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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 (,, or

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

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

Patrick Longan

Meeting Students Where They Are

By: Patrick E. Longan
W.A. Bootle Chair in Ethics and Professionalism
Mercer University School of Law

One of the first lessons I learned about teaching professional identity was Neil Hamilton’s oft-repeated observation that we must “meet the students where they are.” This may also be the most important lesson I have learned.

Let me give you an example. At Mercer, a big part of our professional identity course is a series of small group discussions of hypothetical dilemmas the students might face in practice. In one, they are in role as a junior partner in a large firm and discover evidence that a more senior partner, who is a rainmaker and the source of most of their work, may be overbilling their biggest client, a large corporation. The students are asked to come up with a plan for how they are going to proceed and to be ready to convince others in the small group discussions of the wisdom of the chosen course.

This is a classic problem of practical wisdom. There are many values in play, and they are in tension with each other. The junior partner wants to keep a good relationship with the senior partner, for personal and professional reasons. The senior partner has been a mentor, and, without a steady flow of work from the senior partner, the junior partner’s future in the firm is in doubt. At the same time, the junior partner has obligations to protect the firm and the client from the senior partner’s possible wrongdoing. Overlaying those conflicting goals is irreducible uncertainty. Before taking action, the junior partner cannot know for sure whether the senior partner is overbilling or how the firm will react to any questions the junior partner might raise.

The students receive some guidance about how to approach such problems. At a fundamental level, they know that one of the non-negotiable components of a lawyer’s professional identity is fidelity to the client. We teach it as a virtue and articulate it in first-person terms: “I am the kind of lawyer who fulfills my duties of utmost good faith and devotion to my client, and I do not permit my personal interests or the interests of others to interfere with those duties. For this problem, the students also receive more detailed instructions. The problem offers them the options to do nothing, to raise the issue directly with the senior partner, to consult in-house ethics counsel, or to report the partner to the bar.

Because of all the uncertainty, there is no one right answer. Maybe the senior partner is a thief. Maybe he’s a sloppy timekeeper. Or maybe the partner has an arrangement with the client that allows him to bill a certain number of hours each month regardless of how many hours he actually expends. The students have to think through those possibilities and decide what to do.

This is where the lesson “meet the students where they are” comes in. Although there is no single right answer, at least one answer is wrong: the junior partner cannot choose to do nothing. Once a lawyer has substantial reason to believe that their client may have been the victim of overbilling by a partner in the firm, the lawyer must at least inquire further. Fidelity to the client demands action. In the possible overbilling scenario, there are better and worse ways of proceeding, but the lawyer must proceed in some way, even if it is against self-interest.

Every year we learn that many first-year law students cannot bring themselves to accept, even in a law school hypothetical, that they might be required to take personal risks to protect a client from the acts of another. When the students do a written reflection on the exercise, many write, with great candor and self-awareness, that they would not do anything that would put their position at risk, because they feel a primary obligation to protect themselves and their families from the loss of their jobs. Some describe this decision as “minding my own business,” or “staying in my lane,” or – my personal favorite – “not my circus, not my monkeys.” More than a few foresee catastrophic personal consequences if they lose their job. Others justify the decision by pointing out that the client in the hypothetical is a big corporation that would not miss the money.

Students do not respond in these ways because they suffer from character flaws. They are simply at an early stage of their professional identity development. It is our job to “meet them where they are.”

The most important part of doing that is not to be preachy or judgmental about the decision to do nothing in order to protect themselves. We should expect many students to have a self-interested disposition rather than a fiduciary one at this stage. Law students are all high achievers, and being disposed to look out for #1 has helped them succeed. Although we do not shrink from explaining that the decision to do nothing is unacceptable, we do so in a kind and understanding way. For example, we try to help the students see the situation through the client’s eyes. The client has to trust the lawyer and the law firm because the client is unlikely to be able to detect overbilling. The client would surely feel entitled to know if one of the firm’s lawyers was stealing from the client, if for no other reason than to begin the search for a new law firm. The reasons why acting as a fiduciary to a client are non-negotiable begin to emerge from those discussions.

