Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why Professional Identity Training Is So Important

This weekend, the New York Times published a tragic story about a lawyer who had died of an overdose after falling into the abyss.  The story, told by his ex-wife, takes the lawyer from the early days of their marriage, through law school, then to his life as a lawyer.  I would like to concentrate on his time in law school.

"Some research shows that before they start law school, law students are actually healthier than the general population, both physically and mentally. 'There’s good data showing that,' said Andy Benjamin, a psychologist and lawyer who teaches law and psychology at the University of Washington. 'They drink less than other young people, use less substances, have less depression and are less hostile.'

In addition, he said, law students generally start school with their sense of self and their values intact. But, in his research, he said, he has found that the formal structure of law school starts to change that.

Rather than hew to their internal self, students begin to focus on external values, he said, like status, comparative worth and competition. 'We have seven very strong studies that show this twists people’s psyches and they come out of law school significantly impaired, with depression, anxiety and hostility,' he said."

"Wil Miller, the lawyer and former methamphetamine addict, said that in his experience, law school encouraged students to take emotion out of their decisions. 'When you start reinforcing that with grades and money, you aren’t just suppressing your emotions,' he said. 'You’re fundamentally changing who you are.'

Research studying lawyers’ happiness supports this notion. 'The psychological factors seen to erode during law school are the very factors most important for the well-being of lawyers,' Lawrence Krieger, a professor at Florida State University College of Law, and Kennon Sheldon, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri, wrote in their 2015 paper 'What Makes Lawyers Happy?' Conversely, they wrote, 'the factors most emphasized in law schools — grades, honors and potential career income — have nil to modest bearing on lawyer well-being.'

After students began law school they experienced 'a marked increase in depression, negative mood and physical symptoms, with corresponding decreases in positive affect and life satisfaction,' the professors wrote.

Students also shed some of their idealism. Within the first year of law school, students’ motivation for studying law and becoming lawyers shifted from 'helping and community-oriented values to extrinsic, rewards-based values.'

Young lawyers in treatment at the Center for Network Therapy, an ambulatory detox facility in Middlesex, N.J., frequently tell Dr. Indra Cidambi, the medical director, that the reality of working as a lawyer does not match what they had pictured while in law school."

The above paints a picture that is representative of what law schools often do to their students.  When I was in law school thirty years ago, our law library had a poster of how a person's brain looks before and after law school.  This poster is very similar to the above story.

The key point in the above is that law school changes its students from relying on internal values, such as self-worth, accomplishment for accomplishment's sake, and a love of the law and learning, to external ones, such as status and money.

In recent years, some law schools and law professors have advocated teaching professional identity and wellness.  Instead of just teaching the ethical rules in a Socratic manner, they advocate immersing students in the profession.  They want students to learn what the law profession is really about and to connect their values with those of the profession.  This requires students to internalize the practices, customs, and values of the legal community.

I said that some law schools and law professors are doing this, but there are not nearly enough.  All law schools need to teach professional identity and wellness.  If they do so, this will help produce healthier lawyers and produce a better legal community for society.  I do not mean to say that law schools can prevent all of a lawyer's future problems, but they can provide a firm foundation for future lawyers.

I recommend that everyone read the Krieger/Sheldon piece linked to in the above article.  I have also written a book on professional identity training, Developing Your Professional Identity: Creating Your Inner Lawyer (2015), that is intend to help law students understand the legal profession and their role in it.

(Scott Fruehwald)


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