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Megan Bess

Megan Bess

Helping Students Gain Better Context in their Real-World Lawyering Experiences

By: Megan Bess, Director of the Externship Program and Assistant Professor of Law, University of Illinois Chicago School of Law

A few years ago, I set out to create my first externship course syllabus in my new role directing my school’s externship program. One of my goals to was to empower students to put their work in context and see how it fits in with the structure and goals of their externship organizations. I have found that without the coaxing to do so, students did not consistently seek out information about their organizations outside of the knowledge required to complete the work assigned by their supervising attorneys.  Students are eager to make themselves useful to their immediate supervisors and colleagues. But an important opportunity for reflection that aids professional identity formation is missed without considering the larger context of how a student’s role and work contribute to the greater purpose of an organization and how that work serves and/or advances the legal profession.

As I was drafting the syllabus, a long-time adjunct showed me an assignment he developed for his government externship class. It prompted students to identify how decisions are made at the organization. At first glance, this seems simple enough to do. But there can be many layers to decision-making. This requires first identifying who the clients are. It also entails determining  how decision-making is shared by clients and attorneys in the organization’s particular setting. He also asked students to describe any checks on the decision-making process. I immediately adapted a version of his reflective assignment for my externship section. I have tweaked it many times since then, but I remain impressed by the depth of investigation and reflection required for students to complete the assignment.

We have adjusted this slightly for students working in different settings. For example, when students extern with courts and/or judges, we ask them to identify the source of the court’s authority and the types of decisions made by the court or judge. We ask them to analyze the decision-making steps and any checks on decisions. When students extern for an organization’s in-house counsel, we help students reflect on how the goals of protecting the organization from liability and ensuring financial stability impact decision-making. Students with public interest organizations delve into decisions about the factors that determine which clients to take on and how to prioritize the use of organizational resources.

While this assignment was created for an externship setting, it has potential to aid in professional identity formation any time a law student works in a real-world legal setting. As part of their efforts to better incorporate professional identity formation, many schools have or are developing programs or guides to help prepare students for real-world lawyering experiences. These could include a suggestion that as part of a student’s onboarding, they investigate how decisions are made at the organization in which they will work. We can also help our students debrief and make sense of the work they have already done if we ask them these questions after they have engaged in a real-world legal experience.

To do this properly, students will need to understand the structure and mission of their organization and how attorneys support this mission. They will also need to identify the client or clients and which decisions attorneys can make and which are reserved for clients. I encourage students to identify examples to help illustrate this process and identify points of tension or confusion in the relationship between attorney and client. The process can be quite complicated, especially in large organizations. Such reflection requires students to think beyond their work and their role to understand the challenges inherent to the attorney’s role in the organization. In my experience, law students ultimately discover that the role of the attorney is not nearly as straightforward as it first seems. This firsthand knowledge of the challenges attorneys face is an invaluable part of their professional identity formation journey.

If you have questions or comments, please reach out to me at

Megan Bess is the Director of the Externship Program and Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law.



Megan Bess

Goal Setting Across the Law School Experience: a Simple and Powerful Professional Identity Formation Tool

By: Megan Bess, Director of the Externship Program and Assistant Professor of Law,
University of Illinois Chicago School of Law

I have spent a good amount of time over the past few months reflecting on how to best incorporate professional identity formation in my teaching and across our law school’s curricular and extracurricular programming.  Like many of us, I wear many hats at my institution, some with easier connections to PIF than others. For instance, in my role overseeing externships I have been able to craft a curriculum centered on reflection, self-assessment, and professional identity formation. Nearly everything students do in their externship experience furthers the development of their professional identity. But when I teach a large section of Professional Responsibility, my interest and desire to incorporate professional identity formation often conflict with the pressures to cover as many Model Rules and PR concepts as I can. I have been asking myself which of the PIF-related activities I utilize in the externship program could I easily incorporate into other classes and activities. And then I had a realization: I can work goal setting into almost anything I teach.

More than three years into my role directing my school’s externship program I have now seen hundreds of student goals for their externship experiences. Many follow common themes of improving specific research and writing skills and participating in lawyering activities. Some of the best goals I have seen, however, demonstrate strong self-awareness and a desire to improve professional behaviors. For example, one student set a goal to develop a system to better manage their school, work, and personal obligations so that they could be more fully present in each rather than multi-tasking. I’ve seen students set goals for increasing and managing their physical and mental health or strengthening their understanding of, and connections to, their legal community.

While an externship, clinical, or other real-world lawyering experience easily lends itself to goal setting, I believe that students can and should be encouraged to set goals across their entire law school experience. Goal setting is especially powerful if introduced early in law school. For example, UIC Law has a one-credit required first-semester course, Expert Learning, that introduces students to study and exam-taking strategies, lawyering skills, resilience and mindset, and other professional skills and behaviors important for success in law school and in law practice. The course covers goal setting and requires students to set a goal for the course itself.

