Exemplars 10

Bettering the Practice

School of Law

Neil Hamilton is dedicated to the formation of the lawyer’s professional identity.

In 1987 I was out of law school 17 years and on a sabbatical. By that time, my law school classmates and I had achieved everything we had dreamed about as students: partnerships at law firms, general counsel positions, judgeships, and positions as county attorneys and public defenders.  But a significant proportion, particularly the private firm litigators, were experiencing significant stress and unhappiness in their work. During the sabbatical, I reflected on what I had heard from my contemporaries, and I concluded that the legal profession had a significant crisis of meaning and purpose. There was an increasing trend toward valuing the work simply in terms of hours billed and paid and high incomes. I decided to devote the rest of my career as a scholar and teacher to do what I could to help the next generations of lawyers find meaning and purpose in the work.
   The three most significant developments in terms of my scholarship over the past 25 years have been the leap of faith I took to join the University of St. Thomas School of Law as a founding faculty member in 2001, Dean  Thomas Mengler’s and my success in raising the initial endowment for the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions in 2006, and the resources the center has provided to hire Dr. Verna Monson as the center’s research fellow and program director for research and administration. UST Law gives me a community of scholars interested in and focused on the ethical professional formation of students and practicing professionals.  The Holloran Center gives me a base and resources for scholarship on professional formation where we can learn from the experience of higher education for other professions, and Monson gives the center and me an exceptional and unique capability to do empirical research on professional formation and the pedagogies that are most effective to foster students’ professional formation. 
   In 2010 Lee Shulman, the former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, summarized Carnegie’s findings from lengthy studies of higher education in engineering, law, medicine, nursing and the seminary. “In every field that we studied, we concluded that the most overlooked aspect of professional preparation was the formation of a professional identity with a moral core of service and responsibility around which the habits of mind and practice should be organized... . An integrated curriculum must provide the basis for the formation of individual professional integrity.”
   The center’s and my overall research goal is to provide scholarship that will promote a paradigm shift toward the formation of each student’s (and each practicing professional’s) ethical professional identity. This paradigm shift would be reflected both in the profession’s and the academy’s understanding of the lawyer’s role and in the curriculum. I use ethical professional identity here as a synonym for professionalism. Research Fellow Verna Monson and I have a unique strength as a team to do empirical research that will achieve this overall goal.
   Since the challenge for higher education of fostering adult moral formation into an ethical professional identity is the same across the professions and business, our theoretical and empirical research should be useful across the professions. On a longer-term horizon, we want to extend our research to influence higher education in business and medicine
   Our “big” ideas focus on changing the paradigm of legal education to give much more emphasis to ethical professional formation. We have outlined these ideas in a series of articles, including substantial empirical research.
  Monson and I are publishing between three and five articles a year now on these  subjects, and we have a book proposal on the empirical study of professional formation almost ready to send out. 
  I write a bi-monthly column for Minnesota Lawyer on these topics and co-write half of them with my research assistants.  The center has a consistent staff of five research assistants, and we involve students in all aspects of our research.

“I concluded that the legal profession had a significant crisis of meaning and purpose.”


Neil Hamilton on achieving a greater emphasis on ethical professional formation in legal education:

High degrees of professionalism (ethical professional identity) have a positive empirical relationship with how senior lawyers and clients assess a lawyer’s effectiveness.

Ethical professional formation into an ethical identity occurs over a lifespan, and is significantly slower in development than the analytical or other practical skills.

The elements of an ethical professional identity in terms of capacities and skills can be clearly defined as learning objectives for an educational program.

Each student’s (or practitioner’s) internalized moral core (using the capacities of the four component model as our analog for moral core) is the foundation of an ethical professional identity. 

Students (and practitioners) are at different stages of development in terms of ethical professional formation in each of the four component model capacities, so educators  must engage each student at the student’s current stage in each of the capacities. 

We can empirically identify educational engagements that are effective in fostering this growth with particular emphasis on internalizing the disposition (in a constantly repeating loop) of acting, seeking feedback from others, reflecting on the feedback, and self-assessing how to grow. 

Clients are also at different stages of development in terms of ethical professional formation (and also can grow developmentally), and lawyers must engage each client at the client’s current stage in terms of each of the four component model capacities.

The secular moral psychology literature in significant ways describes and measures the move each person can make over a lifespan from a self-centered understanding of life to an internalized, other-centered, much more complex understanding of human flourishing. This has many parallels with the growth over a lifespan toward love of neighbor encouraged by religion, particularly Christianity.  In addition, a Scottish enlightenment understanding of the moral foundation of capitalism emphasizes that the trust necessary for capitalism depends upon a significant proportion of individuals moving from a short-term greed to internalize at least an enlightened longer-term self-interest understanding of human cooperation. Our empirical research suggests ways to foster growth in moral capacities both toward an enlightened self-interest and trustworthiness and continued development beyond enlightened self-interest toward a true internalized love of neighbor in the thousands of forms that love of neighbor takes in all the circles of people around each of us.

Neil Hamilton
“I concluded that the legal profession had a significant crisis of meaning and purpose.”