Mosaics of Lawyer Identities

From The Practice May/June 2018
Building professional identities through legal careers

In the lead article of this issue of The Practice, “Drifting Law Students,” as well as in the lead article of our March 2016 issue, “The Professional Identity Formation of Lawyers,” John Bliss explores the professional-identity formation of law students. Bliss presents his original, empirical research on how law students’ career intentions upon arrival at law school and their actual first jobs post–law school together impact their professional identity. The research highlights three distinct identity formations among his sample of law students: (1) students whose public-interest career intentions remained constant and who generally maintained a central conception of lawyer identity that often overlapped with political, racial, religious, and gender roles, among others; (2) students whose intention to pursue positions in large firms remained constant and who tended to describe substantial distancing from their professional identity in their interviews; and (3) students who initially stated a preference for positions in the public-interest sector but later decided to pursue large firms for whom this drifting was often accompanied by a distressing sense of temporariness and fraudulence in their professional identities.

These findings offer a new, innovative approach to understanding the formation of lawyer identities during the law school experience. And, as Bliss argues, it raises important questions as to whether legal education can—and should—intervene to foster a more integrated conception of professional identity among law students. There is, however, one notable limitation in this design. The focus of Bliss’s research—law students—captures perceptions of professional identity at only one stage of what promises to be a much longer career. Moreover, it captures these perceptions before many students are exposed to a law firm, public-interest organization, or any other legal organization for any significant period of time. (Indeed, Bliss also notes that in law school, students might receive a very limited education with respect to the various legal career paths available to them.) Bliss’s research thus raises an important question about the professional-identity formation of lawyers as they spend time in the workforce and progress throughout their careers. And from this well springs an abundance of context-specific questions: How do corporate lawyers view their professional identity a decade into their career? How do lawyers who went to law school intending to go into public interest but “zagged” into a large firm view their identity? Are the professional identities of seasoned public-interest lawyers as centralized and integrated with their personal identities as the law school research suggests?

Lee, Ketteringham, and Brocklebank each entered law school with different visions of what “being a lawyer” entailed. And each took, on the surface, very different paths through the legal profession.

To work through these and other questions, The Practice interviewed three lawyers who have forged different paths through the legal profession. First, we offer a brief portrait of each lawyer’s entry into the profession, focusing on their early professional-identity formation. In the sections that follow, we explore how these newly formed professional identities extend into their careers, highlighting commonalities among these otherwise distinct career paths. In the end, we are left with a broad sense of how professional identity continues to develop after law school and over the course of a career and in the process gain a renewed understanding of what that law school experience can provide for young lawyers.

Three career vignettes

Anne Lee. Before enrolling at law school, Anne Lee was a management consultant at the Monitor Group, now part of Deloitte. Her inspiration for starting down the lawyer career path had a lot to do with the role she enjoyed most as a consultant: that of strategic advisor. “I enjoyed gathering information, learning about my clients’ business, pulling everything together, and trying to fit it within a general corporate strategy framework,” says Lee. “As I talked to people, they suggested I might enjoy doing that within a legal framework. I found myself very drawn to the idea of having the law as another tool that I could use to advise clients.” That tool, Lee says, was also attractive insofar as it was versatile and wide-ranging enough to help most anyone. “It’s something that touches everyone and connects people.”

For Lee, law school served to clarify how her interests could be channeled through the law. “I admit that I was not sure of my ultimate career trajectory,” reflects Lee. “I knew that I enjoyed law school. I loved what I was learning. I also knew that I wanted to return to client service, most likely in the private sector in a firm or corporation that would allow me to maintain a practice that also gave back to the community in other ways. So it wasn’t a surprise to me that these influenced many of my career choices.”

Upon graduating from Columbia Law School in 2006, Lee clerked at the federal district court of Massachusetts and then the First Circuit Court of Appeals before starting as an associate at Covington & Burling in 2008, where she is now an antitrust partner.

Emma Ketteringham. Emma Ketteringham went to law school having already worked in legal settings and with practicing lawyers for a number of years. “Before law school I had worked in the legal department of a public-interest organization focused on reproductive rights,” says Ketteringham. “There, I received a lot of mentoring around going to law school from my boss and from other women in the office who were lawyers.” As a result of these experiences and interests, she says, she came to law school with a sense of what “being a public-interest lawyer” was all about—something that overlapped with her own personal identity.

