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A Student Perspective on Professional Identity Formation: TJ Bowman

by TJ Bowman, 3L at University of St. Thomas

To me, professional identity formation describes the journey from being an aspiring lawyer to a practicing one who is committed to serving clients, the profession, and the rule of law. Stated differently, professional identity formation helps me answer the question: “What kind of lawyer do I want to be?” This journey is not something that simply begins your first day of law school and ends when you graduate or make partner. Instead, it requires continuous reflection and a commitment to lifelong learning.

At St. Thomas, my professional identity began forming immediately during 1L through foundation courses such as Moral Reasoning for Lawyers, Serving Clients Well, and Business Basics, which encouraged me to reflect on my personal values and how those values comport with our system of justice and our conception of the lawyer’s role. During my 2L and 3L years, St. Thomas called me to take ownership of my professional identity formation through the mentor externship program by connecting me with lawyers in the Twin Cities community. This program expanded my professional network and provided me with valuable hands-on learning experiences. During my law school career, I have also taken a number of courses that promote my professional identity formation. For instance, Ethical Leadership in Organizations encouraged me to integrate my faith and ethics into my identity, which equipped me with the tools to be a morally responsible, servant leader with respect to the clients, organizations, and communities I serve. Finally, Well-Being and Professional Formation deepened my understanding of the several dimensions of well-being and its impact on my professional identity and quality of life in practice. 

TJ Bowman, 3L at the University of St. Thomas School of Law

Tom Holloran

Beloved community leader Tom Holloran passes away at 94

We write to share the sad news that the namesake of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, Thomas Holloran, passed away yesterday at the age of 94, according to his wife, Patty, who was his partner in life for more than sixty years.

Neil Hamilton, Co-Director of the Holloran Center, remembers Tom Holloran as a wonderful example of the deep sense of stewardship and moral courage that we hope to foster in our students.

All of us here at St. Thomas Law have been touched by Tom Holloran’s generous spirit and servant leadership that helped animate the founding of the School of Law over 20 years ago and the creation of the Holloran Center in 2006.

We will offer a fuller tribute in the coming days. For today, we just wanted to share the sad news that Tom Holloran, a shining light of goodness and grace, is no longer with us.

Debra Moss Vollweiler

No Difficulty Holding Both Logic and Feeling: Can the Barbie Movie Help with Women’s Professional Identity Education?

By: Debra Moss Vollweiler, Professor of Law, Nova Southeastern University Shepard Broad College of Law [1]

Hi Barbie! In the wake of the blockbuster Barbie movie in the Summer of 2023, women are embracing—or reembracing—women’s empowerment, including what many are calling a newfound freedom to express femininity. Like many across the country, I headed back to the movie theater in the summer of 2023 to see if the Barbie movie was as fun and meaningful as I’d heard. I didn’t expect it to change the way I think and teach professional identity in law school.

Thanks to ABA Standard 303(b) all law schools should be focusing on the development of professional identity for their students.[2] According to the Holloran Center, professional identity education “should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.[3]

Part of this exploration for students is helping them develop an accurate self-understanding of who they are and how their values guide them. But the exploration of professional identity for women has sometimes hit a speedbump. For many women law students, their system of values and principles that are connected to their gender and self-expression of that gender historically have been downplayed. In other words, even though professional identity education should be enabling students to fully examine who they are, what they value, and how that shapes their identity, some students are seeing that many women in the legal profession have had to keep key parts of their identity—as women—tamped down to fit into their professional environments. Such dissonance can be harmful to the professional identity development of women.

There are many obstacles to women discussing their gender as part of their professional identity. Some of these deterrents include:

  • Imposter syndrome by women lawyers, stemming from male-dominated work environments;
  • A lack of diversity (including gender) in leadership roles within the legal profession;
  • Women in leadership criticizing other women; and
  • Lack of systematic support for woman and their choices.

I wasn’t expecting a movie to help me teach women law students how to move past these obstacles, but it did.

What is the Legal Profession Modeling for Women?

In late 2022, a female lawyer in Ohio received a text (which has since gone viral) from a male attorney at her law firm.[4] She’d returned from maternity leave a few days earlier—a leave during which she was asked and expected to perform legal work. Shortly after her leave, she notified a partner that she was resigning and going to another firm. The text said: “What you did – collecting salary from the firm while sitting on your ass, except to find time to interview for another job – says everything one needs to know about your character. Karma’s a bitch. Rest assured, regarding anyone who inquires, they will hear the truth from me about what a soul-less and morally bankrupt person you are.”

While ultimately that male attorney was fired, it pulls back the curtain on attitudes some women in the legal profession face about their commitment to work as women. Not all women are mothers, but the same level of scrutiny is also focused by some on how all women are expected to speak, dress, and present themselves in the profession. Just recently, even as a 25+ year member of the academy, I recently faced a curious comment about my choice of jacket worn during an academic presentation. It wasn’t quite a compliment or a criticism, but I am certain none of the other presenters (all male) received any wardrobe feedback at all. It made me conscious of being a woman in a field where I have no doubts of my accomplishments nor of my professional identity. I couldn’t help but wonder what impact such a comment would have on a female student or new lawyer still developing hers.

There is no question that women in the profession are definitely struggling with their professional identity and that the struggle is impacting them and the profession.

