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Satisfying Careers and the Responsibilities of Legal Educators

satisfying careers and the responsibilities of legal educatorsIntroduction

The following post is by Irma S. Russell, Esq., Dean and Professor, University of Montana School of Law. It comes from a comment Dean Russell provided in response to Ron Fox’s recent ALPS 411 blog post Tasks to Accomplish for a Satisfying Law Career. We thought it so well done and so topical to conversations going on in the legal community right now that we asked her permission to use her response as an independent blog post. I think you’ll find the thoughtful insights from Dean Russell enlightening. Perhaps more importantly, it really leads to serious thought on:  Where the legal profession will find itself in the next thirty or so years, what will new lawyers do, and what will the role of law schools (if they even exist in their current form) become in the preservation of the “Rule of Law” in civilized society. We hope that Dean Russell will provide her always thoughtful insights into these and many more great topics as additional posts to ALPS 411.

Robert W. Minto, Jr., ALPS Executive Chair

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Debates about responsibility for educating the next generation seem unlikely to generate a clear winner or reach a simple resolution. Similarly, our attitudes about our own job satisfaction and helping others achieve satisfaction in what they do fall along a continuum represented well by the post from Mr. Fox and the comments it has generated. Much like the more general debate of nature vs. nurture, these debates present ideas worth exploring to help us articulate our goals and recommit to those goals. 

From one perspective, the responsibility of law schools is to provide the “basics.” From this point of view, the highly-motivated graduates will rise to the top as a natural matter, because the responsibility rests with each individual. From another vantage point, law graduates seem justified in expecting more direction and guidance from law schools. Ultimately, each individual will encounter struggles in finding a satisfying career. Some will thrive from the beginning. Others will re-route careers—in the practice of law or outside of traditional practice. Still others will make multiple career corrections or jump when new opportunities present themselves. Experiential learning during law school can assist students in understanding their options and developing their career goals. 

At the University of Montana School of Law, we want to be a resource for students and lawyers who are encountering challenges, making difficult choices, and seeking their paths. We believe that skills training and career counseling should be an integral part of what we offer to students. Of course, teachers and career counselors cannot make the choices for students or graduates, but we can offer guidance and examples to those who are starting down the path, and we can give the help of sharing our personal stories and examples of people we admire. We each bear responsibility for our choices, and no one can guarantee your "Yellow Brick Road," but we each can offer real help to others. 

As Mr. Fox’s blog post notes, the traditional approach of the legal academy has a large theory base. This focus on theory has been criticized widely on a variety of bases. For example, in 1992, the ABA Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession criticized legal education in this country as failing to teach in a practice-oriented way. The report (referenced by Mr. Fox), now widely known as the “MacCrate Report,” after the chair of the task force Robert MacCrate, concluded that the theory-oriented approach to legal education as largely failing to instill skills and values needed by future lawyers and society. The MacCrate Report encouraged schools to focus on skills and values and to extend learning by the use of externships with government agencies, judges, and pro bono legal assistance clinics. Similarly, Best Practices for Legal Education, a book by Professor Roy Stuckey and others, advocated the use of experiential learning in the law. At the University of Montana School of Law, offering help and genuine dialogue is part of our goal. The mission statement of the University of Montana School of Law states this commitment by announcing the goal of the school as preparing students for "the people-oriented practice of law" and embracing the values articulated by the MacCrate Report.

Mr. Fox provides the great example of Noah Wyle from the television series ER as a success story of the medical approach in the U.S. today. Noah a young Dr. John Carter who becomes a capable, competent, and confident professional. I would add another "c" word to the list of professional values we should strive to instill and embrace: "committed." Dr. Carter is a great example of this professional virtue as well. He is committed to his role as a doctor and to each patient. As Mr. Fox notes, legal education can achieve the same success as presented in Dr. Carter.

The initial comment of Mr. Fox’s post states that stress is predictable in the law and this is inescapably true. Seeing the full quote of "Laugh and the world laughs with you" is marvelous (I am memorizing it now). We should all embrace the slogan of “Very much still learning!" And, best of all, the advice to "be a role model for others in the profession," should be the motto for lawyers of all ages. 

While career planning is an important strategy to overcoming barriers and achieving a positive work experience, making a career is not synonymous with achieving fulfillment or a worthwhile life. The goals of career planning that Mr. Fox advocates provide a viable path for building a satisfying career. While, as with most joint endeavors, there are no guarantees, law schools should seek to help students on this path. The first steps should reasonably include both understanding yourself and understanding the options available in the law. And the river rolls on. Both market and tasks of the professional are in flux. Moreover, each person is in flux, evolving, changing, and growing. As the first commenter notes, confidence and self-worth are essential attributes for lawyers and professionals. Inspiring students to have confidence and self-worth is part of the goal of the teacher. Basing this confidence and self-worth on true preparedness and accomplishments rather than self-congratulatory illusions grows naturally from mastery of knowledge and skills and reflective self-evaluation.

Though we are not likely to resolve this debate with finality, we should be able to agree on some foundational points. First, legal education must include both skills and knowledge in “the basics” that law schools teach. Second, and equally important, while assigning responsibility for career success simplifies the reality of learning, this does not obviate the need for law schools to teach the whole person and to help students develop successful careers and lives as professionals committed to serving their clients and society. Lawyers are the glue that holds society together. They not only help solve problems of individual clients. They serve society by settling disputes by peaceful means and by producing societal benefits in the form of economic transactions. Moreover, lawyers are society’s “glue” in a myriad of ways outside of the strictly legal sphere. They serve ably on school boards and hospital boards. They oversee elections and organize PTA fund drives. They serve in soup kitchens and councils on the citizen’s right to know. They have satisfying careers because they are committed to helping others, serving as role models “Very much still learning.”

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Irma Russell became Dean of The University of Montana School of Law on July 1, 2009. Prior to coming to Montana, Dean Russell was the NELPI Professor and Director of the National Energy-Environment Law & Policy Institute at the University of Tulsa College of Law.

Related Post:

Tasks to Accomplish for a Satisfying Law Career

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