Ketteringham had every intention of becoming a public-interest lawyer, due in no small part to her prelaw experiences. “And then, when I was in law school, something happened,” says Ketteringham. She explains:

Not in the sense that my interests or commitment changed, but that there were other pressures that didn’t occur to me before. I don’t know if it was the law school culture or the advice I was receiving, but suddenly I started to think, “Oh, maybe I should do a clerkship. It seems like that’s really important.” And so, I did. When I graduated from law school, I clerked in the federal district court of Maine and then on the Second Circuit. And while I have no regrets about those experiences and think that they were very valuable, I’m not sure that I made those decisions based solely on my interests. I think I succumbed a bit to the pressure of having those traditional things on my résumé.

After graduating from Northeastern University School of Law in 1998, Ketteringham began her legal career with two consecutive federal clerkships before accepting an associate position in the litigation department at a large corporate law firm in New York City. A few years later, she left the firm to take a job as a public defender with the Bronx Defenders. And, although she left the Bronx Defenders for a short period of time to work at an organization that focused on criminal and civil cases around drugs and women’s issues, she has since returned to head the Bronx Defenders’ family defense practice.

Natalie Brocklebank. Before she applied to law school, Natalie Brocklebank was a staff investigator at a boutique criminal defense law firm after serving as an intern investigator at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia. And in many ways, law school was a continuation of the work she was already doing. “When I started at the University of the District of Columbia, I had already started to shape my professional identity and felt grounded in who I was and what I wanted to do once I graduated. I wanted to be a public defender,” Brocklebank says without equivocation. “I knew where my loyalties were—I wanted to represent indigent clients—and I used law school to move closer to that goal. Law school was a mechanism for me to get to the point of being able to actually practice.”

For Brocklebank, the law school experience did not much alter her conception of professional identity. “I don’t think my perception of my professional identity at the end of law school was drastically different from what it looked like at the beginning,” she says. “I was working for former public defenders before, and I sought out a law school that aligned with the public-interest career path I envisioned.”

After earning her law degree from the University of the District of Columbia in 2004, Brocklebank built her career primarily in public interest—a journey that included public defender positions in Washington, D.C.; New Orleans; and New York. She is currently an attorney at the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services working to implement a statewide effort to support indigent legal defense.

Learning from practice

Lee, Ketteringham, and Brocklebank each entered law school with different visions of what “being a lawyer” entailed. And each took, on the surface, very different paths through the legal profession—Lee has spent most of her legal career as a private practice lawyer, Ketteringham moved from a firm to public interest, and Brocklebank has been a public-interest lawyer throughout most of her career. Nevertheless, in interviewing each lawyer, it is clear that these different starting points and career paths converge on common themes around what it means to be a lawyer. The stories of Lee, Ketteringham, and Brocklebank help draw out why lawyer identities may be less fractured than what law students might otherwise imagine.

The multidimensional lawyer identity. Defining a professional identity as a law student is one thing, but the three years spent in law school is a comparatively short period of time against the length of a typical legal career. Once in the workforce, perceptions of professional identity are far less abstract. Indeed, where Bliss’s interviews asked law students to consider their anticipated lawyer role, practicing lawyers have personal experience from which to draw their conclusions. How does this time and experience in the profession affect the way lawyers think about their professional identities?

I knew where my loyalties were—I wanted to represent indigent clients—and I used law school to move closer to that goal.

Natalie Brocklebank, attorney at the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services

“My view became a lot more multidimensional,” says Brocklebank. While her lawyer identity was already central to her understanding of who she was throughout law school and as she started her career, time in the profession has added nuances to that identity. It became more detailed, granular, and precise. She explains:

I realized I’m not just a lawyer who has to be prepared and argue in court and litigate. First off, I have to understand and appreciate my role as an advocate and a trusted advisor on behalf of my client, which is a fundamental role that can be very profound in the context of public defense. At the same time, I continue to carry my investigator hat with me—that part of my identity had already been formed and just remained intact. But other roles started getting introduced as well. For example, my identity as a colleague has evolved. I have to be cognizant of how all these interpersonal relationships connect to my lawyer role. How do I serve my colleagues? How do I work within the courthouse with judges and with adversaries? These are things I have certainly thought more about as I have advanced through my career.