The 2022 Survey of Women Leaving the Law presented a multitude of statistics on why women left top 200 law firms. The report largely debunked COVID and other family-first excuses that firms have been making to explain away the number of women failing to make equity partner status, or to stay in their employment. Instead, the focus was clearly on the difficulty women still have merely being women in the profession. Based on their interviews, the report suggested that to increase gender diversity retention in the profession, the profession needed to solve basic problems, such as ensuring that firms are giving women opportunities and amplifying their voices, providing women with a seat at the decision-making table and having a zero-tolerance policy for sexism. At the ABA National Summit on Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, Iris Bohnet, professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, indicated some women leave because of a work culture that forces them to minimize important parts of their lives.[5] She noted that women who leave often ask themselves, “Can I bring my whole self to work?”

On top of that, Forbes reports on the large scope of the problem for women in the legal profession. “It’s not just less pay and fewer promotions. According to a recent survey… female lawyers, and especially women of color, are more likely than their male counterparts to be interrupted, to be mistaken for non-lawyers, to do more office housework, and to have less access to prime job assignments.”[6]

Women law students who are learning about professional identity are seeing that Forbes has also reported that the study indicated female lawyers have been penalized for their assertive behavior, even when part of the job. “Although assertiveness and self-promotion are often needed to succeed in the legal field, women often feel that they must walk a tightrope. If they are too assertive, then they are criticized for not behaving in a ladylike fashion. If they are not assertive enough, then they are often seen as lacking the confidence needed to succeed.”[7]

The struggle for women in the profession is still real, and as such, women need to know how to develop their professional identity to be able to face these challenges.

Professional Identity Education, and a (Re?)-Awakening to Gender in the Legal Profession

For students to develop their professional identity as lawyers, they need to understand more about identity formation overall. As has been written about professional identity, “Our identities are like icebergs. The large bulk of them lies invisible to us below the surface of consciousness…” The non-conscious bulk of identity is called “habitus.[8] A key in  understanding professional identity education is understanding that when “one’s habitus is in dissonance with the professional identity of one’s chosen profession”  a professional can struggle with both success and stress.[9] At the same time, we know that “the formation of a professional identity should be most significantly informed by and consonant with one’s personal identity—including one’s lived experience as a person of, among other things, a particular race, gender, or socioeconomic class.”[10]

This reflection tells me we need to recognize that there exists fundamental conflict between the idea of developing a professional identity as women lawyers and the workplaces in which we are going to enter with those identities accepting them as women.

So that brings me to my viewing of the Barbie movie. Imagine my delight and astonishment, mere minutes into the movie when I hear Lawyer Barbie exclaim, “This makes me emotional, and I’m expressing it. I have no difficulty holding both logic and feeling at the same time and that does not diminish my powers; it expands them! Imagine! Emotion as power! A world where we allowed our full humanity into spaces of collective decision making!”[11]

And I thought, “Well, here’s my professional identity education opener for my new students this fall.”

This is not the first time we’ve seen gender as a fundamental part of law student education coming from pop culture. Many women lawyers point to Legally Blonde in 2001—the final scene where she can “ditch the black and the pantyhose”—as a professional identity moment for Elle Woods that inspired many young women to go to law school. While it may have impacted the decision to attend law school for women, it didn’t quite make huge inroads into integrating a woman’s identity fully into the profession. So now twenty or so years later, here we are with Barbie.

Since the announcement of Barbie, we’ve witnessed the rise of unapologetic hyper-femme codes intertwined in mainstream culture.[12] We’ve heard the acknowledgement that being a woman is “literally impossible.”[13] So that leaves me with two questions in moving forward with professional identity for women lawyers—thanks to Barbie, is it now easier to talk about being a woman in the legal profession, and if not, can we make it easier?

Such questions about women and being able to be themselves as they enter the profession should be an integral part of professional identity education. And in the wake of this national conversation about women—sparked by a movie about a doll—making space and plans for women to discuss their femininity, their often-unique needs in the workplace as women, and how to incorporate those needs into professional identity education may be the key to long-term success for future lawyers.

Suggested Solutions for Teaching Professional Identity

When we teach women to be their whole selves as part of their professional identity, we lay the groundwork for both helping students use the full strength of their character and values to navigate the legal profession as it exists, and also lay the groundwork for changes in the profession in the future. While encouraging women to develop their identity in a way that enables them to navigate the bias that women can feel until a culture change can be made, we can also help all students work to change the culture.

Here are three suggestions in teaching professional identity for law students that can contribute to the success of women entering the profession, each inspired by quotes from the Barbie movie:

  1. Women hate women. And men hate women. It’s the only thing we all agree on.”—Sasha

Help students understand the current deterrents for women to express themselves as women that exist in the workplace, the full range of biases that women face and how all students can contribute to a workplace to eradicate those biases. Additionally, as part of the professional identity education, talk about what women can do without obvious leadership models or mentors. Analyze and discuss why women often keep other women down. You can also explore with students what supports are missing for women in the workplace and how do you develop your guiding principles even if they are missing. For students to truly learn to bring their whole selves to their profession to guide their formation, they must understand the profession itself.

  1. I worked very hard, so I deserve it!”—Nobel Prize Barbie

Explicitly discuss imposter syndrome. Don’t be afraid to include gender identity as part of the equation of why professionals can feel unworthy to be in a position which they have earned. Additionally, though, don’t be afraid to recognize the impact of systematic bias on women, and how it may cause imposter syndrome.[14] Talk about gender and how gender impacts your view of your world. Remind students that trying to please others by being someone else isn’t serving them or their clients. Instead, help them explore how to show up as themselves.[15] Normalize these discussions and help students deal with the problem now, and for the future.

  1. Why didn’t Barbie tell me about patriarchy?”—Ken

Pair professional identity education with cultural competency education. When students understand the struggles inherent to students from all backgrounds, it can help all students understand these issues. When students come to understand the challenges that women are facing in the workplace simply because they are women, it helps lay the groundwork for all members of the profession to change the culture in the future. Ensuring all members of the legal profession are aware of the biases that exist throughout the profession can help them develop as individuals to combat those biases.

