Whether we realize it or not, as lawyers, we begin to form our professional identity in law school. And for many it starts as early as the first day of law school orientation.
As the Commission’s new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Manager, in August, I had the pleasure of participating in my first Jumpstart orientation. Jumpstart helps 1L students from communities that are traditionally underrepresented in law school develop the academic and interpersonal skills needed to navigate law school and become successful legal professionals.
While I had chilling flashbacks just hearing the mock fact pattern the students would need to break down on torts issues, another feeling also resurfaced.
It began as I listened to Judge Ann Claire Williams (Ret.), who founded and still leads Jumpstart, kick off orientation with her opening remarks. It was that same feeling I experienced during my law school orientation.
For me, like many law students, I felt like I was about to embark on a journey that would truly change the world. There were no obstacles in sight, only possibilities.
Do you remember feeling this or something similar during law school orientation? I believe this was the first step in forming my professional identity, and it’s still an integral part of the work I do today.
When was the last time you considered your professional identity? Did you discover that it had morphed into something you don’t recognize? I’ll explore this below.
What is professional identity?
Often in our profession, professionalism and professional identity are grouped into one, but they’re very different ideas. David Thomson, professor of practice at the University of Denver Strum College of Law, describes the distinction as follows:
“Professionalism relates to behaviors, such as timeliness, thoroughness, respect towards opposing counsel and judges, responding to clients in a timely fashion. Professional identity relates to one’s own decisions about those behaviors (which sounds like overlap, but they do not), as well as a sense of duty as an officer of the court and responsibility as part of a system in our society that is engaged in upholding the rule of law.”
The difference is knowing the rules of professional responsibility and deciding how you use those rules to form who you are and who you want to be as a lawyer. Better stated, professionalism relates to the profession itself, your professional identity should be unique to you.
So, is your professional identity stagnant, or is it something that can morph and change over time?
Rediscovering your professional identity
If you’re like me and always looking for an opportunity to reconnect with your professional identity, I’d recommend asking yourself the three questions below.
1. When was the last time you showed up… as yourself?
We often get so caught up in the term “lawyer” and what we think it should represent in our lives that we forget about who we are as people.
When was the last time you walked into the office (or logged into a virtual meeting) and felt like you were able to show up as your true, authentic self?
This is one I struggle with all the time. I’m consciously aware of the stereotypes that Black women face daily. Instead of focusing on just being me at work, I often find myself using my behavior to combat these stereotypes. This leads to overthinking what I should and shouldn’t be doing and forgetting how to just be myself.
When forming your professional identity, don’t try to please others by being someone else. Instead, show up as yourself and focus on letting your morals, values, and talents shine. Project who you are and who you want to be. Only then will you be able to truly connect with your clients and colleagues.
2. Yeah, you’re a lawyer, but what does that mean?
“I’m a lawyer,” is probably the first thing you say when people ask what you do. Lawyers often group themselves together, however, no two lawyers are the same.
Distinguishing yourself and how and why you lawyer is important in forming your professional identity.
You are a lawyer but what do you do each day? Do you help immigrants gain asylum? Do you help corporations negotiate contracts? Do you ensure crimes that are charged are just and fair?
Specifics about your role in the legal system tie in directly with identifying your professional identity.
So, next time someone asks you what you do, think a little deeper and consider your responsibility as part of a system that upholds the rule of law.
3. How have you positioned yourself in the legal community?
The Commission on Professionalism is dedicated to promoting a culture of civility and inclusion, in which Illinois lawyers and judges embody the ideals of the legal profession in service to the administration of justice in our democratic society.
Your professional identity is also formed in your community.
Whether you want to admit it or not, how colleagues, clients, judges, opposing counsel, etc., view you as an attorney matters. So, what reputation do you want to precede you?
Are you representing yourself in courtrooms and boardrooms in a way that truly aligns with your values and beliefs? Are you civil with colleagues and opposing counsel? Are you active in bar associations and do you give back with pro bono work?
These things are important in positioning yourself and solidifying your professional identity within the legal field. Moreover, they provide opportunities for you to demonstrate your true character and connect with others in the field.
I leave you with the same question I asked at the beginning. What is your professional identity? Has it morphed into something or someone you don’t recognize? Or have you been able to stay true to that feeling you had when you started law school orientation? Share your thoughts in the comments.
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