Another aspect of “meeting them where they are” is to address their fears of losing their jobs if they report the senior partner. That is a possible outcome in the scenario. But some students panic because they foresee economic catastrophe.  Some say they fear “not being able to feed my family” or “losing everything I worked so hard for” if they lose their job. These fears are real because that is “where students are.” Many students lead precarious economic lives. Many have no assets or income and live on massive student loans that someday will need to be repaid. Their nervousness about money leads them, in responding to the problem, to cling to the good job they have with lockjaw tenacity, even if the client suffers. But the students do not appreciate that their economic lives as lawyers will be different from their economic lives as students. They do not realize that losing this particular job is unlikely to be quite so catastrophic. There are other firms, other jobs, other clients. There are steps they can take to insulate themselves from possible effects of switching jobs by cultivating their skill, reputation, and client base. At least in this part of the problem, we can speak some comfort to them. Although there is reason to be afraid of losing a job, there is likely no need to be terrified of it. We can start to move them from where they are to a place less filled with economic dread.

A final aspect of “meeting them where they are” in the handling of this problem is to address the suggestion that they owe less of a duty to a big corporate client than to a more sympathetic or impoverished one. The temptation to think that way at an early stage of professional identity development is understandable. Some of our students take a dim view of big business and instinctively feel entitled to condition their conduct as lawyers on the moral worthiness of the client.

If we handle this approach with understanding and patience, we can help the students cultivate a more mature professional identity. Early in the semester, we read a story about a criminal defendant who was executed after he received terrible representation, perhaps in part because his lawyers did not think he deserved it. After all, the client was a “wife-killer.” The students mostly were outraged by that. Many said “everyone deserves the lawyer’s best efforts” or something along those lines. When we play back those sentiments in our discussions about the representation of a large corporation, the students begin to move from where they are to a more sophisticated understanding of the lawyer’s role. If you can’t be 100% of a lawyer for a wife-killer, don’t represent him. If you can’t give your all for a big corporation, do something else. But the students begin to appreciate that selective fulfillment of the lawyer’s duties, depending upon the worthiness of the client, is not an option.

This is a specific example of a general point. Professional identity development is a process. Most law students are at an early stage. If we “meet them where they are” with understanding and kindness, we can help move them to where they need to be. Neil Hamilton taught me that. For this and so much else – thank you, Neil.

Please feel free to contact me at if you any questions or comments about this post.

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

Daisy Floyd, Patrick Longan, Timothy Floyd

Mercer University’s Professional Identity Course*

Patrick Longan
W.A. Bootle Chair in Ethics and Professionalism

Daisy Hurst Floyd
University Professor of Law and Ethical Formation

Timothy W. Floyd
Tommy Malone Distinguished Chair in Trial Advocacy
Director of Experiential Education

At Mercer, we teach a required three-credit course on professional identity as part of the first-year curriculum. The course has been in place since 2004.

Our first-year course has many moving parts. We try to answer three questions about professional identity – what kind of professional identity a lawyer should have, why would anyone strive to have such an identity, and how one deploys professional identity in everyday practice and in more complex situations. We use a virtue ethics approach, and we teach the students that the professional identity of a lawyer should include six virtues: competence, fidelity to the client, fidelity to the law, public spiritedness, civility, and practical wisdom. We link the six virtues to the public purposes of lawyers. The course addresses motivation by exposing the students to the intrinsic rewards of the right kind of professional identity development. The course is structured to reinforce the good habits and dispositions that the students will need in everyday practice, and we work through problems and exercises to get the students started on implementing their professional identities in complex and uncertain situations. These are ambitious goals, and each part of the course is designed to accomplish one or more of them.

We begin with a series of presentations that give the students the basic structure, vocabulary, and foundational knowledge that they will need in the other parts of the course. These presentations track chapters in our book, The Formation of Professional Identity: The Path from Student to Lawyer [note: a second edition is in the works]. They introduce the students to virtue ethics and cover the six virtues in depth. We explain why it is so important for clients, the courts, and the public that lawyers acquire and deploy them – why the virtues matter to others. The presentations also introduce the students to why it will matter to them personally if they develop a professional identity that internalizes the six virtues. We expose them to research that links the six virtues to a lawyer’s sense of satisfaction and fulfillment in the profession. Finally, the presentations touch on some of the obstacles they will encounter as they try to deploy the virtues in practice, and we begin introducing the students to strategies for overcoming those obstacles and implementing an internalized commitment to their professional identities.

After the first few introductory presentations, we begin a series of weekly section meetings. At Mercer, each entering class is divided into sections of approximately twenty-five students. By the time we encounter them for their course on professional identity in the second semester of the first year, the sections usually have formed into cohesive and mutually supportive groups. The small size, and sense of trust, are important to the success of the section meetings in the professional identity course.