I’m hoping that through professional identity education, in the words of Stereotypical Barbie, “By giving voice to the cognitive dissonance required to be a woman under the patriarchy, [we’ve] robbed it of its power,” that women can fully develop with their whole selves as part of the legal profession, and that we, in teaching professional identity, can guide them.

Debra Moss Vollweiler is a tenured Professor of Law at Nova Southeastern University, Shepard Broad College of Law, in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.


[1] This blog post arose out of a presentation made at the AALS Annual Meeting 2024 for the Women in Legal Education section.

[2] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/standards/.

[3] https://blogs.stthomas.edu/holloran-center/introduction-to-the-definition-of-professional-identity-and-the-formation-of-a-professional-identity/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CProfessional%20identity%20formation%E2%80%9D%20is%20a,foundational%20to%20successful%20legal%20practice.%E2%80%9D.

[4] https://www.businessinsider.com/lawyer-who-shamed-coworker-about-maternity-leave-text-fired-2023-1.

[5] https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/publications/youraba/2017/december-2017/aba-summit-searches-for-solutions-to-ensure-career-longevity-for/?login.

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2018/10/01/female-lawyers-face-widespread-gender-bias-according-to-new-study/?sh=70a20e2b4b55.

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2018/10/01/female-lawyers-face-widespread-gender-bias-according-to-new-study/?sh=70a20e2b4b55.

[8] https://www.regent.edu/acad/schlaw/student_life/studentorgs/lawreview/docs/issues/v27n2/10_Thomson_vol_27_2.pdf.

[9] https://www.regent.edu/acad/schlaw/student_life/studentorgs/lawreview/docs/issues/v27n2/10_Thomson_vol_27_2.pdf.

[10] Harmony Decosimo, https://scholarship.law.slu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2321&context=lj.

[11] See the Barbie movie! Also, if you’re a critic of the SCOTUS decision in Citizens United, there’s another layer of commentary woven into Lawyer Barbie’s speech, which many movie goers didn’t catch.

[12] https://www.lofficielusa.com/fashion/barbie-hyper-femininity-ultimate-act-of-feminism-coquettecore-bimbocore.

[13] https://www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a44725030/america-ferrera-barbie-full-monologue-transcript/.

[14] https://hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome.

[15] https://www.2civility.org/has-your-professional-identity-morphed-into-something-you-dont-recognize/.

Daisy Floyd, Patrick Longan, Timothy Floyd

West Academic Press Publishes Second Edition of The Formation of Professional Identity: The Path from Student to Lawyer

By: Pat Longan, William Augustus Bootle Chair in Ethics and Professionalism
Director, Mercer Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism
Mercer University School of Law

Daisy Hurst Floyd
University Professor of Law and Ethical Formation
Mercer University School of Law

Timothy W. Floyd
Tommy Malone Distinguished Chair in Trial Advocacy
Mercer University School of Law

West Academic Press recently published the second edition of our book, The Formation of Professional Identity: The Path from Student to Lawyer.

Our book is the product of over twenty years of experience teaching our required three-credit course on professional identity to Mercer’s first-year students. Our hope is that others can benefit from that experience, regardless of whether your efforts to help students develop their professional identities comes in a dedicated course, in a clinic, as part of another course such as professional responsibility, or in some other context.

We begin in Chapter 1 by defining professional identity as a lawyer’s deep sense of self as a lawyer. It is how a lawyer would complete an essay that begins, “I am the kind of lawyer who ….” We try to help the students understand that professional identity for lawyers is not just a matter of personal preference. As Interpretation 303-5 states, lawyers have special obligations to clients and to society, and “[t]he development of professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.” Internalizing those values is non-negotiable if the students are to fulfill their special obligations.

Our book presents professional identity formation as an exercise in virtue ethics. Chapter 2 explains that virtue ethics supposes there is an ideal to which one might strive. For example, we can imagine and describe the ideal doctor or the ideal teacher. Such descriptions inevitably include a list of virtues that a person should have and cultivate in order to approach that ideal. We then list for the students six virtues that need to be part of their professional identities as lawyers. We distilled these from the 100 or so professionalism codes and creeds that have been adopted around the country by courts and bar associations, as well as more recent work from Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. Those virtues are competence, fidelity to the client, fidelity to the law, public spiritedness, civility, and practical wisdom. These are the “values and guiding principles” foundational to the profession and therefore essential to the development of professional identity.

The book then deals with these six virtues one chapter at a time. In each chapter, we elaborate on what the virtue means for lawyers, describe the obstacles they will encounter in practice to the deployment of the virtue, and explore some strategies for overcoming those obstacles.

Each chapter includes discussion questions and problems that we have road-tested in our course. These can be used for class discussion, written reflections, or both. We typically use a problem for in-class discussion and then have the students write a reflection on the exercise afterwards. We are working on a teacher’s manual that will be available in PDF format to help anyone using the book know what to expect from these exercises. In the meantime, of course, we are available to you to share our experiences.

The last chapter in the book is about the connection between having the right kind of professional identity and well-being in the profession. Interpretation 303-5 states that professional identity includes the well-being practices that are foundational to success in the profession. Here we emphasize the connection between developing an internal commitment to the cultivation of the six virtues and the lessons of positive psychology about the conditions that support well-being in one’s life. We present the theoretical framework of Self-Determination Theory and the empirical findings of Larry Kreiger and Ken Sheldon to help the students understand that there is a happy convergence between the needs of others and their own well-being: the more they internalize and cultivate the special values of the profession, the more they will derive deep satisfaction from their work.