Goal setting empowers students to take charge of and responsibility for themselves and their experiences. Studies show that rigorous and specific goal setting correlates with higher performance.[1] And feelings of success in the workplace derive from pursuing and attaining meaningful goals.[2] In short, setting goals is a habit that will aid students in their legal careers. And the very act of setting goals requires some self-reflection that aids in professional identity formation.

Most students are familiar with the concept of goal setting. A popular framework is SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely). Encouraging students to set goals for the courses you teach and activities you oversee is a simple tool to encourage their reflection and self-assessment with a framework that is familiar to them.

The good news is that this can be incredibly easy to do. There are numerous goal setting lessons and resources available. When I first sought to incorporate goal setting in the externship program, a simple online search turned up numerous videos (I selected a simple SMART goal overview from LinkedIn Learning) and written materials. One of my favorites is this simple worksheet from Baylor University that explains SMART goal setting and walks the user through a goal setting process.

If you are worried about the labor required with providing feedback on student goals, consider asking students to share their goals with and elicit feedback from their peers. My students have shared that they enjoy this goal setting method. I give students time to brainstorm one goal and then have them share in small groups with instructions to offer suggestions for making the goal “SMARTer.” In my experience, law students are amenable to suggestions from their peers who are proud of themselves when they can offer helpful feedback to their classmates.

I can easily envision students setting goals related to course performance and grades. But we can encourage our students to think of goals from a broader perspective. Students can set goals for a course that relate to organizational skills, time management, study habits, understanding and applying course material in real-world context, the contributions they make to their group, and/or class participation. If we provide them some examples along these lines, then they will feel like they have permission to identify and work on these skills. Imagine the power we have to help students commit to and practice goal setting habits in as few as ten (10) minutes at the start of our courses.

If you have questions, comments, or ideas for improvement, please reach out to me at

Megan Bess is the Director of the Externship Program and Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law.

[1] Edwin A. Locke & Gary P. Latham, New Directions in Goal Setting Theory, 15 Current Directions in Psychological Science, 265-268 (2006).

[2] Barbara A. Blanco & Sande L. Buhai, Externship Field Supervision: Effective Techniques for Training Supervisors and Students, 10 Clinical L. Rev. 611, 642 (2004); Laurie Barron, Learning How to Learn: Carnegie’s Third Apprenticeship, 18 Clinical L. Rev. 101, 107 (2011).

Megan Bess

A Simple Professional Identity Formation Assignment Ideal for Externship and/or Clinical Courses

By: Megan Bess, Director of the Externship Program and Assistant Professor of Law,
University of Illinois Chicago School of Law

Reflective assignments will be a key tool for law schools as they implement ABA Standard 303’s call for professional identity formation. For the past few years, our school’s externship program has used a simple assignment and associated rubric to encourage students to reflect on the skills and competencies they will need as attorneys. While this was designed for use in our externship seminars, it can be easily adapted for any course with a goal of having students reflect on the responsibilities of an attorney and associated skills and competencies.

I originally created this assignment to get students thinking about the skills and competencies identified in the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System Foundations for Practice Study, as well as those outlined by Neil Hamilton in his study of law firm competency models. I present students with these materials at the outset to give them broader context for what they might seek to observe and develop during their externship experience. This assignment can be easily adapted for reflection on other skills and competencies using different resources, including, for example, the Shultz-Zedeck Lawyering Effectiveness Factors or the newer IAALS study on skills and competencies, Thinking Like a Client. The goal is to get students to think about the non-legal skills and competencies essential for lawyering and to reflect on how those skills resonate with them. With the traditional law school focus on analytical skills and “thinking like a lawyer,” students are often surprised to learn that many general professional skills and competencies are highly valued by legal employers. The research behind each of the resources listed above is critical to bringing credibility to the skills and proving their value to students. This assignment is a series of simple questions which ask students to reflect on those skills and competencies. The prompts in this assignment seek to have students identify and explain:

  • Which skills/competencies resonate with them and why;
  • Their reactions to the skills employers value (those that are both surprising and expected);
  • Examples of others who demonstrate skills/competencies in professional settings;
  • A concrete example showing they have mastered at least one skill/competency; and
  • A skill/competency they need to improve or develop.

As the associated rubric indicates, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions. This can be a little disconcerting for law students, who are often accustomed to questions requiring more definitive responses. The rubric focuses on the quality and depth of the reflection. As we discuss the skills and competencies in our externship classes, I always remind students that when grading these answers, it is easy to distinguish between genuine and honest reflection and those that are simply “going through the motions.”

