Professional Identity in Practice

From The Practice March/April 2016
Corporate lawyers across the decades

What is the professional identity of a practicing lawyer? To answer this question, many reach for a technical definition, seeking to describe what lawyers do in their day-to-day jobs. On a quotidian level, lawyers file briefs, conduct depositions, write memos, and provide legal opinions. More broadly, they seek to interpret and apply the law on behalf of their clients, practicing the zealous advocacy that characterizes the American legal profession (see “Professionalism in the 21st Century”). But do actions alone define the professional identity of lawyers? Or does the profession have a meaning that extends beyond its practice into the lives and minds of its practitioners? If so, how does this relate to the personal identities of lawyers?

In the lead story of this issue of The Practice, “The Professional Identity Formation of Lawyers,” John Bliss analyzes the fraught process of professional identity formation among current law students. In part, he finds that law students bound for corporate law firms tend to experience professional role distancing: they do not view “being a lawyer” as central to their own identities, and they separate their “lawyer” role from other identities, such as a husband or political junkie. In other words, those on the cusp of entering corporate law practice tend to display a discrete professional identity—one in which “being a lawyer” is not central to their other identities and remains separate from their wider personal characteristics.

In an effort to better understand how these research findings relate to practicing professionals, The Practice spoke with corporate lawyers from three generations, asking them to reflect on their professional identity formation. (In this case, “corporate lawyers” references those working in private law firms whose main clients are companies.) The reflections of these lawyers, who graduated law school in 1969, 1984, and 2010 respectively, demonstrate both the continuities within the profession as well as the macro-level changes that have occurred over the past four decades. Unlike some of the law students in the lead story of this issue, these lawyers feel that “being a lawyer” is central to who they are, even if this identity is sometimes at odds with their other roles in life.

A view from the past

Phil Burling graduated from Harvard Law School in 1969 and practiced for 30 years at the Boston-based firm of Foley Hoag. Burling belonged to the third generation of lawyers in his family, a status that gave him a deep perspective on the importance and dignity of the profession. For him, there was an unshakeable belief that all lawyers—even those in corporate law—held a special responsibility to serve not only their clients but also society as a whole. Burling says that he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after law school, but he did know that he loved the law, politics, and social change. He recalls that firms operated differently back then and that there was less pressure for law students to secure corporate jobs while they were in law school. “The big firms didn’t offer jobs early on back then, and you didn’t have to summer in a firm to get a permanent offer. My second-year summer, instead of working for a big firm, I went and worked for the Navajo Indians in legal services.”

There was no tension between practicing law and wider identities, explains Burling.

Burling’s first job after law school was at Foley Hoag, where he was the 30th lawyer at the firm. In speaking about his decision to go to Foley Hoag, Burling stresses the firm’s view that being a corporate lawyer was equally about good citizenship as it was about the law. “In the interview process,” Burling explains, “the people I met all had an interest in politics and/or social issues, so I thought this was a place that will let you have a conscience and will encourage you to be engaged. That was a very important part of my eagerness to go there.”

Burling remembers that there was no tension between practicing law and his wider identities, including his interest in public service and politics. Indeed, the firm encouraged Burling to integrate his professional identity as a lawyer with his civic commitments.

“When I got to Foley, several of my mentors encouraged me to join civic and charitable boards, often as their successors. So I did. But I should also say that I found service on those boards interesting and rewarding,” he says.

In talking to The Practice, Burling stresses that political activism was central to his identity. He began his career as a lawyer during the Vietnam War, which he and his colleagues viewed as wrong and something that they had a duty to protest using their skills, knowledge, and professional standing. In this way, Burling notes that his professional identity as a corporate lawyer was fully integrated with his identity as an activist—a commitment that the firm supported both in spirit and in resources.

Burling’s professional identity as a corporate lawyer was fully integrated with his identity as an activist—a commitment that his firm supported both in spirit and in resources.

“A group of partners and a group of associates jointly founded something called the Boston Lawyers Vietnam Committee, which was a citywide function, and we went down to Washington and lobbied like mad in Congress …,” he says. “And throughout it, I think the mentors and the young associates agreed that the role of lawyers required us to take a position on this.”