If anyone has any questions or comments about the book or how you might use it, please get in touch with any of us (longan_p@law.mercer.edu, floyd_dh@law.mercer.edu, or floyd_tw@law.mercer.edu).

Timothy Floyd is the Tommy Malone Distinguished Chair in Trial Advocacy and Director of Experiential Education

Daisy Floyd is the University Professor of Law and Ethical Formation and former Dean at Mercer University School of Law.

Patrick Longan
is the William Augustus Bootle Chair in Ethics and Professionalism in the Practice of Law at Mercer University School of Law
and is Director of the Mercer Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism

Natt Gantt

The Centrality of Spiritual Well-Being to Professional Formation

By: L.O. Natt Gantt, II,* Professor of Law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, High Point University Kenneth F. Kahn School of Law

In July 2023, I was pleased to moderate a discussion group titled “Professional Identity as a Search for Spiritual Well-Being—Helping Students Care for their Souls” at the Southeastern Association of Law Schools (SEALS) Conference. Having spent time reflecting on this session since last summer, I have been contemplating the depth and complexity of our task of helping students develop their professional identity. This task goes beyond encouraging students to engage in certain professional behaviors or even adopt specified professional values; it should involve helping them find purpose and meaning as they develop as a professional.

The session featured nine esteemed discussants: Professor Lisa Avalos from Louisiana State University; Paul M. Hebert Law Center; Professor Timothy Floyd from Mercer University School of Law; Professor Max Hare from Regent University School of Law; Professor Kendall Kerew from Georgia State University College of Law; Professor Kellyn McGee from Widener University Commonwealth Law School; Associate Dean David Miller from Liberty University School of Law; Professor Jerry Organ from the University of St. Thomas School of Law; Professor Lucas Osborn from Campbell University Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law; and Carwina Weng, Senior Specialist in Professional Identity Formation at LSAC. My former colleague from Regent University School of Law, Professor Ben Madison, developed the idea for the session and asked me to moderate.

During the two-and-a-half hour session, we had a rich discussion that focused on: (1) why the topic of law student spiritual well-being is important to discuss; (2) how to define the term “spiritual well-being”; (3) what practices and strategies can help law students cultivate their spiritual well-being; and (4) what are the challenges to improving students’ spiritual well-being and what are positive ways to overcome those challenges.

I was enthused about participating in the group because my work in law student and lawyer well-being has underscored to me how exploring the topic of spiritual well-being is a key component to the well-being crisis we face in legal education and the legal profession. The National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being’s groundbreaking 2017 report, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change, raised this issue nearly seven years ago. In masterfully outlining an expansive definition of well-being, the Report defined well-being as “a continuous process in which lawyers strive for thriving in each dimension of their lives” and identified six dimensions of well-being: “emotional health, occupational pursuits, creative or intellectual endeavors, sense of spirituality or greater purpose in life, physical health, and social connections with others.”[1] More specifically, the Report defined spiritual well-being as “developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life.”[2]

Since 2017, many reports and studies have affirmed the reality of the well-being crisis in legal education and the legal profession.[3] Moreover, as Interpretation 303-5 in the ABA Standards for Approval of Law Schools stresses, the relationship between well-being and professional identity formation is clear. The Interpretation provides, “The development of professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.”[4]

Regarding spiritual well-being specifically, social science and physiological research has found that spiritual and religious belief and practice can have significant health benefits. For instance, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Human Flourishing Program have conducted extensive research on the relationship between spirituality, most notably religious service participation, and well-being. This research has found that “the communal aspect of religion, namely service attendance, was inversely associated with various factors related to despair (e.g., lower risk of suicidality, heavy drinking, substance misuse, and depression)” and was “positively associated with psychosocial well-being outcomes, such as greater purpose in life.”[5] In addition, this research found that individuals who attend religious services at least weekly were significantly less likely to die from “deaths of despair,” such as deaths related to suicide, alcohol poisoning, and drug overdose.[6] The researchers point out that the social support individuals experience from such attendance explains only about a quarter of the effect and that religious community participation is a stronger predictor of health and well-being than other forms of social support.[7] The researchers thus opine that religious participation enhances health and well-being by providing individuals with a sense of “hope, meaning, and purpose in life.”[8]

Yet, despite the abundant research on well-being, the regulatory changes in the ABA Standards, and the ensuing well-being initiatives adopted in law schools and legal professional settings, the topic of spiritual well-being is often overlooked. It no doubt may be a difficult topic to discuss. Some may view the topic as only associated with a religious worldview and conclude that many lawyers and law students would not be interested in the topic because they do not come from a specific faith tradition. Others might similarly claim that most law schools are not faith-based and may face programmatic resistance to such efforts because discussing spiritual well-being could be perceived as imposing religious values. Still others might avoid the topic by asserting that it is difficult to measure and assess the success of efforts to cultivate spiritual well-being because the concept is too vague to fall within the proper purview of legal education. Finally, others might contend that students may have had negative experiences with religious communities in the past and therefore may be resistant to spiritual topics.

As the discussants in the session noted, each of these understandable concerns, however, does not override the importance of spiritual well-being as a foundational topic all law schools should consider in their professional formation efforts. The concerns about ties to specific religious worldviews and faith traditions belie the expansive definition in the National Task Force Report itself, which focuses on meaning and purpose with no expected connection to a specific faith tradition. The concern regarding measurement and assessment relates to professional formation generally, and many readers of this blog have already developed innovative and successful ways to assess professional formation in their students which could be adapted to assess spiritual well-being. Finally, the concern regarding negative experiences with religious communities relates to the first concern and can be addressed by honest and transparent discussions about these realities while recognizing that discerning meaning and purpose in life must not be shelved because of the troubling actions of some.

