First Year Course on Professionalism

In its 1996 report, Teaching and Learning Professionalism, the Professionalism Committee of the American Bar Association Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar recommended that law schools devote more class time to lawyer professionalism, beyond discussion of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct.  The report called particularly for a course for first-year law students and predicted that most law schools would find such a dramatic change to the curriculum to be difficult.


In 2004, Mercer added a required course on professionalism to its first year curriculum. This course, named “The Legal Profession,” is not a course in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct. Mercer’s upper-level Law of Lawyering course covers that material. Rather, the first year course addresses broader themes about life in the legal profession.  Those themes include, as the ABA report called for, emphasis on reflective moral judgment and the practice of law as a public service.

Over the past thirteen years, we have experimented in the teaching of professionalism in many ways.  Some of the experiments proved successful.  Others did not.  To enable others to have the benefit of our experience, and to assist other schools in the development of professionalism instruction, Mercer maintains this web site about its course.  We invite others to use these materials and to contact Professor Patrick Longan with any comments or questions.  Professor Longan’s email address is, and his telephone number is (478) 301-2639.


A brief written overview of the purposes of the course and its methodologies in pdf format is available here. A brief presentation about the course by Dean Daisy Floyd is available here.

Goals of the Course

EDUCATING LAWYERS, the Carnegie Foundation report on legal education, described legal education in terms of “three apprenticeships” of knowledge, values and skill. The goals of the Legal Profession course include all three in the context of lawyer professionalism:

  • Knowledge: The students learn what professionalism means for lawyers and why it matters whether or not lawyers fulfill these expectations. The students also learn how, in the current environments in which lawyers work, these values of professionalism are challenged. This part of the course seeks to develop the students’ sensitivity to professionalism issues. 
  • Values: The course seeks to have the students emerge with at least the beginning of a commitment to living up to the values of the profession. Another way of putting this is that the course aspires for the students to begin to form a professional identity, or set of dispositions, that will lead them to try to act in accordance with professionalism as the course defines it. Part of this process is for the students to learn how important it is for clients, the system of justice, and for the public more generally that lawyers live up to these virtues. Another goal is for the students to begin to understand that much of their own happiness and success as lawyers will be tied to their commitments to the values of professionalism.

  • Skill: Professionalism issues do not arise for lawyers in the abstract, and difficult situations often involve conflicting values. The students need to begin to develop the skills of reflection, self-awareness, reasoning and judgment that will serve them well when they must make and implement difficult decisions under conditions of conflict among multiple goals and irreducible uncertainty. It is little use for students to know what professionalism means but be unable to make or implement a decision that implicates one or more of the values of professionalism. The course seeks to begin the process of enabling them to do so through the exercise of practical wisdom. 

The course employs a number of methodologies, many of which are unconventional. Here are the different methodologies and how they relate to the goals of the course: 

  • Online lectures and related readings. The students listen to a series of online lectures to provide the necessary background and context for the other activities of the course. These lectures serve the goal of imparting some basic knowledge that the students then must apply. For an example of one of these on-line lectures, click here to read Professor Longan’s introductory lecture for the spring of 2015. This lecture also describes in detail the purposes and methods of the course. The online lectures also cover issues such as the virtues of the professional lawyer, access to justice, large firms and professionalism, the adversary system and civility, representing unpopular clients, and bar admission.

  • Guest lectures. At the beginning of the course, Dean Daisy Floyd gives a lecture on identity formation in law school. To see Dean Floyd’s PowerPoint for 2015, click here. Dean Floyd discusses, among other things, the difference between “intrinsic motivations” and “extrinsic motivations” and how those motivations relate to happiness and satisfaction. In particular, Dean Floyd makes the link between a particular kind of professional identity – one that is intrinsically motivated – and finding happiness in the life of the lawyer. The students also hear a lecture from Professor Jack Sammons on the Aristotelian concept of “virtue ethics” and how lawyers may find happiness and satisfaction by practicing law in accordance with certain virtues that the profession has determined are essential for lawyers.  "Professionalism" in the law is defined in the course as practicing in accordance with those virtues: competence, fidelity to the client, fidelity to the law, civility, and public service.

  • Weekly discussion groups. The first year class is divided into sections of approximately 25 students.  Each of the sections meets once a week for an hour-long discussion that is guided by Professor Longan, Dean Daisy Floyd, or Professor Tim Floyd. Before each such discussion, the students meet and discuss the problem for the week in assigned groups of three or four, and these small groups appoint a reporter for the section meeting. The section meetings include several types of exercises. To see the exercises employed in 2015, click here.

