Meeting the professional identity challenge in Legal Education through a relationship-centered experiential curriculum

Legal education is facing a series of crises, the worst of which may well be its graduates' perceived lack of professionalism qualities such as civility, judgment, and commitment to service. This urgent message has been amplified by recent high-profile critiques emphasizing the need to teach professionalism, as well as to make law schools more nurturing and humanistic environments. The purpose of this article is to show that the challenge of preparing law students to become caring and competent professionals can be met by using a sequence of experiential learning opportunities to teach relational competencies. Even the harshest critics of legal education agree that clinical programs in law schools succeed; however, the idea of expanding such programs presents challenges. Others worry that law schools will be tempted to do clinics "on the cheap." Nevertheless, if we truly are concerned about the quality of legal education, we should focus instead on understanding what exactly students learn through clinics that contributes to their development of professionalism, and, further, whether other academic experiences, such as externships or simulations, can contribute to these same goals. This article sets out a conceptual model for exploring this professional identity challenge. The first part is called the "Experiential Learning Helix," a developmental approach that identifies three different roles all law students should experience toward becoming a professional: (1) simulated practice, (2) the "mentee" role, and (3) the "first-chair" role. The second part of this model is "Relationship-Centered Lawyering," a normative framework focusing on three areas of competency every effective lawyer needs: (a) understanding theory about the person-in-context, (b) promoting procedural justice, and (c) appreciating interpersonal, cultural, and emotional issues. When grounded in this relational framework, the Helix holds promIse for legal education's sustainability into the future.
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