As we seek to shape students who are well and grounded, discussing spiritual well-being thus must be part of our professional formation process. Discussant David Miller powerfully observed that professional identity is downstream from personal identity. Even at the graduate, professional law school level, some of our focus must be on helping our students find purpose and meaning.

So what does it mean to help our students enhance their spiritual well-being? Here, the Task Force Report’s definition of spiritual well-being represents only a starting point. “Meaning and purpose” can be completely self-defining and self-serving. As I reasoned in our session, helping students find spiritual well-being must be more than affirming students who, for instance, find their meaning and purpose solely in making money so that they can accumulate physical possessions. Meaning and purpose must include more. That pursuit must connect to something beyond oneself—to the pursuit of justice, to the service of others, to the love of fellow humans, to the connection to the eternal and transcendent.

In her recent book The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life, Professor Lisa Miller at Columbia University describes extensive studies of the brain which find that spiritual and religious belief and practice have significant mental health benefits. She does not offer a precise definition of spirituality, but her research clearly supports a broad conception of the term, not tied to specific religious traditions.[9] At the same time, her research does not support a conception so broad as to include anything in which an individual might find purpose and meaning. Her research specifically traces the mental health benefits to when individuals experience a connection to someone or something beyond themselves—“a feeling of oneness with the environment or the divine; a sense of their own individual voice or identity dissolving into something larger around or beyond them.”[10] She writes that individuals with an awakened, healthy brain have experiences “involv[ing] self-transcendent awareness and relationship [which] induce a feeling of unity or closeness whether or not the content is explicitly relational [with other people].”[11]

The point in sharing Professor Miller’s words is not to advocate that law schools should create such experiences as part of their curricula. However, we are educating students who are confronting a well-being crisis in our profession and in our larger society,[12] and we must educate them on the mental health benefits of spirituality. In our discussion group, discussants presented strategies for how to enhance our students’ spiritual well-being, such as offering students more wholistic mentoring and opportunities for meditation and prayer, exposing students to moral exemplars who can encourage students’ pursuit of vocational purpose, having students write a statement of purpose or their personal philosophy of lawyering, and providing students with tactics they can use to better understand themselves and what values most inspire them.[13] The particular strategies a school adopts can and should vary based on the particular missional context in which each of our schools operates. Nonetheless, as we begin another year, I challenge our professional formation community to work collectively and creatively to help our students become spiritually well by finding purpose, meaning, hope, and connection in their vocational calling. If you have any questions or comments about this blog, please feel free to contact me at ngantt@highpoint.edu.


* Natt is Chair of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs Well-Being Pledge Committee and a member of the Research & Scholarship Committee of the Institute for Well-Being in Law.

[1] National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being, The Path to Lawyer Well-Being: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (Aug. 2017), at 9, https://lawyerwellbeing.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Lawyer-Wellbeing-Report.pdf. In a diagram summarizing these six dimensions, the Report identified them as “Emotional, Occupational, Intellectual, Spiritual, Physical, Social.” Id.

[2] Id.

[3] See, e.g., “It is Okay to Not Be Okay”: The 2021 Survey of Law Student Well-Being, 60 Univ. of Louisville L. Rev. 441 (2021).

[4] Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools, Am. Bar Ass’n, ch. 3 (2023–24), https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/standards/2023-2024/2023-2024-aba-standards-rules-for-approval.pdf (emphasis added).

[5] Ying Chen et al., Religious Service Attendance and Deaths Related to Drugs, Alcohol, and Suicide Among US Health Care Professionals, 77 JAMA Psychiatry 737, 738, 742 (2020) (citing studies).

[6] Id.

[7] See Tyler J. VanderWeele, Religious Communities and Human Flourishing, 26 Current Directions in Psych. Sci. 476, 478-79 (2017).

[8] Chen et al., supra note 5, at 738; see also id. at 743.

[9] As one example, Professor Miller’s brain research found “the moments of intense spiritual awareness were biologically identical whether or not they were explicitly religious.” Lisa Miller, The Awakened Brain: The New Science of Spirituality and Our Quest for an Inspired Life 162 (2021).

[10] Id. at 157.

[11] Id. at 161.

[12] See Madeline Holcombe, Welcome to the ‘new normal’ of people expressing low levels of well-being, according to a report (January 18, 2024), https://www.cnn.com/2024/01/18/health/gallup-well-being-2023-wellness/index.html.

[13] Specific approaches included having students work through self-assessment inventories, such as the VIA Character Strengths Survey and the exercises in Neil Hamilton’s book Roadmap: The Law Student’s Guide to Meaningful Employment.

Toni Jaeger-Fine

Introducing the Second Edition of Toni Jaeger-Fine’s Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona (2023)

By: Toni Jaeger-Fine, Senior Counselor, Fordham Law School; Principal, Jaeger-Fine Consulting

Jaeger-Fine’s concept of the Legal Professional Persona refers to a set of attitudes and behaviors that enable success and flourishing in the profession. As legal educators, students, and professionals, we tend to focus on legal knowledge and technical skills to the exclusion of these attributes that comprise the professional persona. The touchstone of cultivating a strong and sustainable professional persona is intentionality, and the goal of this book is to make each of us more deliberate about how we develop and nurture our professional identity.

This second edition is the product of conversations with, and feedback from, hundreds of law students and legal professionals, and the author’s own lifelong journey toward building and refining her own professional persona.