Each section meets once per week for twelve weeks for discussions led by one or more of us. The first three of the section meetings are essentially “warm-up” exercises in which the students read about lawyers who may or may not have deployed the right virtues in particular situations. The students “sit outside” the problems and use their new-found vocabulary about fidelity to the client, etc., to critique or praise the lawyers’ conduct. We also begin in these first two weeks to explore motivations – for example, what could have caused a lawyer to fall short of what is expected.

The next four discussions are more challenging, as the students move into “role,” as members of the state bar board of governors, as members of the state bar rules committee, and as members of the board to determine character and fitness. Here, the students are challenged to act with the virtue of public spiritedness. They debate and vote on proposals relating to access to justice, discrimination and harassment in the profession, and character as a qualification for practice. Students begin to appreciate the significance of the virtues and the difficulty of deploying them when they are first put in role, pretending to be lawyers, when they can no longer sit back “outside the problem” as students.

The next four of the section meetings involve our “practical wisdom exercises.” These problems build in complexity and call upon the students to chart a course in circumstances where more than one virtue is relevant, where the virtues might conflict, and where there is uncertainty. They cannot do that without using the “master virtue” of practical wisdom, and these problems require them to practice doing so. For example, in one problem a defense lawyer must decide whether to inform opposing counsel in a personal injury case that the plaintiff has a serious injury about which the plaintiff is unaware.+ All of these problems require the students not only to know the virtues but also to recognize conflicts among them and obstacles to their implementation while they devise and argue for the wisest action. Although there are certainly some wrong answers, there is never one “right” answer. Many students find this kind of exercise initially uncomfortable. This is where the close-knit nature of the sections is important, because undertaking these exercises with trusted classmates is easier than it would be with strangers.

The final section meeting is a more traditional classroom discussion of a reading that all of the students have completed. For the last few years, we have had the students read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy and asked them to discuss the book in light of what they have learned about professional identity, with particular focus on their roles in addressing systemic injustice. As a “capstone” to this part of the course, we have found that Just Mercy works very well.

The section meetings in many ways are the heart of our course. The students must apply what they have learned about the six virtues to concrete situations. They must encounter and seek to overcome obstacles to being the kind of lawyer they hope to be. They learn that not everyone approaches issues the same way. It is hard work, and the students do not always leave happy. But we often observe them continuing to discuss the problems with their classmates as they are leaving class, and that is when we know we are making progress.

Our students also complete a series of thirteen weekly writing assignments. Many require the students to reflect on the problem from the week before, on their working group discussions, and on the section meetings. Others provide prompts to which the students must respond. For example, we ask the students early in the semester to reflect on their own personal values and to describe how those values mesh with the six virtues of the professional lawyer. It is crucial to require the students to slow down and reflect upon what they are learning. They have many demands on their time, and in a pass/fail class like ours the temptation to rush through the assignments will be too great if we do not force them to reflect. Once the students commit to the exercise, however, the results can be astounding. The student’s growing understanding of professional identity becomes obvious as the semester progresses.

Reading, discussing, and writing about professional identity is crucial, but we have also found that exposing the students to exemplars is powerful reinforcement of the lessons in the books and the classrooms. We do this in two ways. First, we bring in a series of lawyers and judges to be interviewed in front of the class about their lives and careers, with enough time for students to ask questions and introduce themselves personally. This is our “Inside the Legal Profession” series. The guests represent a cross-section of the profession and are also diverse in terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, and age. Many of the interviews have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube.

The second way in which we expose students to exemplars is that we assign each working group to meet in person off campus with a local lawyer or judge near the end of the semester. The mission is to discuss life in the law, including the joys and challenges of different parts of the profession. The interviews are scheduled for one hour each but often last much longer. Students frequently report that this is their favorite part of the course. The lawyers and judges often comment on the high quality of the discussions.

The importance of exemplars cannot be overstated. Our students respect their professors, but the students don’t want to be professors. They want to be lawyers, and they are hungry for direct contact with people who are living the lives they are trying to envision for themselves. Especially after they have been through difficult discussions of the obstacles to the cultivation and deployment of the right kind of professional identity, students often find these meetings refreshing and inspirational. A happy and fulfilling life in the law seems more attainable because they have met with someone who has done it, and students also report that they have felt personally welcomed into their new profession by the willingness of lawyers to spend time with them and offer to help them in their development.

