The Tao of Professionalism
Bridgit Burke, Albany Law School
The following paper was submitted by Bridgit to Vocational Teachers Forum on 6 January 2006. Unfortunately Bridgit was not able to attend the conference, however she has given us permission to include her paper here.
Clinics provide an outstanding atmosphere for teaching professional values. To do this successfully the clinic must be designed to encourage the student to couple reflections and experience. Students must also be guided through a critical use of varied teachings. This paper provides a description of the methods successfully used in the Albany Law School Clinical Program.
To graduate lawyers who will serve the profession well law schools must integrate the teaching of professional values and create lifelong learners. I developed the Tao of Professionalism for the Albany Law School (ALS) orientation to encourage law students to recognise that as lawyers we must continuously work on professional development. ALS’ orientation is intended to impress upon the students that they are the professionals as opposed to observers. Students must understand that there are ethical rules that must be obeyed, and that their clinical experience is the beginning of a lifelong process.
The Tao lecture lays out a few simple concepts. First, the things that we learn can be broken into two categories; concepts that are known and concepts that must be discovered. For that which is known – just look it up, but for concepts that must be discovered, the lawyer must engage in a process of discovery. Concepts that are known are objective, like a statute or regulation. Concepts that must be discovered are subjective, such as values or skills. For that which must be discovered, the lawyer continuously engages in three stages – teaching, reflection and experience.
The Tao is just a restatement of traditional clinical methodology. It makes it possible for me to share with the students the clinical legal education approach, which is considerably different from the approach they have experienced in most law school classes. Generally, clinical professors seek to impress upon students that their professional development will be lifelong and must combine experiences with reflections. The Tao lecture also encourages the law student to be open to a diversity of instructive materials, but informs the student that they have the burden of deciding what would apply in each situation.
Over the last four years I have given the lecture at each of the fall clinical orientations, and I support the students’ recognition of these important professional values by continuously reinforcing them in a clinical culture designed around these values. I use the language identified in the Tao to remind the students of the concepts and to measure their professional development consistent with the Tao.
Where did the Tao of Professionalism come from?
My lecture is designed to be intriguing but playful. In the summer of 2000 I saw the movie Tao of Steve. In it, Dex, the hero, has a degree in philosophy which he attempts to use to teach his roommate how to meet women. He develops his own philosophy. The Tao of Steve offers a method by which a typical guy can date any woman he wants. Such a guy is called a Steve. The ultimate Steve is Steve McQueen.
By using familiar yet mysterious terms, Dex got the attention of his roommate. While dating is certainly mysterious, people do it successfully. They must have uncovered the mysteries. Our students view the legal profession this way. They are experiencing all the stress of their first experience and yet they look around them and see competent professionals. They believe that these individuals have uncovered the mystery.
Bellow & Mouton (1978), in one of the first clinical texts, demonstrate the value of experiential learning combined with critical reflection. For more than 100 years these two devices have been used in education generally. A student’s mind is open to learning if there is a problem to work on. The problem must be relevant to the student to maximise the learning. The ability of the student to use all of her senses to interact with the problem will increase the likelihood that the student will recall the information learned from solving the problem in varied contexts (Dewey, 1910).
Clinical legal education provides the law student with a relevant problem to work on. In my clinic, the law students are often representing a student with a developmental disability who is not being provided an appropriate educational program. While the law students learn about the relevant law, the true educational objective of the clinic is to teach the law students professional legal skills, such as interviewing and trial tactics. Most importantly, the clinic teaches the students a process whereby they can teach themselves.
Why share the clinical process with the students?
Bellow & Moulton (1978:158) recognised that it would be a mistake to formalise skills. The students enrolled in the clinics are not well versed in clinical pedagogy, and they often expect that the clinical experience will involve the imparting of a formula which will make it possible for them to reach their professional potential. A student might be convinced if they read Bergman, Binder & Price’s materials (2004) or Younger’s Ten Commandments (1976) that there are formulas for success.
The authors of these works appear to be geniuses to law students whose self confidence is attacked continually by the Socratic Method (Maurer, 1994). If I assigned an article with an interview formula and then in class I reviewed that formula, it is unlikely that any of the law students would complete the perfect interview on their first try. Their minds would not have had to contemplate an interview. The words would have washed over them with little meaning.