Lee echoes this growing appreciation for the multidimensional nature of the lawyer role. “Being a lawyer has so many roles within it that I find fulfilling,” she says. Despite operating within a very different day-to-day professional context as a partner at a major corporate firm, Lee, like Brocklebank, describes her lawyer role as increasingly multifaceted as her career has progressed:

As a lawyer I’m an advisor to my clients, helping them navigate challenging legal issues. I’m also a counselor, listening to and talking through problems, and I’m an advocate for them, giving voice and telling their story. As I’ve become more senior, I’ve also become a mentor to more junior attorneys: especially as a female partner, a working mother, and an Asian American, I’m cognizant of the important roles that I can play as a mentor to others. But I’m also still growing as a lawyer and learning from many people, and in that way I’m still a mentee of the many lawyers who have guided my career. The varied roles I play as a lawyer make my job more fulfilling than the sum of its parts.

After two years at the firm, Lee’s daughter was born, offering yet another new role through which she understood her professional identity as a lawyer. “I remember being out on maternity leave and coming back to the firm unsure how to reconcile all those roles,” says Lee. She continues:

I had a lot of conversations with people about how to make all those roles fit in one life. (Indeed, I’m still having those conversations!) One of the things I started to realize was that while all these roles and identities come with obligations and responsibilities, I also really enjoy being a lawyer and I had missed that part of my professional life when I was on parental leave. To be clear, I loved my new role as a mother and I was crazy about my daughter—but I also missed being a lawyer. I often point to going out on parental leave and coming back to the firm as an important turning point because when I decided to continue at Covington and to keep pursuing a career here, I said to myself, “I know what this is and I choose to do it. I’m affirmatively deciding that, at least as of this moment, this is what I want my career to look like and this is what I want my work to be. The hard part is trying to figure out how to make it work, but at least I knew it was what I wanted.”

The varied roles I play as a lawyer make my job more fulfilling than the sum of its parts.

Anne Lee, antitrust partner at Covington & Burling

For Ketteringham, her role as a mother also combined with her lawyer role, and in many ways the two coalesced naturally with respect to her identity formation. Ketteringham was a family defense attorney at the Bronx Defenders when she became a mother, and trying to keep families together took on a whole new professional and personal meaning. “What was so intense about doing family defense work was that I had just become a mother myself and I was learning to be a mother to my own children at the same time I was learning how to represent other mothers against a state seeking to take their children away, almost always just because they were socially isolated, poor, or without private resources,” Ketteringham reflects. “So, while my children grew up and while I was experiencing firsthand how wonderful, and terrifying, parenting can be, I was also representing mothers in these proceedings where the odds were stacked against them.” She goes on:

It brought home on a personal level what my clients stood to lose in these cases and made me determined to fight even harder on their behalf. And just as the work I do is connected to me being a mother, it is connected to my understanding of the foster care system as unfair and damaging to families. As I grew more and more passionate about the importance of the right to family integrity, my professional identity evolved into a devotion to fighting for families, standing up to a state that too easily dissolved poor, mostly black and brown, families without giving them the support and advantages all parents need, and being an outspoken critic of the system. My work is connected to caring deeply about how our society values parents and families and children. That’s what I care most about, and every day I get to do that work as a lawyer. There is very little if no disconnection between the work I do now and my professional and personal identity.

Lee, Ketteringham, and Brocklebank each started law school with very different visions for their lawyer identities. Each then took different paths through the profession. And while each of their professional identities as lawyers is unique, they also make clear that being in the profession—experiencing the day-to-day trials of being a lawyer, big and small—combined with their own personal maturation has produced lawyer identities that are far more complex and multidimensional than the anticipated roles often most visible at law school.

Taking the long view. In addition to viewing their lawyer identities as multidimensional, Lee, Ketteringham, and Brocklebank each stressed the importance of taking the long view, recognizing that careers are fluid and that with each change comes the opportunity for reflection. (For more on lawyer careers and job shifts, see “The Places You’ll Go.”) Again, while Lee, Ketteringham, and Brocklebank each took different paths, they could all view their professional identities as a continuum, where you are not locked into any one formulation simply because that is where you started.

Interviewees each stressed the importance of taking the long view, recognizing that careers are fluid and that with each change comes the opportunity for reflection.