As we noted above, every part of our course serves one or more of our purposes. The lectures provide knowledge about what a lawyer’s professional identity should be and motivation to cultivate such an identity. The section meetings reinforce the virtues and equip the students to overcome obstacles and implement their professional identities. They also provide practice for exercising the master virtue of practical wisdom. The reflective writings help the students to internalize the virtues, while the exemplars deepen their understanding of professional identity and provide further motivation. We are grateful for the opportunity to teach a required first-year course focused on virtue ethics and professional identity, and we are happy to share our experience with the PIF community. We also welcome all suggestions for improving the course.

More information about the course is available at

* This post is adapted from an article the authors published several years ago: A Virtue Ethics Approach to Teaching Professional Identity: Lessons for the First Year and Beyond, 89 UMKC Law Review 645 (2021).

+ The problem is based upon the famous case of Spaulding v. Zimmerman, 236 Minn. 346, 116 N.W.2d 704 (1962).

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

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

Professional Identity, Fast and Slow

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

At Mercer University School of Law, we use virtue ethics to teach professional identity. We have drawn on the dozens of professionalism codes and creeds adopted by courts and bar associations over the last thirty-five years and distilled from them the virtues that a lawyer needs. Those virtues are excellence, fidelity to the client, fidelity to the law, public spiritedness, civility, and practical wisdom. Our students learn of the roots of this approach in Aristotelian ethics. We are convinced that this is the best approach to professional identity. Indeed, I have written elsewhere that professional identity is virtue ethics by another name.

There is sometimes a problem in getting this message across. Some lawyers and some law students recoil at the mention of “virtue.” To them, it sounds preachy. Then when we utter the word “Aristotle,” their eyes begin to roll at these academics who are revealing how detached they are from the everyday world of lawyering. (You don’t want to know what they say and do if you use the word “Aristotelian.”) With these audiences, we need another way to convey the key insights of virtue ethics for the professional identities of lawyers without using what they will hear as off-putting academic mumbo-jumbo.

My answer is to make an analogy to the Nobel Prize-winning work of Daniel Kahneman (done in collaboration with Amos Tversky, who died before he could share in the Nobel). Professor Kahneman popularized their work in Thinking, Fast and Slow, which was published in 2011 and has sold more than 2.6 million copies.

Kahneman explains two ways in which people make decisions. Some come from “System 1,” which “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.” System 1 engages in “thinking fast.” Other decisions come from “System 2,” which “allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it …. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.” System 2 controls “thinking slow.”

For lawyers, the analogy to “thinking fast” is the cultivation of habits and dispositions. Take habits first. Part of a lawyer’s professional identity is excellence. An excellent lawyer shows up on time and meets all deadlines. In the busy life of a practicing attorney, this does not happen because the lawyer sits back and reflects deeply on the need to be punctual for meetings and court appearances. It does not happen because the lawyer takes the time to contemplate each filing deadline and ponder over the importance of meeting it. These parts of excellence emerge when the lawyer cultivates the right habits.

Of course—just between us—much of virtue ethics is about the cultivation of good habits. But habit formation also fits into the more digestible “thinking fast” framework.

As professors, we have enormous power to help our students cultivate the right habits. In our mandatory professional identity course at Mercer, punctuality is rigidly enforced. Students may not enter any class late without advance permission, no matter the reason. When they show up late and miss class, they must explain why and are required to come up with a plan to prevent tardiness in the future. For some, it is simply a matter of setting another alarm. For others, it is starting a long commute much earlier in case of traffic. Regardless of the details, they are developing the habit of punctuality, one of the habits that supports excellence.

We do something similar with the habit of meeting deadlines. The students know that by 8 a.m. every Monday they must complete a writing assignment on Mercer’s learning management system. The assignment closes automatically at 8 a.m. Any students who are late with the assignment must contact me, and I require them to come up with a plan to avoid late submissions in the future. They are cultivating a habit of attentiveness to deadlines, another habit that supports excellence.