The reflection of one of my students illustrates this point:
My most significant legal task for this week involved making a call to a social worker I tried to prepare myself for this conversation by getting as much information as possible…I had discussed it in a meeting with Prof. Burke and my partner and with a few other students who had contact with her the previous semester I prepared a few notes on how I would begin as I wanted to introduce myself and head off any problems.
The social worker was immediately on guard She seemed much calmer toward the end of the conversation and assured me that as long as she got permission to help us, she would do everything she could to help.
I do not think I was as prepared as I could have been for this conversation. I was prepared to allay her fears, but not for the unexpected questions that she had Thinking back on it, I think it would have been OK to respond but at the time, I was frozen in place by the fact that I did not know the answer to that question. Also, I should have known what type of information we would be trying to get. I had been shown the sheet we would be using, but I had not really taken a close look at the type of information that we needed going forward, being a good client advocate will mean that I need to be more prepared for conversations. I need to be able to assess in what situations it is OK to say that I do not know, but I would find out, and in what situations I should absolutely be able to answer questions being asked.
The student took her professional obligations seriously and put in considerable effort to prepare for the single phone call. However, she was concerned because she did not anticipate the social worker’s questions. Any human interaction involves far too many variables. The interviewer has a personality that is unique, as does the interviewee. The details that are being shared are coloured by many other personalities. According to Bellow & Moulton, it is impossible to be predictive in a system like this (1978:158). The best that we can hope for is that we will develop a set of skills that can be called upon in this situation.
I could not have provided my student with all the possible reactions of the social worker. Since it was early in the semester, I shared a list of information that she would need to gather. The list was not relevant to her until the social worker had a question. I would like to think that after that call the student paid more attention to the information I provided. I believe it is only natural that until she was able to develop her own list of questions the information would not be meaningful, and therefore, easily forgotten. She is unlikely to be able to develop that list until she has had her own experiences and an opportunity to reflect upon them.
The clinical law professor must support the law student’s critical interaction with the relevant problem. Because the average high school student spends more time watching television than going to school; reflection is not an innate process (Anderson, 1998). Tension can arise between the professor and the student when the hard working student is asked to reflect on the process (Howard, 1995:180). Even if the student is experiencing qualms regarding moments of the interview, she is likely to believe that it made sense to share doubts with the professor who is going to grade her. Having survived the rigours of their first year of legal education, students may have difficulty opening their minds to a changing learning style (Maurer, 1994:102).
Explaining the clinical process to students can lessen the tensions between the student and her client and the student and the professor which may arise when the professor tries to encourage a reflective process for a student who has not yet developed reflective skills. An explanation of the reflective process can also open the student’s mind to the educational potential of the interview and future experiences (Bellow & Moulton, 1978:140).
Placing importance on seeking out literature and advice to enhance the students’ process of discovery is just as important as explaining the clinical process. I therefore add teaching to the clinical tradition, because I have seen that students who are pushed to learn from their own reflections and experiences can become confused about the value of existing relevant literature and the advice of experienced advocates. It is our obligation to encourage the students to learn from others, but also to teach the students to be discerning about what weight to give to the teachings.
The glamour of television and movies necessitates that we update our old ideas about how to teach. Careful packaging is necessary to get our message heard. I do not believe that we must introduce every concept using laser beams and sophisticated technology, but I do think that we need to grab our students’ interest to facilitate recollection. We must do more than deliver a single lecture to get across the importance of lifelong learning through reflection and experience. It is important to create an accessible, interesting and memorable way to introduce these ideas early in the students’ clinical experiences and develop a culture where the concepts are continually reinforced.
Reinforcement of the Tao
If we are serious about teaching the value of ongoing learning and sharing the clinical methodology we cannot rely upon a single lesson to do this. In addition to sharing these concepts in orientation, the concepts must be periodically reinforced by encouraging students to seek out the advice of others and reviewing students’ written reflections. Over the course of the year I reinforce the Tao through the language that I use, the clinical grading process, the use of a reflective journal and case planning.
After hearing the lecture the students have a shared language that we can use to quickly reference important clinical topics. This makes it easy to remind the students that they are engaged in a process of discovery that should include reflections, teachings and experiences. Because of the playful way that these concepts were presented in the orientation lecture, the students readily accept these reminders as a natural part of what is expected in a clinical program. I am able to raise my expectations of the students without the tension that might formally have existed.