This type of reflection on lawyering skills and competencies can be especially powerful during an externship or clinical experience. Students form their professional identities by internalizing a profession’s values and responsibility to others—a process which occurs most powerfully when students participate in practice settings and see the values and behaviors of members of the profession.[i] As Tim Floyd and Kendall Kerew observed, it is while participating in this type of experiential learning that students really examine their progress in developing the professional identity of a lawyer.

Please feel free to use any part of this assignment or rubric that is useful to you. Like all my assignments and rubrics, these continue to evolve over time. If you have questions, comments, or ideas for improvement, please reach out to me at

Megan Bess is the Director of the Externship Program and Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law.

Need other ideas for reflective prompts to aid in professional identity formation? Check out Neil Hamilton and Jerry Organ’s article that includes 30 questions designed to aid in professional identity formation.

[i] See Yvonne Steinert, Educational Theory and Strategies to Support Professionalism & Professional Identity Formation, in Teaching Medical Professionalism, Richard Cruess et al., Teaching Medical Professionalism 72 (Richard Cruess et al. eds. (2d ed. 2016)); Ann Colby & William M. Sullivan, Formation of Professionalism and Purpose: Perspectives from the Preparation for the Professions Program, 5 U. St. Thomas L.J. 404, 420-21 (2008).

Megan Bess

Transitions, Professional Identity Formation, and the Significance of Summer after 1L Year

By: Megan Bess, Director of the Externship Program and Assistant Professor of Law,
University of Illinois Chicago School of Law

Law students experience significant transitions during their legal education that influence their ability to think and act as an attorney. These transitions are marked by intense learning periods in which students develop a new understanding of their profession. So why are transitions important to professional identity formation? Research from other professions, most notably the medical field, shows us that transitions are key to professional identity development and are therefore important milestones for targeting professional identity formation efforts. These transitions represent opportunities for law schools to support students and further their efforts to comply with the new ABA requirement to integrate professional identity formation into legal education.

While there is generally a dearth of studies regarding the major transitions that students experience on their path to becoming attorneys, Professor Neil Hamilton’s research provides some helpful insight into important transitions during 1L year. Hamilton surveyed students at his own law school and found that summer employment (paid or unpaid) after the first year of law school had the biggest impact on their thinking and acting like a lawyer. Thus, summer employment, particularly after the first year of law school, represents an important transition for law students. This is not entirely surprising, as studies of other professions tell us that reactions to real-world settings often represent critical turning points in developing professional identity.

The challenge is for law schools to leverage tools for professional identity formation to help students understand and capitalize on these important real-world legal experiences. As law schools plan for compliance with ABA Standard 303’s new provision requiring “substantial opportunities” for development of professional identity, they would be wise to consider the importance of major transitions to this process. As Professor Louis Bilionis makes clear, experiences important to professional identity, such as summer employment, take place while a student is in law school but fall outside traditional law school oversight. To fully support professional identity formation during summer employment, legal educators must take a broader view of their responsibilities for all formative experiences during law school.

The good news is that legal education is already equipped with pedagogical tools to support student professional identity during transitions that take place while they are working. Externship pedagogy is designed to support the professional identity formation that takes place during real lawyering work. Common externship tools, such as orientation/training, goal setting, reflection, and feedback, aid in the formation of professional identity. Externship programs differ in structure and can be adapted to the needs of individual schools and curricula. Under ABA Standard 304, every externship program must provide students with opportunities to perform legal work, engage in self-evaluation, receive feedback, and be guided in reflection on the experience. This means that no matter the structure of a school’s externship program, many recommended practices for professional identity formation are already in place.

Schools can leverage their existing externship programs to provide professional identity formation opportunities for all students during the significant transition that occurs while working during the summer after 1L year. Each law school can customize a summer support program with a structure and pedagogy to meet their school’s needs. Ideally, these programs would feature some common effective pedagogical tools. For example, providing an orientation or training program before students begin their summer positions could help frame their experiences and facilitate goal setting that takes into account their own strengths and weaknesses. Reflection is critical for professional identity formation—ideally students would have opportunities to reflect periodically on their experiences and then summarily at summer’s conclusion. Students also need feedback and would greatly benefit from school support in interpreting that feedback while engaging in self-reflection on their performance.

Some notable challenges to this approach include whether to offer academic credit, incentivizing student participation, enlisting faculty and staff support, and engaging employers. In a forthcoming article for the Clinical Law Review, I explore these challenges and offer additional suggestions for such a program following 1L year. In this piece, I propose creating a credit-earning course offered during the summer after 1L year to incentivize participation and underscore the seriousness of the professional identity formation process. There are, however, alternatives to this approach and any efforts that schools can take to support students during important transitions such as the summer after 1L year can reap important benefits.

Please contact me at with comments or questions.

Megan Bess is the Director of the Externship Program and Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Illinois Chicago School of Law.