Legal Education Digest
Confronting Students: Evaluation in the Process of Mentoring Students’ Professional Development
C Batt & H N Katz
 LegEdDig 3; (2005) 13(3) Legal Education Digest 4
10 Clinical L Rev, Spring, 2004, pp 581–610
Students are often anxious about their own professional development. They want to know that they will be able to function as lawyers in the ‘real world’. The authors collaborated with externship and clinical supervisors to articulate professionalism standards and aspirations applicable to a new attorney, and to identify challenges in guiding students toward those goals. Ways are suggested to make mentoring professional development more likely to be acceptable, clear and effective, an integral part of the students’ clinical legal education, with explicit evaluation as part of that process.
Clinical scholarship reveals divergent attitudes about practising lawyers outside of law schools serving as teachers of legal practice. While the ABA Standards acknowledge these supervisors as teachers, they are clearly distinguished from faculty who are entrusted with the evaluation of students’ academic achievement. A study of site visits to law schools does not reveal how or whether the field instructors’ views were examined. Each of the authors shares with and solicits from the supervising attorneys in their respective programs feedback from and about their students, reflections about work assignments, and suggestions about the classroom component. In selecting supervisors with whom to meet, they considered their supervision experience and knowledge of the supervisor, including past discussions about supervisory issues and particular students.
In every sense, this was a preliminary investigation in which the authors elicited information, ideas, and opinions from supervising attorneys about their objectives, methods, and challenges when teaching and supervising students. First, the professional qualities they hoped to see in ‘new’ or ‘developing’ lawyers were explored. Supervisors must be able to identify the qualities they hope to nurture, in order to maximise the learning process, and at the appropriate point, evaluate those qualities and communicate the evaluation to the student. Second, supervisors were asked to identify teaching methods they used to achieve their objectives. Each supervisor was allowed to identify and discuss teaching strategies without input based on their personal knowledge and past experience with that individual. The final area of investigation was the challenges supervisors face in their efforts to teach students ‘professionalism’.
As students assume the professional role of practising attorneys, they also assume their professional demands. Issues of work ethic, time management, and interpersonal relationships can and do affect a lawyer’s ability to do her job competently. A novice lawyer or law student is beginning to develop a robust sense of her professional role and responsibility, and therefore is conscientious about the quality of her work. While pride in one’s work is clearly associated with a strong work ethic, appreciation for the importance of the work is vital.
Issues of student time management often arose in the discussion of work ethic. A novice lawyer or law student is eager to learn from experience, and openly curious about the lives and concerns of clients and others. Curiosity prompts a person to ask a wide range of questions, listen for a range of answers, and attempt new skills, increasing learning in any setting; it is a ‘primal wonderment’ that combines imagination and intelligence. Curiosity is also linked to creativity in problem solving, which a number of the supervisors described as an important quality for a lawyer.
A novice lawyer has a good grasp of the behavioural requirements expected of attorneys, as the attorney deals with clients, other attorneys, and court/administrative personnel. A majority of judges in the sample stressed a standard of proper behaviour in both carrying out the tasks of lawyering and in regard to relationships among co-workers within chambers and in the courthouse.
After the supervisors identified the principal professional qualities they hoped to see and nurture in their students, they were asked to describe how they teach. They talked about a number of features of their work with students, sometimes blending methods and goals. Observation and modelling were universally cited by practitioners as key teaching methods. Students observed by sitting in courtrooms during proceedings or at conference tables or in chambers during strategy meetings or settlement talks.
Other teaching methods were frequently cited that are closely related to this general theme of teaching by example. Most practitioners and clinicians stated that ‘observation of the student with feedback and critique’ was an important teaching method. Several supervisors brought up an interesting additional theme in discussions about teaching — the attitude that supervising attorneys bring to the task of teaching. A related issue was the supervisors’ sense that there was an inadequate amount of time to accurately diagnose students’ professional development issues and develop the relationship with the students that facilitates effective mentoring. Other supervisors quite candidly identified instances when their personal likes and dislikes of particular students affected their ability to address professional development issues.
Problems establishing or maintaining the student-supervisor relationship also affect the ability to mentor professional development. Supervisors raised a variety of student-based challenges to mentoring professional development. Several practitioners cited the value of maturity and experience. Older students may have already developed a professional work persona, thus obviating the need for much mentoring in this area.
Clinical experiences provide valuable opportunities for law students to reflect on their individual professional character, their skills, interests, strengths and weaknesses, and values as practitioners. First, the supervisors confirmed the suspicion that effective mentoring and evaluation of professional development is difficult given limited time and opportunity to observe the student. Second, the student’s problem may not be identified accurately or with enough specificity. Without proper identification, it will be difficult to address the problem. Third, the authors detected some supervisor resistance to performance reviews that are perceived as ‘personal.’ Fourth, an ineffective or inept evaluation may actually cause more harm than good. Finally, clinical courses may be one of the few vehicles for the development of professionalism during law school.
Upon completing the interviews, the researchers drew several conclusions. First, mentoring high standards of professional development was important to the vast majority of supervisors. Second, a model needs to be developed which ‘legitimises’ the mentoring process of professional development and addresses the concerns discussed in the previous section. At every stage of the process, students, supervisors, and law schools must collaborate in order to identify individual objectives, assess needs, give regular performance-specific feedback, and provide periodic evaluations that enable the student to perceive his or her professional development in terms of both challenges and progress.
The law school, clinical supervisors, and students must share the clear understanding that professional development is a substantive part of the clinical curriculum and that each student will be mentored and evaluated in this area. Students and supervisors should engage in setting professional development goals early in the clinical or externship experience.
A pedagogy should be developed to teach professional development issues that incorporate the strategies and techniques already successfully employed by the supervisors and mitigate some of their major concerns. Students need to be encouraged to participate in the definition and analysis of professional development issues, both in terms of their own specific needs and relative to an understanding of the impact of these issues on the profession generally. Ultimately, our objective is to enhance the process by which our law students are transformed into lawyers whose standards of excellence and dedication infuse every aspect of their professional lives.