In other situations, a lawyer must deal immediately with a problem—they must be ready to “think fast”—and something more than habit is needed. For example, a lawyer may unexpectedly encounter discourtesy or a lack of cooperation from opposing counsel. The lawyer must be prepared to respond appropriately to incivility in the moment. There is no time to reflect on a “Lawyer’s Creed” or an “Aspirational Statement on Professionalism.” The natural tendency (especially for someone like me who grew up with three older brothers) is to return fire. Incivility begets incivility, and the atmosphere quickly becomes toxic. Litigation slows down. It becomes more expensive for the clients and more unpleasant for clients and lawyers alike.

Virtue ethics would say that the lawyer who is the target of the discourtesy should deploy the virtue of civility and break the cycle. How do you prepare students and lawyers to do that when there is no time to think when a fellow lawyer is snide in a deposition, and when these students and lawyers are the ones who roll their eyes at the notion that Aristotle has anything to say about it?

The answer is to introduce the concept of a “disposition,” in the sense of one’s natural inclination to act in a particular way in response to a particular situation. Again, the terminology sometimes can get in the way because lawyers and students think that, by “disposition,” we mean a mood or characteristic attitude, as in “he has a grumpy disposition.” Students understand the concept better if you describe a disposition as a “default setting.” A lawyer whose default setting is not to be surprised or angered at another’s incivility, and who is therefore disposed not to respond in kind to discourtesy, is much more likely to defuse rather than escalate a conflict with an uncivil adversary. There is time before the fact to reflect and decide on what your disposition should be. Having the right disposition then enables the lawyer to do the right thing in the moment when there is no time to ponder. The lawyer is “thinking fast.”

Cultivating such a disposition or default setting in students requires some work. We first have to expose them to the toxin of incivility by having them watch or listen to examples. For many, their natural response to this surprising prospect is fight or flight. With time and effort, we can help them understand the inevitability of encountering these situations, the harm that flows from them, and some strategies for dealing with them. We must “think slow” with them at first. But the ultimate goal is to send them out into the world prepared to encounter others’ incivility and become naturally disposed not to respond in kind. Their professional identity will include an internal commitment to maintaining civility even in difficult and infuriating moments, because they have the right “default setting” or “disposition.”

Lawyers must also, of course, be able to “think slow.” An essential component of professional identity is the cultivation of the “master virtue” of practical wisdom, which enables lawyers to chart or recommend a course of action in uncertain circumstances when multiple goals are in conflict. Again, terminology can get in the way. Lawyers and law students may tune out to the mention of a “master virtue” or “practical wisdom” (don’t ask what they do if you use the word “phronesis”). But the need for practical wisdom translates easily into the need for good judgment, and no lawyer or law student will roll their eyes at the proposition that lawyers need good judgment.

Teaching judgment is harder than teaching punctuality. We use small group (25 to 30 students) weekly meetings in which we discuss a series of “practical wisdom” exercises and put the students in role to exercise judgment about what to do and how to do it. (These exercises are available at All of them present circumstances where there is time to “think slow,” work through different possibilities, and contemplate what might follow from each option. We train them to ask and answer the question, “what if I do this?” as part of the exercise of good judgment.

For example, one problem requires the students to decide (in the role of a junior non-equity partner in a large law firm) what, if anything, to do when they suspect a senior partner
of overbilling a client. The junior partner might choose to do nothing, talk to the partner, or report her suspicions within the firm. For each possibility (and any others the students generate), their preparation for the discussion includes how to go about implementing the decision, as well as the anticipated consequences of each decision, and a plan for dealing with those possible consequences.

For a lawyer to have the right kind of professional identity, the lawyer must cultivate the right virtues. Aristotle and his virtue ethics are powerful tools for helping law students get started on the right path. For skeptical students and lawyers, the concept of professional identity as “thinking fast and slow” may be more relatable. The need to cultivate the rights habits and dispositions, and to learn to exercise good judgment, are things we all should be able to agree on, regardless of the terminology.

Please feel free to contact me at if you any questions or comments.

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

Patrick Longan

Developing Professional Identity By Aligning Personal Values and Professional Life and Following the Four Steps of Discernment: Using A Distinguished Judge’s Life as a Guide

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

All of us who teach professional identity are constantly on the lookout for useful resources. A new book that you will find to be valuable is The Significant Lawyer: The Pursuit of Purpose and Professionalism, by the Honorable William S. Duffey, Jr. (Mercer University Press (2022)).

Judge Duffey comes to the topic of professional identity with long and varied experience in the law. He served in the Air Force JAG Corps, as a private practitioner for 22 years with King & Spalding, as the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and as a United States District Judge. Judge Duffey has reflected deeply on his experiences in the profession and provides powerful insights into how lawyers can find meaning and satisfaction in their careers.