The ALS clinical program reinforces reflection, teaching and experience through the grading process. The grading rubric for all our graded programs assigns 25% of the student’s grade to reflections and 25% to performance. While 25% of the grade is not assigned to the student’s ability to explore teachings actively and critically, this process is part of what is assessed in the 25% of the grade which is related to professional responsibility and the 25% of the grade for pre-performance. Students are informed in the beginning of the school year that professional responsibility includes being prepared for class, collaborating with their fellow students, recognising and articulating experiential deficits and taking steps to educate oneself in an effort to bridge the gap with their client.
1 Reinforcement of reflections
I have used preprinted student self evaluation forms which only require the students to circle the number they believe best corresponds with their work product, preprinted forms which require a narrative response to established questions, verbal reflections alone and reflective journals. I have found that students are more likely to engage fully in the reflective process when they do so in their own narrative. I therefore now require students to use a reflective journal while in the clinical program and to complete mid-semester and end of semester evaluation forms.
When the students start their clinical program they are provided with notebooks for written reflections. The notebooks contain the Buddhist story of Sudhana, a list of reflective questions and lots of blank space. The students are required to spend at least 15 minutes per week on written reflections. For the first few weeks of the semester I send an e-mail to the students with my reflections on the week and remind them to complete their reflections. Occasionally I suggest a particular topic for reflection.
At mid-semester the students are also asked to do a self evaluation, including an evaluation of their reflective ability. I collect the students’ reflective journals, their self evaluation and their portfolios. The students and I meet for about one hour. We review all their activities, a portfolio of their written work, their self evaluation, their reflective notebook and their goals for the remainder of the semester. We work together to reach a consensus on their current standing with regard to the grading rubric and to ensure that the goals that they have developed are meaningful and measurable. If the student’s reflective process is not constructive I encourage the student to develop a measurable goal in order to change that. By the end of the meeting we have written up a summary of our evaluation.
The students have responded positively to this process and I have found it productive. The end of semester process is similar, although on this occasion we do not identify goals.
Reading the reflective journals is an enjoyable aspect of supervising the students. It provides a good opportunity to understand the process that the student is using to develop professional skills. Some students resent the requirement of journaling and continually write superficial entries. Since journaling itself is not a required part of a productive reflective process I attempt to encourage these students to reflect in group and individual meetings, however it is harder for me to keep an honest log of the student’s reflective process without a clear demonstration in the journal. There may be students who are writing reflective journal entries that say what they believe I want them to say, however attempting to identify what I want to hear is in itself a reflective process.
2 Reinforcement of teachings
The Tao is also reinforced through collaborative learning, by labeling any source of inspiration as a teaching. During case planning students are reminded that an important part of preparation is seeking out teachings to prepare themselves. I encourage students to seek out readings and the advice of their fellow students, other clinical professors or anyone who they believe may have something to contribute. During case review, when one student is reporting on his case and his upcoming experiences, I ask the other students to provide their insights on the challenges their fellow student is likely to experience and the strategies that could be used for addressing these challenges. While initially students tend to accept the teachings they are given by others without question, through our class discussions and feedback they begin to understand the import of questioning each teaching and consciously choosing which aspects they wish to incorporate.
The clinic and the ALS library have many resources that explore the skills the students are attempting to learn. Some of these are assigned readings and some are merely suggested as the need arises. After a student has accessed a resource, I meet with the student to explore their understanding of the material and their ability to differentiate between the context in which the advice was given and the experience for which they are preparing.
3 Reinforcement of experiences
It takes more effort to reinforce teachings and reflections than it does to reinforce the educational value of the experiences. Students are quick to dismiss completed activities, particularly experiences which do not result in a hearing, and it is important to point out to the students that they should be learning a lesson from each of these experiences. It is not always necessary that they identify something they would do differently. The best lessons can be gained by looking at something that worked well, and developing a general lesson for similar activities in the future.
During the 2004-05 academic year the students represented adolescents with developmental disabilities living in an institution that has been deprived of an educational program. Through phone calls, letter writing and attending meetings with the institutional administrators and state education department officials the law students were able to persuade the institution to develop an educational program at the institution. After this initial success the law students were able to persuade both the institutional administration and the local public school officials to allow our clients to attend local public school. Despite this remarkable work, many of the law students shared that without a hearing they were unable to get the true lawyering experiences that they were hoping for from the clinical program.
