Professional Identity: Critical For Success

By Associate Dean Justice Margaret O’Mara Frossard (ret.)

Last week, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke graciously addressed JMLS students and alumni on the topic of professionalism within the legal field. Justice Burke very wisely noted that lawyers are expected to be lawyers 24 hours a day, seven days per week. In other words, society expects lawyers—and therefore law students—to behave and function as professionals at all times. Indeed, “professional identity isn’t just part of being a lawyer, it is the essence of a lawyer.” (emph. added) E. Scott Fruehwald, “Developing Law Students’ Professional Identities,” 37 U. La Verne L. Rev. 1, 19 (Fall 2015).

Defining one’s professional identity, however, requires reflection and thought, as there are many ways to successfully utilize one’s law degree after graduation. Here are a few suggestions to help you think about what type of lawyer you would like to be.

Strive for excellence in your studies and focus upon developing strong professional habits

A study several years ago by the Carnegie Foundation tied lawyer dissatisfaction, disciplinary issues and unprofessional conduct such as incivility to habits learned during law school. William Sullivan, et. al., The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, 28-33 (2007). In practice, attorneys who misstate the law or fail to adequately represent or communicate with a client can face discipline under the ARDC; it is far better to make honest mistakes while in law school and learn from them. Avail yourself of your professors and other offices at the law school, such as the writing resource center, to ensure that you can always be confident, proud and satisfied about your work when in practice.

Emulate the professionalism you see in attorneys you respect

Think about the attorneys you know or have worked with who have an enviable professional identity in your eyes. Likely, they espouse some of the same basic principles in their respective livelihoods: civility and collaboration with peers, competence and excellence, integrity and judgment and service to others. See, e.g. Susan L. Brooks, “Meeting the Professional Identity Challenge in Legal Education Through a Relationship-Centered Experiential Curriculum,” 41 Baltimore L. Rev. 395, 400 (2012).  Just as the law provides that we utilize the rule of stare decisis, so too should you take the time to observe and model the specific ways that experienced attorneys comport themselves. Don’t forget that most if not all successful attorneys today once had a mentor, too!

Practice, practice, practice

There is no excuse to emerge from law school with no legal work experience. Experts agree that practical experience can go a long way to help you develop a healthy and productive professional identity, including that gained in one of the many excellent clinics located at JMLS. See Id. at 395-98. By working with actual clients and actual matters, you’ll gain not only the opportunity to sharpen your legal writing and advocacy chops, but may well go down a path that will lead to a satisfying post-graduation job and career. A good place to start is JMLS’s Career Services Office. Build a relationship with your counselor, who will be able to guide your efforts in this respect.