Ketteringham, for example, made a crucial shift just a few years into her legal career, moving from private practice to public defense. “I knew that back when I went to the firm, I had drifted afar from my professional identity and career goals,” she says. That first period of her career was a window into lawyering on complex civil litigation for any large legal operation, she reflects, which was simply not the level at which she wanted to engage the law—and this realization was all the more important for Ketteringham because it had implications for the type of public-interest work that suited her professional identity. She explains:

A lot of the ways that I approach being a lawyer today are in large part because of how I learned to be a lawyer in those early years: the high standards, how you can never be prepared enough, how you take on your clients’ issues and problems, what they’re facing, as your own. So I don’t discount my experience at the corporate firm even though I regard it as a stark deviation from my professional identity as a public-interest lawyer. What I learned from doing that work, however, was that I no longer wanted to go into a legal setting that did complex civil litigation, even like that which I had been in prior to law school. I didn’t want to do the day-to-day legal work that comes with those kinds of cases, such as dealing with discovery disputes and drafting settlement agreements. I wanted to interact with people, stand beside them, and fight for them. I wanted to make an impact while at the same time making a difference in an individual life. I didn’t want to do the work in the abstract. I wanted to be where I was needed. I wanted to get out of the office and into the courtroom and into the community to use persuasion and advocacy and the skills I had gained at the firm and in law school, but for people in need. I also draw on my earlier experiences working for reproductive rights and women’s rights to understand the work I do as work for reproductive justice. In many ways, I feel like my work on behalf of parents is work on the front lines of that same movement that motivated me to go to law school in the first place.

Over time, as she experienced the positives and negatives of actually being a lawyer, Ketteringham learned what she most wanted her lawyer identity to include. The move to public defense—where her lawyering would be channeled through individual representation, bringing her in closer proximity to both her clients and the nexus at which their interests intersected with the justice system—was a necessary correction that took her time in the profession to fully grasp.

No one can understand and appreciate the ups and downs of being a public defender on the front lines than those who have been there and have experienced it.

Natalie Brocklebank

Despite spending virtually all her legal career at Covington, Lee describes her tenure at the firm as a series of choices. As a younger lawyer, Lee was eager to learn how the senior lawyers around her had found their practice areas within the firm and within the profession. To her frustration, they could offer no clear road map or secret formula:

I’m someone who only knows what I like by trying things myself and figuring it out. Yet, I wanted someone to give me an assessment or tell me what number and what types of projects I needed to take on so that I would know what kind of lawyer I wanted to be. But, as we all know, there’s no formula like that. In each senior attorney’s story, there would always be some component of serendipity and luck to their answers: meeting the right client, working on the right project, and then finding an area that spoke to them professionally. And while that all made sense to me, it felt so unhelpful at the time.

After her daughter was born, Lee found herself asking whether she wanted to stay at Covington or move on. Due in part to the firm’s philosophy on career development and professional satisfaction, she made the decision to stay. She explains:

One of the things that I appreciated so much was hearing from the firm and a lot of the partners I worked with saying, “We take the long view on your career, and we want you to think of it that way, too. We want your practice to be sustainable and work for you.” I found this really empowering and reassuring. It gave me a chance to breathe, get some perspective, and think about what I wanted long term.  And it made me think about the people at Covington who had taught me and supported me, and what this meant in terms of their commitment to continue doing so. Taking that view, and working in that kind of supportive environment, I felt like I wanted to at least try to negotiate the competing demands on my time and fit all these competing roles within my larger identity both in and outside the office.

Now as a partner, she is the one offering perspective to younger lawyers. She explains:

I’m in the enviable position of being that senior lawyer to young associates who say, “Wow, you found a practice that you love. How did you get there? What’s the path?” In addition to sharing my own accounts of serendipity—the right matter with the right client at the right time—the best that I can do is to share my efforts to be thoughtful and deliberate in my career. With every project and every matter that I worked on, I also took some time to reflect—again trying to take that long view—asking myself, “What do I like about this? Is it the team? Is it the client? Is it the nature of the project or the area of law? What is it that I bring to this project?”

There would always be some component of serendipity and luck to their answers. And while that all made sense to me, it felt so unhelpful at the time.

Anne Lee

Brocklebank echoes this sentiment of zeroing in on what works—and what doesn’t—so that the lawyer role is as sustainable and fulfilling as possible. One big piece of that puzzle is about the ability to both contribute to and lean on a supportive working environment. “Being a good colleague and relying on your fellow colleagues is necessary in this line of work,” she says. “No one can understand and appreciate the ups and downs of being a public defender on the front lines than those who have been there and have experienced it. Feeling supported is crucial for sustainability.” Another big piece, Brocklebank stresses, is about looking inward and learning about one’s own strengths and preferences. “Over time, my role as a trusted advisor became more nuanced in that I realized I am a risk-assessment person,” she says. “And it took time to figure out those strengths and how to best advance my clients’ interests, to find that more central role of giving my clients as much information about the law so that they can make an informed decision.” For Brocklebank, this observation has crystalized across her various public defender roles throughout her career. It was not necessarily evident at the outset, nor was there one decisive moment where it all came into focus. Her grasp of professional identity was learned through years of practice.

