Discussions of Professional Identity in Legal Education

Picture a lawyer. Was he a male or was she a female lawyer? Was the lawyer wearing a suit? Was the suit black or blue? Even if you’re a huge fan of the film Legally Blonde, I doubt you pictured Elle Woods in her pink suit. In the movie, Elle stuck out like a sore thumb among her more conservatively dressed classmates. This fall, as students begin their legal education, some of them will face deep insecurities and will not see themselves as lawyers. Schools can give students the space to talk about their perception of professional identity and encourage students to stay in the profession rather than giving up because of a feeling that they don’t belong.

The American Bar Association requires law schools to incorporate a discussion of professional identity into the legal education curriculum in Standard 303(b): “A law school shall provide substantial opportunities to students for: (1) law clinics or field placement(s); (2) student participation in pro bono legal services, including law-related public service activities; and (3) the development of a professional identity.” The rule interpretation further clarifies the meaning of this requirement[1]: “The development of professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice.”

I had the opportunity to moderate one of these 303(b) discussions in my law school this year. I was surprised and impressed by students’ responses to the discussion. They were willing to openly discuss their own feelings about professional identity and frank in their assessment of where legal education and the profession have failed. But in any discussion there are always students who don’t speak up.

Because students may not wish to share all aspects of their personal identities, values, and principles with classmates, perhaps schools can lead conversations around Elle Woods’ development of a professional identity. Students could watch a few clips of the film (or even a screening of the entire film) and discuss it afterwards.[2] It would be no substitute for a more serious discussion but it might allow some of the silent students to speak up without needing to talk about themselves. We cannot all be as gorgeous and self-assured as Elle Woods at the triumphant and cheerful end of the film, but we can help our students to think critically about the profession through the more comfortable lens of fiction.


[1] “Interpretation 303-5[:] Professional identity focuses on what it means to be a lawyer and the special obligations lawyers have to their clients and society. The development of professional identity should involve an intentional exploration of the values, guiding principles, and well-being practices considered foundational to successful legal practice. Because developing a professional identity requires reflection and growth over time, students should have frequent opportunities for such development during each year of law school and in a variety of courses and co-curricular and professional development activities.” https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_education_and_admissions_to_the_bar/standards/2023-2024/2023-2024-aba-standards-rules-for-approval.pdf

[2] Possible Discussion Questions:

Does Elle resemble the stereotypical image of a lawyer? Is Elle qualified to be a lawyer?

What are the values which lawyers hold, and how does Elle depict some of them?

What parts of the film are realistic portrayals of legal education?

How does Elle cope with feelings of self-doubt?

How does Elle grow throughout the film?

How can the law school assist with development of a professional identity and with student well-being?

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