The book is divided into three main parts, reflecting the pillar of the professional persona: fundamentals; self-management; and relationships.

Fundamentals introduces the concept of the professional persona and its importance, discusses the state of today’s legal profession, and identifies the building blocks of a professional persona. In particular, this part examines how we move through stages of competence, the need to create sustainable habits and tools for doing so, the primacy of social and emotional intelligence, and the importance of leadership as a mindset and general orientation rather than a matter of position in a hierarchy.

Self-management—professionalism from the inside—addresses a range of issues relating to mindset and dispositions (such as a positive mindset, commitment to excellence, and character), time management and organization, and well-being. This part also offers a practicaand mindset approach to a sustainable form of well-being.

Relationships—professionalism with the outside—considers working with others, which embraces among other things the importance of inclusive thinking and controlling our cognitive biases, effective communication, managing up and down, and business development and client management. This part also covers talent management, development, and retention, including how to accelerate diversity, equity, and inclusion. In addition, this part addresses ensuring that our public professional persona promotes our own professional identity, the goals of the institutions with which we are associated, and the profession more generally.

The book is eminently readable, and most chapters end with a series of questions for reflection, making this book readily adoptable for professional identity courses. Becoming a Lawyer: Discovering and Defining Your Professional Persona is available from West Academic or on Amazon. Please feel free to email me at tfine@fordham.edu if you have any questions or comments.

Patrick Longan

Mercer Law School to Host Symposium on Current Issues in Professional Identity Formation

By: Pat Longan, William Augustus Bootle Chair in Ethics and Professionalism
Director, Mercer Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism
Mercer University School of Law

On March 8, 2024, Mercer University Law School and the Mercer Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism will host a symposium on current issues in professional identity formation. The Mercer Law Review will publish the articles that emerge from the event.

The symposium is the 24th annual Georgia symposium on professionalism and ethics. The series is funded by an endowment that resulted from the settlement of charges of litigation misconduct in a civil case in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia in the 1990’s. That same settlement endowed professorial chairs in ethics and professionalism at Mercer, the University of Georgia, Emory University, and Georgia State. The annual symposium rotates among those four schools.

Mercer’s 2024 symposium will have four main presenters, who will each be followed by two commentators.

David Grenardo of the University of St. Thomas School of Law will present on “How Law Schools Can Help Historically Underrepresented Students Develop Their Professional Identities.” Women, people of color, first gen college and first gen law students, and individuals from the LGBTQIA+ group may have a harder time with their professional identity formation, particularly if they do not have family members, role models, and/or mentors who are lawyers. When you add in structural and institutional racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, bias, and prejudice that are a part of the legal system, it makes it that much more difficult for historically underrepresented individuals to know where and how they will fit in as lawyers. David’s presentation will focus on what law schools can do for these students as they develop their professional identities.

The commentators for David’s presentation will be Barbara Glesner Fines from UMKC School of Law and Janice Craft from the University of Richmond School of Law.

Daisy Floyd from Mercer Law will speak on “The Role of Purpose in Professional Identity.” In Educating Lawyers, the Carnegie Report describes the apprenticeship of “identity and purpose” to emphasize the importance of grounding legal education—and the student’s emerging professional identity as a lawyer—in the public purposes of the profession. During the 1950’s, social scientists began to study the role of meaning and purpose in a person’s life, and the advent of positive psychology in the early 2000’s spurred an emerging body of empirical research on the importance of purpose to a fulfilled and meaningful life. This presentation will address what lessons legal educators can learn from purpose studies to inform our work on the formation of professional identity.

Ken Townsend from Wake Forest Law and Harmony Decosimo from Suffolk Law School will be Daisy’s commentators.

Kendall Kerew from Georgia State College of Law has chosen as her topic, “The Rule of Law, the Role of the Public Citizen, and Professional Identity Formation.” The Preamble of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct defines a lawyer as “a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice,” and charges lawyers as “public citizens” to “seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession” while also “further[ing] the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and justice system. . . .” This presentation will explore the intersection of the Preamble’s definition of lawyer with the intentional exploration of law student professional identity formation and training on cross-cultural competence, racism, and bias required by ABA Standards 303(b)(3) and 303(c) as a means to help students discern their role as future lawyers and empower students in their duties to protect the rule of law as the foundation of democracy, provide access to justice, and make change where the law has created injustice.

Kendall’s commentators will be Eduardo Capulong from CUNY School of Law and Kelly Terry from University of Arkansas Little Rock (UALR) William H. Bowen School of Law.

Finally, Aric Short from Texas A&M University School of Law will speak on “Beyond Fiduciary Duties: Developing Discernment to Navigate Conflict in Law Student Professional Identity Formation.” The concept of lawyer as fiduciary is deeply rooted in what it means to be an attorney—it’s integral to our professional identity. Aric’s presentation and paper will explore the concept of the lawyer as fiduciary, including how that label affects well-being messaging and programming in law schools. Aric will identify predictable conflicts that can arise for legal professionals in the areas of values, duties, and priorities and explore how we can more effectively guide students to develop effective skills of discernment to better prepare them for these professional conflicts. 

Carwina Weng from LSAC and Lindsey Gustafson from UALR William H. Bowen School of Law will provide the commentary on Aric’s presentation.

The events begin with a dinner for the speakers, invited guests, and Mercer Law Review members the night of March 7 at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. The Honorable Tony DelCampo, President of the State Bar of Georgia, will provide the welcoming address. The following day’s program will be held in the Bell-Jones Courtroom at Mercer’s law school.