The central thesis of the book is that lawyers must align their lives in the law with their personal values. When lawyers allow their careers to become misaligned with their values, they sacrifice their integrity, with the result that they find themselves unhappy, even lost, in their professional lives. In Judge Duffey’s experience, such misalignment is all too common. For lawyers in private practice, especially at the large law firms whose “profits-per-partner” metrics are routinely published, Judge Duffey blames the misalignment on the pivot of law firms away from service toward the pursuit of more and more profit.

In his reflections, Judge Duffey does not spare himself. For example, he notes that one of his personal values is not to be overly concerned with money or status. He describes how he and his wife, acting consistently with that value, resolved not to change their lifestyle when he became a partner. Yet soon he was driving a new BMW “partner kind of car” and moving to a new house. He had the self-awareness to know he was being pulled out of alignment by money and status. To try to counteract that tendency, and to put his professional life back into alignment with his personal values, one year he resolved not to compare his share of King & Spalding’s profits with those of his partners. He resolutely looked only at his own compensation and decided it was fair. A few days later, he succumbed to the temptation to know what the other partners made. Then his compensation seemed less fair. Judge Duffey found himself less satisfied when he kept score of his professional success by comparing his compensation to the compensation of others.

Judge Duffey also describes the effects of misalignment on his personal life. His personal values include deep love for his family. But when he had reached the litigation “fast lane” at King & Spalding, he realized that the priority he gave to his professional life had caused deterioration of his marriage and estrangement from his children. He carefully reviewed his calendars for the past few years and discovered to his surprise very few entries related to events with his family. Judge Duffey resolved to realign his professional life so that he could give “equal dignity” to his commitment to his family.

There came a point when Judge Duffey decided that he needed a change. Although the work at King & Spalding was complex and challenging, he found that his professional life was significantly misaligned with his personal values. He made the courageous decision to leave a lucrative private practice for public service. As he writes, he then found his professional life to be “abundantly satisfying.”

Judge Duffey’s book is an excellent primer on the cultivation of a healthy professional identity. When we teach our students about professional identity, we ask them to take four steps of discernment. Judge Duffey’s story illustrates all four.

First, students need to reflect on their personal values and motivations and define their personal ethos. One cannot align one’s personal values with professional practice without knowing what those personal values are. Taking the time to reflect is far too rare these days. It takes effort, self-awareness, honesty, and humility. Judge Duffey is an inspiration in this regard. As his book reveals, he is a deeply introspective man who has throughout his life regularly examined and reexamined his most important beliefs and values.

The second step of discernment is to question whether one’s personal values and motivations are likely to be associated with happiness. Not all personal values are created equal. Positive psychology has shown that work that is done for intrinsic rewards rather than extrinsic ones is more likely to yield satisfaction. One is intrinsically motivated to engage in activities that are fulfilling for their own sake or that serve a fundamental purpose. Extrinsic motivations seek rewards that are external to the activity, such as the money one earns for it. Judge Duffey appears to have learned this lesson early in life. As he describes his personal values, over and over he writes about things that are intrinsically rather than extrinsically rewarding. He notes that what he enjoyed about his high-stakes civil litigation private practice was that it was complex and challenging. That is an intrinsic reward of that type of work. When Judge Duffey writes of the rewards of service as a prosecutor or a judge, he describes the fulfillment of fundamental purposes such as fairness and justice. Despite his honest descriptions of the allure of money, status, and power, Judge Duffey never adopted those extrinsic values as his own.

I should note in this regard that Judge Duffey does not contend that lawyers should not seek material success. There is nothing inherently wrong with prosperity. Especially at this time of year, I am reminded of one exchange in the Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, desperate because his Uncle Billy has lost $8,000, hears from his guardian angel that they don’t use money in heaven. George’s response is, “Comes in pretty handy down here, bub. I found it out a little late.” Money does come in handy, and material success is not inconsistent with a meaningful life in the profession. Judge Duffey makes that point several times. But when an extrinsic motivation such as the accumulation of money predominates over intrinsic ones, the lawyer is on a path to dissatisfaction in the law and in life. Law students need to appreciate that. It is not obvious, or even intuitive, but Judge Duffey somehow internalized that lesson early in life.