To help the students understand the important educational experiences they have had I require them to list their activities both at mid-semester and at the end of the semester. I then go through the list with the students and help them to label the experiences in terms that they recognise as legal activities. We reflect on what lessons that they might generalise from these experiences to help prepare them for future experiences that they expect to have as lawyers.
In addition to listing their experiences students are expected to keep a portfolio of all of their written work and articles that they have found to be particularly helpful. Although the use of portfolios has become generally respected as a means of assessing students and encouraging lifelong learning it is not frequently used to assess law students in the US. My twin sister, Bonnie Spies, introduced me to the idea of portfolio learning 11 years ago. She is a 6th grade teacher who has done a great deal of portfolio work with her students to encourage the importance of lifelong learning.
Post Tao reflection
Since the creation of the Tao the entire program has put much greater emphasis on professionalism issues. It is therefore impossible to know whether the Tao is responsible for the changes I have seen in the students. My students seem to take greater ownership of their cases, are stronger collaborators and demonstrate a stronger ability to reflect critically upon their performances. Overall. the students are open to identifying helpful professional literature, but they are less apt to look for a formula.
I still struggle with convincing the students that the experienced attorneys with whom they interact do not have all the answers. The students need to consider the validity of that advice independently and the relevance to their particular situation.
The students’ reflective abilities have improved, as has their ability to engage in productive case planning and in developing general lessons through reflections on possible future performances. More and more students understand the correspondence between their experiences in the clinic and their own professional development. Most importantly, the vast majority of the students recognise that they are engaging in a lifelong process.
The overall improvement in my students’ skills may be the result of a stronger group of students, but I think it is also a result of our willingness to unveil the clinical process to them. Through the changes in our program we have made it clearer to the students what we expect of them, and we have given them more opportunities to demonstrate their ability to live up to these expectations. We have also attempted to present these expectations in a way that is creative and inspiring.
References and bibliography
- Andersen et al (1998) ‘Relationship of physical activity and television watching with body weight and level of fatness among children: results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey’ Journal of the American Medical Association 25:279(12): 959-960
- Bellow G and Moulton B (1978) The lawyering process: materials for clinical instruction in advocacy New York: Foundation Press
- Bergman P, Binder D and Price S (2004) Lawyers as counselors: a client centered approach (2nd ed) St Paul: West Publishing
- Burke B (2005) Evaluation and reflection materials
- Chavkin D (2002) Clinical legal education: a textbook for law school clinical programs Anderson Publishing
- Dewey J (1997) How we think Doer Publications (originally published 1910 by DC Health & Co Publishers)
- Goodman J (2000) The Tao of Steve [motion picture] Columbia Tri-Star Movie
- Howard J (1995) ‘Learning to think like a lawyer through experience’ Clinical Law Review 2: 167-209
- Katz H (1997) ‘Personal journals in law school externship programs: improving pedagogy’ Thomas M Cooley Journal of Practical & Clinical Law 1: 7
- Maurer N (1994) ‘Introduction to lawyering: teaching first year students to think like professionals’ Journal of Legal Education 44: 96-115
- Meltsner M (1999) ‘Writing and professionalism’ Clinical Law Review 5: 455
- Milstein E (2001) ‘Clinical legal education in the United States: in-house clinics, externships and simulations’ Journal of Legal Education 51: 375
- New York State Unified Court System (2005) Partners in Justice: a colloquium on developing collaborations among courts, law school clinical programs and the practicing Bar 9 May
- Schön D (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action New York: Basic Books
- Schön D (1987) Educating the reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
- Schwartz M (2005) Expert learning for law students Durham: Carolina Academic Press
- Smith M (1999) What constitutes reflection – and what significance does it have for educators? The contributions of Dewey, Schön and Boud et al assessed (infed encyclopaedia of informal education)
- The teaching of Buddha (2000) Tokyo: BDK Publications (English translation)
- Younger I (1976) The art of cross-examination ABA Monograph Series No 1 (ABA Section on Litigation)
- Webb J (2005) Portfolio-based learning and assessment (teaching resource note) Coventry: UKCLE
Biography of Bridgit Burke
Bridgit is a Clinical Professor at Albany Law School, Albany, New York in the United States. For the last 10 years she has supervised second and third year law students who by a special court order are admitted to practice under her supervision. She provides instruction and mentoring to the students, who are fully responsible for representing clients in administrative and courtroom proceedings.
Bridgit’s work includes instruction on disability rights issues and lawyering skills.
Last Modified: 30 June 2010