moral core characterized by a deep responsibility or devotion to others – particularly the client – and some restraint on self-interest in carrying out this responsibility. Three of the four studies also agree that professionalism includes these elements: ongoing solicitation for feedback and self-reflection, an internalized standard of excellence at lawyering skills, integrity, honesty, adherence to the ethical codes, public service (especially for the disadvantaged), and independent professional judgment and honest counsel.

The Medical Profession’s Definition of Professionalism

The medical profession has also defined professionalism and gives us another window through which to understand the concept. For example, the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) professionalism working group recently gave a one-sentence definition of professionalism: “Medical professionalism is the assertion that doctors are worthy of public and patient trust.”

The ABMS continues. “Medical professionalism is a belief system in which group members publicly declare (“profess”) to each other and the public the shared values and competency standards that they promise collectively to upheld in their work. These declarations constitute a set of promises, and one-half of an ongoing dialogue with society, about what the public and individual patients can and should expect from medical professionals. At the heart of these ongoing declarations has long been a three-part promise about the science, art and service orientation of medical practice. Medical professionals promise to acquire, maintain and advance; (1) the scientific and technical skills necessary for competent medical practice, (2) the interpersonal skills necessary to work with patients to elicit goals and values that can help direct the use of the professional’s medical knowledge and skills (sometimes referred to as the “art” of medicine), and (3) a value system which upholds that medical professionals will use their medical knowledge and skills always in the service of patients and the public’s health. Medical professionalism, therefore, pledges medical practitioners, as members of the profession, to a dynamic process of personal development (life-long-learning and professional formation) and to participation in a social enterprise that continually seeks to express that expertise and caring in its work.”

You can see in the ABMS definition that the foundation of professionalism includes life-long learning and professional formation toward an internalized value system to use the professional’s skills in service to the patient and the public’s health. A physician (and by analogy a lawyer) who has internalized these deep responsibilities for others – the patient and the public’s health (or the client and justice system) – is worthy of both patient and public trust. My experience is that any physician or lawyer who has internalized a deep responsibility for others is also highly attentive to developing excellent technical and interpersonal skills to fulfill these internalized responsibilities.


Professionalism asks each lawyer, over a career, to grow toward an internalized deep responsibility for others. This leads to trustworthiness. We help each other grow toward professionalism through constant conversations among us about our ideals and aspirations, and we ask questions of each other about whether our actions in fact reflect our ideals and aspirations. Each of us regularly reflects on these questions and conversations.

I am deeply grateful to both Minnesota Lawyer and its readers for all the opportunities to share thoughts about the ideals of our profession and how to grow toward living these ideals both individually and collectively in our firms, law departments and associations. I know my conversations with you have helped me to grow in understanding, and I hope the same is true for each of you.