The third step of discernment is to consider how one’s personal values can be integrated with the non-negotiable norms of the legal profession. It is necessary, but not enough, for lawyers to be able to say that their personal values align perfectly with how they practice law. But what if those values and the conduct that flows from them violate the shared values of the profession? For example, imagine a young lawyer whose personal values include winning at all costs; that goal might be served by ignoring the rules of conduct. Cheaters sometimes win. That lawyer would enjoy a perfect alignment of personal values with his mode of practice, yet of course it is unacceptable. The legal profession exists to serve public purposes and not just the happiness of its members. Judge Duffey’s book shows a deep appreciation for the shared values of the profession. He writes about the eight oaths he has taken over the course of his career. Judge Duffey understands, and appears always to have understood, that lawyers must align their conduct not just to personal values but also to professional standards.

The fourth step of discernment is for lawyers to find the place in the law where their values and the practice can align. No one is born knowing what it is like to be a lawyer in different parts of the profession or how to conduct oneself in all contexts to align personal and professional values. Judge Duffey’s book helps here in several respects. First, he describes his wide range of experiences in the law and provides insights for his readers about life as a prosecutor, a big firm litigator, and a judge. He also relates how the lives of lawyers he has known sharpened his understanding of how to be a happy and successful lawyer. I am pleased to report that two of the lawyers he describes—Griffin Bell and Frank Jones—were proud alums of the Mercer University Law School. More generally, those passages of the book alert law students and young lawyers to the importance of role models and mentors as they find their places in the profession.

This spring, for the 20th year, all first-year Mercer Law students will take a course on professional identity. A generous alum has purchased copies of Judge Duffey’s book for all those students, and we will be using the book in the course. Judge Duffey has made a major contribution to the emerging field of professional identity instruction in law schools, and I commend his book to all readers of this blog. You will find it, as I did, both instructive and inspirational.

Should have you any questions or comments about this post, please contact me at

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.

Patrick Longan

Inside the Legal Profession: Conversations with Members of Georgia Bench and Bar

Learning by Example: Conversations with Leaders in the Legal Profession that Help Guide Law Students’ Professional Identity Formation

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

[Note: This post is adapted from the Foreword to “Inside the Legal Profession – Conversations with Leaders of the Georgia Bench and Bar,” publication forthcoming from Mercer University Press]

All first-year students at Mercer University School of Law take a three-credit course on professional identity. I created the early versions of that course, which began in 2004, and for many years I have taught it with my colleagues Daisy and Tim Floyd. In our course, the students learn that to find success and meaning in the law they need to cultivate a certain kind of professional identity, one that is infused with the traditional values of the profession. The course teaches that lawyers must be competent, faithful to clients, faithful to the law, public-spirited, and civil. It also teaches that lawyers must have the practical wisdom to find the right combination of these virtues for particular situations. To see what we do in that course in detail, take a look at the text we co-wrote, The Formation of Professional Identity: The Path from Student to Lawyer (Routledge Press 2019) and the web page we maintain about it.

Knowing that these are the virtues that lawyers need is important but not enough. Cultivating them is hard work, and there are many obstacles to their implementation in practice. We discovered early in the evolution of the course that we needed to focus not just on the transmission of knowledge but also on motivating the students. We had to show the students the rewards of all that hard work and perseverance. To do that, we needed to bring to them lawyers and judges who are exemplars of the kinds of professionals we are urging them to become.

That need led to the creation of the “Inside the Legal Profession” component of our course. On Monday and Friday mornings over the course of the semester, I interview judges and lawyers with the entire first year class as the audience. I follow the format of the famous “Inside the Actor’s Studio” interviews that James Lipton conducted for many years, and I discuss with each guest his or her life in the law, leaving time at the end for the students to ask questions. The interviews are routinely recorded. More than fifty of the interviews are posted to YouTube, where collectively they have garnered thousands of views. You can find a link to those interviews here. Mercer Law received the 2014 E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award for this project.