The centrality of public service. One constant across the careers of all three interviewees was the importance of public service to their professional identity as a lawyer. Each of these three lawyers has achieved a level of stability in their nuanced professional identities, and public service has been a part of that balance throughout. The manner in which they incorporated that service, however, was different in each case.

Each interviewee achieved a level of stability in their nuanced professional identities, and public service has been a part of that balance throughout.

“I always had an interest in the law and how it could be used to help people,” says Brocklebank. “As a college student or young student, you have interests and ideas about what the justice system means, but you don’t really know. It was once I got that hands-on practical experience and a glimpse of the various actors and how it all worked—that’s when I knew I wanted to devote my career to working in public interest.” The lawyering, as Brocklebank describes it, was the most effective means of ensuring the justice system was serving everyone, including those who could not afford an expensive defense.

Like Brocklebank, Ketteringham had long invested her time and energy toward advancing civil rights issues and serving those in need—indeed, it was what drew her to law school. And through her experiences clerking and working in a large firm, she learned what day-to-day work and practice settings meshed with her public-interest lawyer identity. “My dedication to legal work in the public interest and to social justice was never in flux,” she says. “But early on I was searching for a practice setting that was in line with my professional identity. And it was work at the Bronx Defenders where it all come together.”

And, while ultimately not in line with her own professional identity, Ketteringham’s time in a large law firm setting has proven valuable to furthering access to justice through relationship building. “It’s funny,” Ketteringham reflects. “There are lawyers who were first-year and second-year associates when I was a third-year associate who are now partners at the firm, and I value those connections and relationships with them because we now do a lot of pro bono work together.” True to her professional identity as a public-interest lawyer, Ketteringham was able to leverage her earlier law firm experience into fruitful collaboration later in her career, allowing her to connect capable lawyers with those in need of legal services.

For Lee, her commitment to public service and its centrality to her lawyer identity is evident in her extensive pro bono résumé. (For more on how law firms approach pro bono, see “Public Interest in the Private Sector.”) “It’s deeply rewarding,” says Lee. In her words, it gets to something fundamental about being a lawyer:

I’m one of those kids who grew up always hearing from my family that to whom much is given, much is expected, and as a lawyer I feel that sense of responsibility. I talked before about the fact that I think the law and knowledge about the law is a very powerful tool. The law is something that touches everyone, and it can be particularly powerful to share that tool. As lawyers, one of the things we do is tell our client’s story. In pro bono legal work, we are often able to give voice to organizations and people who might not otherwise be heard.

The message to law students: Know thyself

What should law students contemplating their career trajectories and professional identities make of all this? What can they do to put themselves in the best position possible? One crucial takeaway that Lee, Ketteringham, and Brocklebank all implicitly stress: know and be confident in yourself—and take time to learn about your own style and preferences. “Unfortunately, most law students are faced with this choice that isn’t really a real choice you can intelligently make until you’ve practiced in different settings,” says Ketteringham. “One thing I would advise for law students is getting more experience in different legal settings and figuring out what you like day to day, because that is so important.”

My dedication to legal work in the public interest and to social justice was never in flux. But early on I was searching for a practice setting that was in line with my professional identity.

Emma Ketteringham, managing director of the Bronx Defenders’ family defense practice

“It’s hard to tell in a classroom what the practice of law is like,” says Lee. “And I think there can be a real disconnect—especially for people who haven’t worked in that kind of environment before—around what that experience is like.” Externships and clinical education were highlights in Lee’s law school experience in that regard, offering her a chance to connect with clients, serve as a colleague to others in a practice setting, and begin to navigate the attorney-client relationship. “They really give you the opportunity to practice being a lawyer and to see many different types of lawyering,” she says. “You can see what it’s like on the defense side, you see what it is to be a prosecutor, and you can get a window into the many different permutations of a legal career in bite-size samples.”

Brocklebank, having experienced these opportunities both as a student and as a practitioner, attests to the importance of externships and their capacity to prepare students for the profession that awaits them. “Clinics, externships, really any type of immersion into the practice of law in the community is a great way to set students up for thinking about their careers and identities as lawyers,” she adds. “It’s all about bridging that gap between theory and practice.”