I extend my thanks to all who have agreed to be part of this event. Anyone who is interested in attending or has any questions about the symposium may contact me at longan_p@law.mercer.edu.

Barbara Glesner FInes, David Grenardo, Felicia Hamilton, Jerome Organ, Kendall Kerew, Louis Bilionis, Neil Hamilton

Welcoming the new year with gratitude: Holloran Center Resolutions for 2024

By: Barbara Glesner Fines, Dean and Rubey M. Hulen Professor of Law, UMKC School of Law

What better time to reflect on professional identity formation than the new year, when so many of us are making resolutions for growth and improvement.  Here are three of our resolutions for the Holloran Center’s continued formation:

  1. We resolve to be grateful.  We are grateful for the leadership of Tom Holloran, whose example of servant leadership inspires us. We are grateful for the work of scholars and teachers in other professions who have given us so many insights and inspiration. We are especially grateful to you, our colleagues engaged in this work of coaching, mentoring, and guiding our students in their transformation from student to lawyer.
  2. We resolve to listen.  This past year, we have learned so much from the questions and critiques posed by our colleagues.  What do we really mean by formation? How is it different from the knowledge and skills transfer we aim to teach and provide? How do we assess development?  How do or should concepts of professionalism and civility fit into professional identity? What about this idea of “identity”?  How does that singular-sounding noun reconcile with our diverse cultures and values as individuals and communities? How do we ensure that the work of formation is shared and equitably by our entire community? Our understanding of our work has evolved with each question and challenge.
  3. We resolve to share. Since 2013, over 400 scholars, teachers, and student services professionals from over 60 law schools have attended a Professional Identity Formation workshop or conference or symposium sponsored by the Holloran Center. We look forward to hosting at least three additional workshops in 2024: a conference for professional responsibility scholars and teachers in April, along with two summer workshops.  We will continue to support others leading in this effort. We are also working to develop our online community: revising our databases of materials and inventories, and growing our blog and listserv.  Let us know how we can help.

Happy New Year!

Neil, Jerry, David, Lou, Barb, Kendall, and Felicia


group of people
Neil Hamilton

The Professional Responsibility Course Can Engage Students in a Community of Practice on Cross-Cultural Competency, Equal Access and the Elimination of Bias, Discrimination, and Racism

By: Neil Hamilton, Holloran Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, University of St. Thomas School of Law

Accreditation Standard 303 requires that each law student shall complete a course of at least two credit hours that includes instruction on the values and responsibilities of the legal profession. Interpretation 303-6, adopted in 2022, now requires that the values and responsibilities of the profession to which students are introduced in Professional Responsibility must include the importance of cross-cultural competency and the obligation of lawyers to promote a system that provides equal access and eliminates bias, discrimination, and racism in law.

In the fall of 2023, I changed my three-credit Professional Responsibility course with 68 students to meet the new Interpretation 303-6 requirement in the context of a community or practice that fosters each student’s professional identity regarding the values and responsibilities above. There is a growing body of empirical scholarship pointing toward the importance of communities of practice (CoP) in terms of how professionals define their work and make the discretionary calls involved in the work. A community of practice is a persistent, sustaining social network of individuals who share and develop an overlapping knowledge base, set of foundational values, and experiences focused on a common practice. [One of my latest articles sets forth an extended analysis of this experiment. See Neil Hamilton, Professional Responsibility and Professional Identity Formation in a Community of Practice with Alumni, 20 UNIV. ST. THOMAS L.J. (forthcoming 2024).]

I formed communities of practice by putting the students in teams of four based on each student’s post-graduation area of employment interest and assigning an alumni coach practicing in the team’s area of interest. The team had to discuss with the coach four professional identity formation topics covering discretionary calls of lawyering in the practice areas. The fourth topic for the teams and coaches to discuss and reflect upon focused on cross-cultural competency, equal access, and the elimination of bias, discrimination, and racism in the team’s practice area.

The syllabus assignment for the fourth essay is below.

“This essay may be challenging for the team and the coach. For our profession and our law school, a core guiding principle is to develop cross-cultural competency, and a core value is to promote a legal system that provides equal access and eliminates bias, discrimination, and racism. Team members have been experiencing different types of communities of practice both inside and outside the law building. The team should discuss, deliberate, and reflect on what team members have observed that various communities of practice are doing with respect to this guiding principle and core value. What is each team member doing? What is a next step for this academic year to grow to a later stage of development? The team must interview their coach for this assignment.”

Overall, the teams and coaches had excellent discussions on this topic. Some of the teams and coaches commented that it is a challenging topic, but an important one. A number of essays urged openness about these topics. There were a number of suggestions on how to approach the topic with others including using one-on-one conversations rather than larger group conversations. Another frequent observation was a version of “go where they are” in terms of these conversations, and to listen and understand your conversational partner(s), not to judge them.
The points that the essays raised on the topics of developing cross-cultural competency and promoting a legal system that provides equal access and eliminates bias, discrimination, and racism in the law have some significant overlap on all three of those topics. Here are the most common overlapping themes.

  1. Take specific steps (small steps) to expose yourself to people of different cultures than your own and reflect on what you experience. The major point is to get out of your personal and professional bubble. For example, “get off the bus, and go into stores that serve people of other cultures.”
  2. Exercise authentic curiosity about these other cultures.
  3. Be present and listen actively to speakers from other cultures.

