By: Greg Miarecki, Executive Assistant Dean for Career Planning and Professional Development, Director of the University of Illinois College of Law Leadership Project, University of Illinois College of Law
As I discussed in a prior article, the University of Illinois College of Law has taught a required 1L professional identity formation class in since early 2015 – known as Fundamentals of Legal Practice. I teach the class each spring semester, and we cover a wide variety of topics, including the business of law, professional communications, personal branding, relationship building, client service, the importance of pro bono service, and leadership. Each year, usually sometime in February, I get some backlash from students. Some of them tend to be overwhelmed with the demands of the profession I discuss, and express some frustration and exasperation. Once in a while, students will complain that I “don’t get it,” because I went to law school a while ago, went to a T-14 school, and was a litigation partner in a large law firm for many years.
A year or so ago, I was discussing the topic of personal branding, and related a story about how I brought a sleeping bag to my first trial site, believing that I might need it given the long hours. I shared that, while I never actually used the sleeping bag during the trial, the act of bringing it had established me as someone who was willing to work hard. One of my students actually chastised me for taking such an extreme measure. To be honest, I’d never actually thought about why I brought that sleeping bag to the trial site – a trucking facility in Akron, Ohio – in the cold winter of 1999. And in the moment, it came to me why I had – I really didn’t know any better. I had never been part of a trial team before, and I didn’t have anyone in my family who was a lawyer to ask, “What’s a trial like?” So I told my students exactly that – I was new to the legal profession. No one had ever told me what a big trial was like. All I knew is that I’d have to work a lot, and I had a sleeping bag, so I brought it with me. My students’ response was surprising – many of them commented that they had no idea I was a “first generation law student” who didn’t really know my way around at the time. Several of them thanked me for making this “admission.” The act of showing some vulnerability seemingly allowed me to connect with students in a different way.
So this year, I decided to double down on the concept of vulnerability. At the outset of the class, I told my students about some of my foibles in the legal profession, including my highly inefficient 1L job search (sending out 250 form letters), a C in a constitutional law class my second year, a rough summer internship experience the same year, and terrible interviewing skills/habits during both OCI seasons. And I referred back to those “war stories” repeatedly during the course. In the end, I found it helpful to share some of my vulnerabilities with the students, and found most of them to be more engaged than previous classes. If you’re looking to engage your students in professional identity formation discussions, try telling them about some of your worst failures and how you recovered from them using the concepts you’re teaching. You might be pleasantly surprised!
Please feel free to contact me at email@example.com if you have any questions or comments.