Over the years, I have had the privilege of interviewing justices and judges from the federal trial and appellate courts; the Georgia Supreme Court; the Georgia Court of Appeals; various Superior Courts around the state; State Court judges; a Juvenile Court judge; and a Magistrate Court judge. Lawyers from every part of the profession have participated: prosecutors; defense lawyers; big firm, big city litigators and transactional specialists; solo practitioners; divorce and family law attorneys; government lawyers; law professors and administrators; in-house counsel; plaintiffs’ lawyers; insurance defense lawyers; and bar counsel. Our students have heard from members of the profession at every stage of a career, including brand-new graduates who talk about those first months of practice, to young lawyers navigating the partnership track in law firms or struggling to make successes of their own firms, all the way to senior partners and distinguished judges with the perspectives of decades in the profession. The roster of guests has been diverse by gender, race, sexual preference, and ethnicity. At Mercer, we have been honored by the generosity of all the busy and important people who have volunteered their time to help introduce our new students to the many lives in the law from which the students might choose.

This fall, Mercer University Press is publishing the transcripts of eleven of these interviews. It was difficult to choose just a handful of the interviews to include in the book, but the lawyers and judges who appear represent an excellent cross-section of our guests. Five are graduates of Mercer Law School. United States District Judge Louis Sands describes his journey from the time when he was a child and told his mother that he wanted to attend Mercer University – this at a time when no African-American child could do so – through his Mercer education, service as a prosecutor, private practitioner, and Superior Court Judge, to his nomination, confirmation, and service on the federal bench. Angie Coggins talks about what it is like to serve as a public defender, the career choice she made as an intern in Mercer Law School and that she followed for more than thirty years. Tomieka Daniel, who has participated in the series every year since its inception, gives the students a look inside the challenges and rewards of representing clients who need but cannot afford a lawyer for a civil matter and thus turn to her as a legal services attorney. Doc Schneider tells of his serendipitous choice to attend Mercer Law School and how that led to a stellar career at King & Spalding in Atlanta, including working for two other famous Mercer lawyers, former judge and attorney general Griffin Bell and legendary trial lawyer Frank Jones. Lamar Sizemore, Jr., who along with Judge Sands is a member of the famous Mercer Law class of 1974, talks about his three careers, as a highly successful plaintiffs’ lawyer, as a Superior Court judge, and as a mediator. Along the way, he imparts memorable lessons, including what he learned from the late, great Hank O’Neill about how one deals with opposing counsel who mistreat you.

Others who appear in the book have connections to the Mercer Law faculty. Professor Jim Fleissner has taught at Mercer since 1994, and the graduating classes have selected him to receive the teaching award seventeen times; he talks about his earlier career as a federal prosecutor and about how to take advantage of the opportunities that law school affords. Dean Daisy Floyd, now University Professor of Law and Ethical Formation, describes her career trajectory from being an associate at a big law firm through her appointment and service as Dean of the Mercer Law School. Along the way, she had occasion to be a client, and in her interview, she candidly describes the circumstances that led her to need a lawyer and the lessons she learned about lawyering from the experience of being a client. Justice (then Judge) Verda Colvin is an adjunct professor at Mercer; she shares the insight and wisdom of someone who has succeeded in private practice, as a state prosecutor, as a federal prosecutor, and as a judge. Her dedication to excellence, and her courage to be herself as a judge rather than mimic what other judges do, have inspired our students every time she has visited our class.

Two of the interviews in this volume are of lawyers who have no direct connection to Mercer but who nevertheless made the effort to come to Macon and speak with our students. Emmet Bondurant talks about his varied and highly successful career, as a Supreme Court advocate, founder and leader of a highly successful commercial firm in Atlanta, as an attorney for two detainees at Guantanamo Naval Base, and as the pro bono lawyer for a man wrongfully convicted of murder. He describes his motivation for some of his most high-profile pro bono work: “I hate bullies.” Former Chief Justice Harold Melton (now a partner at Troutman Pepper in Atlanta) shared with the class his experiences as the first African-American president of the student body at Auburn University; as a law student at the University of Georgia who placed at “the  top of the bottom half of the class;” as a lawyer in the Georgia Attorney General’s office; as counsel to Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue; as a Justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia; and finally as Chief Justice of that Court. He speaks of the importance in his life of the mentorship of a previous Chief Justice, the late Harris Hines.

As part of their development of their professional identities, students need to see and hear from lawyers and judges who have succeeded and found success and meaning in their work. They need to have exemplars, people whose stories inspire them and whose paths they may want to follow. With the help of the people whose interviews appear in the forthcoming book, and the help of the dozens of others who have participated in the “Inside the Legal Profession” project, we have been able to do that at Mercer Law School. If you are interested in doing something similar as part of a professional identity program, or you want to create a professional identity class, then please contact me at

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