Note that from an enlightened self-interest standpoint, it is becoming more common in an interview, particularly for positions involving people from other cultures, to have a question about what the interviewee is doing specifically to increase cross-cultural competency. It is good to have a story of what you are doing.
The students’ essays based on their discussions with their coaches provided the following suggestions for law students/lawyers on the three main topics:

Developing Cross-Cultural Competency

  1. Seek out individuals who are different from you in your community and engage them in a conversation. For example, in our community, seek out an LL.M. student.
  2. Seek volunteer/public service experience in a community that is different from your own. For example, for transactional lawyers, provide legal assistance to minority businesspeople.
  3. Take a Clinic or an Interviewing and Counseling course.
  4. Learn another language. At least learn a few important introductory phrases like “Hello, how are you? My name is _____. What is your name?”
  5. When creating an event, consider a step to make it more inclusive.
  6. Be patient and especially present with active listening when interacting with a person of a different cultural background.

Promoting Equal Access

  1. Observe and be mindful of deficiencies in equal access in your practice area, and go the extra mile in your communication and attention when you see situations where cultural differences make it challenging for people of different cultures.
  2. If you see deficiencies in equal access in your practice area, say something. Talk to people about possible solutions.
  3. Do pro bono each year that is directed to address the deficiencies in equal access that you are experiencing.

Promoting a Legal System that Eliminates Bias, Discrimination, and Racism

  1. The major suggestion was to be mindful when you see systemic problems and to try to take even a small step to address the problem you see. For example, a prosecutor pro-actively tries to look at data to make sure that the dispositions she is offering are not being affected by race/ethnicity/gender.
  2. Join (or form) a group that is trying to do law reform in your area of practice.
  3. When you see biased or discriminatory conduct, speak up in a professional manner.

Reflecting on the essays, I think that the most important benefit is that each student articulated one concrete step to take to grow to the next level on this challenging topic. Another major benefit is that the practicing alumni lawyers provide credibility that this challenging topic is important for the practice of law, and is not just a topic that professors are imposing on students. In addition, this community of practice approach has the additional benefit of causing practitioners to discuss and reflect on the topics assigned to the teams.

If you have any questions or comments about this post, then please contact me at NWHAMILTON@stthomas.edu.

Neil Hamilton is the Holloran Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minnesota.

Studying for an exam
Barbara Glesner FInes

Final Exams and Professional Identity Formation

By: Barbara Glesner Fines, Dean and Rubey M. Hulen Professor of Law, UMKC School of Law

As final exam season nears, we who teach doctrinal classes are turning our efforts toward constructing final exams that will fairly assess our students’ mastery of the learning outcomes we have set for our class. What conclusions might we draw about the final exam experience as an opportunity for students to experience being a lawyer or to reflect on what that identity means?

We might conclude that some traditional final exam approaches are not well suited as intentional formation experiences.  Multiple-choice, standardized questions are unlikely to provide an opportunity to develop one’s conception of the role of attorney.  While these exam question approaches can be helpful for assessing knowledge and, to some degree, analytical skill, they are an experience that is entirely academic.  Traditional essay questions, even when framed as “you are the attorney for…”  or asking students to “advise your client,” are equally unlikely to help students to form a professional identity.  When delivered in the artificial environment of a timed, in-class final exam, students are unlikely to see these essay exams as experiences in which they are acting in an authentic lawyering role.

Nevertheless, traditional exam approaches are not irrelevant to professional formation.  All communicate the need for professionals to prepare diligently, perform well under pressure, and communicate clearly: all part of the professional value of striving for excellence.  However, they also may communicate negative habits and mindsets.

If the final exam is the only opportunity for graded credit that students receive during a semester, students are taught that day-to-day work has little value compared to the ability to deliver on deadline.  Many of our students have intellectual abilities that allowed them to earn high grades during their undergraduate education by simply “cramming” for final exams rather than requiring steady, daily practice. Unfortunately, many attempt and even succeed in that same approach to their work in law school.  It is little wonder, then, that we see the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct needing to comment that, “Perhaps no professional shortcoming is more widely resented than procrastination.”[1]  One way, then, to create opportunities for students to internalize a strong commitment to sustained, quality work is to make sure that the final exam is not the only place in which they are given feedback or earn reward.

Probably the most powerful formation aspect of final exams is what comes after they are over: grades.  Grades can impact professional formation in many negative ways.  Law students, already overly reliant on external measures of self-worth, can be pushed even further in that direction.  Students can take grades as indicia of career opportunities and academic expectations.  For those at the bottom of the curve, grades can create a sense of hopelessness that undermines continual improvement.  Students at the top of the statistical grade curve are not unaffected either.  Their top-percentage grades can lead them to feel that they are doing something wrong if they do not enter the large firm tournament.

There is a tension here of course.  The more we use “grades” to motivate student performance, the more we emphasize an external locus of control.  We can find ways to provide frequent feedback and give students credit for regular practice without sending a message that student’s performance is tied to their competitive grade ranking with their peers. For example, regular practice quizzes or exams (i.e., evaluated but ungraded) can give students a way to assess their progress and earn the intrinsic satisfaction of producing a quality product.

As one of the most powerful experiences in law school, final exams could become transformative opportunities for students to reflect on their own attitudes toward professional work and value. For law schools to help make that happen, we must build in more opportunities to communicate with students about the meaning of exams and grades. We could engage students to reflect on the exam experience after it is over, develop the habit of reflection on performance for continual improvement, and right-size the impact of grades on their own self-evaluation. We do not generally structure our academic calendars to incorporate such an experience. That doesn’t mean that such an experience could not be built into our academic programs as part of an overall professional identity formation program.

Do any schools have such a program? Please share your experiences on the Holloran Center PIF listserv or with me at bglesnerfines@umkc.edu.


[1] ABA Model Rule 1.3, Comment 3.