  • (1) The students discuss case studies of lawyers who have confronted issues of professionalism and failed to live up to the ideals of the profession. For example, students read a case study about an over-zealous prosecutor who obtained a conviction for child molestation against a man who likely was innocent. These sessions give the students the chance to identify issues of professionalism, to discuss why the lawyers acted as they did, and to explore alternatives that the lawyers might have taken. In these sessions, the students are working on sensitivity to professionalism issues and are learning about the pressures in practice that can lead to unprofessional conduct. The students also learn something about why professionalism matters and begin the process of exploring how to make and implement a professional decision.

  • (2) Next, the students are put in roles to discuss and decide what to do in hypothetical situations (mostly based upon real cases) that involve multiple conflicting goals and numerous uncertainties. The students enter this part of the course with some background on the concept of practical wisdom. For example, one of the resources available to prepare them is a lecture on that subject that Professors Kenneth E. Sharpe and Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College gave at Mercer several years ago. To see the lecture, click here. In these discussions, the students learn about and practice exercising practical wisdom. To see a few comments from students about the exercises and about learning practical wisdom, click here.

  • Weekly blogs. Each section has its own blog. The students are required to post an informal reflection once a week. The posts are not anonymous, and they are responses to prompts provided by the instructor. For a list of this year’s prompts,click here. The purpose of the blog is to require the students to engage in serious and regular reflection about what they are learning. In this semi-public forum, they should be developing their skills of reasoning, self-awareness and judgment.

  • “Inside the Legal Profession” interviews. Over the course of the semester, Professor Longan conducts a series of interviews with lawyers and judges in front of the entire class. Each of these interviews lasts about 45 minutes, and then the students have time for questions. The purposes of these interviews are to expose the students to different careers in the law and to put before them exemplars of people who live, practice and thrive while they act in accordance with professionalism.  To see a more complete description of the project, and to link to recordings of a numner of these interviews, click here.  

•    Weekly assignment sheets. To instill in the students a habit of keeping track of their work and reporting it on their honor, the students must submit signed assignment sheets each week and verify completion of the week's tasks.  A compilation of the assignment sheets for 2016 is available here.
•    Interviews.  Near the end of the semester, the students go in groups of three or four to interview experienced local lawyers or judges about life in the law. The purpose of this exercise is to expose students again, even more directly, to lawyers who have lived lives in the law that have exemplified the values of professionalism.  The goal is to motivate the students to do likewise.  Students frequently describe this as their favorite part of the course.  During the interviews, the students are instructed to ask the attorney (or judge) about his or her life in the law - what has been most satisfying, what has been most challenging, most rewarding, etc. They ask about their subject’s career path and how he or she ended up doing what he or she is doing. The students sometimes ask what a “typical” day is like for their subject, and they ask for "words of wisdom" or general advice for soon-to-be lawyers. The interviews generally last about an hour.  Afterwards, each student posts a reflection about the interview on the section blog.
•    Biography assignment.  Each student reads a book-length biography or autobiography of a famous lawyer or judge.  One of the section meetings is devoted to discussion of the book.  For example, in past years the students have read about Griffin Bell, Frank Johnson, Archibald Cox, Thurgood Marshall, Sandra Day O’Connor, and many others.  In 2015, the first year class read Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, about his years representing clients on death row and others who desperately needed, but could not afford, vigorous representation.  These readings and the discussions serve the twin purposes of motivating the students and also providing an opportunity to discuss how the subjects of these books implemented their commitments to professionalism in difficult circumstances.


Evolution of the Course

The Legal Profession course has changed during the eleven years it has been required. It began as a traditional classroom course and has evolved to the course just described. To read Professor Longan’s description of an earlier version of the course, click here. To read a short description of some of the more recent changes, click here.


In 2014, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Professionalism awarded the Mercer Law School the E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award for the "Inside the Legal Profession" component of this course.

For his work in developing the course, in 2005 Professor Longan received the National Award for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching Professionalism from the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Professionalism, the Conference of Chief Justices, and the Burge Endowment for Legal Ethics.


Every year, we survey the students about the overall effectiveness of the course and about the various methodologies.  Click here to see the unedited responses of the students to the prompt about the overall effectiveness of the course.

In 2015, we undertook a study in cooperation with the National Institute for Teaching Ethics and Professionalism to try to measure the effect of the course.  Students were administered a battery of three tests at the beginning of the course and at the end.  Each student received a unique numerical identifier so that answers before and after the semester could be compared.  The results are being analyzed, and we will share them once that process is complete.


We hope you find these resources helpful. As mentioned, we are eager to share our experience and to benefit from the experiences of others. If you have any comments or questions, please do not hesitate to contact Professor Longan at or at (478) 301-2639.