While Burling recalls that lawyers were admired for their work in the community, he stresses that the most revered individuals were those who were “the most highly qualified lawyers.” In that sense, being a good technical lawyer was a necessary condition for all community work. Thus, his professional identity as a corporate lawyer was a symbiosis between his various identities as a lawyer, good citizen, and activist. For him, his identities were one and the same—a starkly different perspective than that of the corporate path students describe by John Bliss in “The Professional Identity Formation of Lawyers.

This all began to change as the legal profession, and in particular corporate firms, underwent drastic transformations. Referring to what he calls the “American Lawyerization” of law—in which billable hours, profits per partner, and other market-based metrics began to infiltrate the legal profession—Burling notes that, even as a partner, the bond he once felt between his role as a corporate lawyer and his other commitments began to fray. He says:

At the time I was leaving in 2004, I was pretty unhappy with what had happened to the practice of law.  I refer to it as the American Lawyerization of the practice of law where there was a growing belief that the only thing that counts is how much you make. By the time I left, it was made clear to me that service on the boards of institutions around town was not billable. Therefore, it was not good.

Burling believes that the development of bigger firms with a stronger emphasis on profit dramatically changed the culture of the legal profession. The new pressure for billed work altered how lawyers spent their days; time-strapped lawyers came to view pro bono work and service to the community as secondary to their main job, rather than as an integral part of their professional identity.

A relentless profession

How did this changing context affect professional identity formation? Lauren Jennings, an experienced attorney who is still practicing, is sympathetic to Burling’s frustration with the change in firm culture. Jennings graduated from Harvard Law School in 1984 and ultimately became the managing partner of the Boston-based law firm of Posternak Blankstein & Lund. Entering the practice of law when the supposed American Lawyerization was on the ascent, Jennings notes that for her generation,

There was a prevailing attitude at law firms that you could be a lawyer and only a lawyer, or you could really not be a lawyer and also do other things. Law was perceived to be all-consuming of 100 percent of your time and life. You were either at the office, or you were not working—which meant a few things. First of all, if you weren’t at the office, the senior partners assumed you were not working and therefore you were slacking off. Secondly, the senior partners felt that they owned the associates’ time. I had people tell me, you can’t really be a mother and a lawyer.

Why is it that we present ourselves as our profession? As opposed to presenting ourselves as people who have other parts to our lives?

Lauren Jennings, an attorney at Posternak Blankstein & Lund

What Jennings describes stands in stark contrast to Burling’s vision of the corporate lawyer as an integration of the “lawyer” identity and one’s wider identities, whether as an activist or a family member. The change in law firm culture had the effect of intensifying and magnifying the role of “lawyer,” often at the expense of other identities.

Jennings says that the billable work of being a lawyer was “relentless,” such that it became an “all-consuming” professional identity. As a committed mother, she made sure to make time for her family, but there was often little time left over for other interests. She offers a telling vignette, reflecting on how the demands of her career limited time for other identities, such as a music lover and pianist. She says:

After I had been in the practice for maybe 10 to 12 years, my husband and I went to a wedding and the bride’s adult sister- and brother-in-law played the music. I remember looking at them as grownups who presumably had jobs but who were also able to play well enough to perform at a wedding. It was an extremely sobering moment because at that point I could not have conceived that I could do that—that I could devote enough of my life to that.

Jennings also stresses how being a woman shaped her professional identity, explaining that it wasn’t always easy to reconcile her gender with the standard story of what a corporate lawyer was. While she never felt disadvantaged, she does remember how firm life was full of language, symbols, and practices that were not always inclusive of women. And, surrounded by male colleagues, she describes how she felt the need to be extra dedicated, assertive, and eminently professional. In a telling quip, Jennings remembers cringing when her parents referred to her demanding career as a “day job” and never quite understood the amount of time and energy required for her to rise in the field. The result was an existence in which she felt there was little time for anything other than work, even though she was an individual with diverse interests and family responsibilities.

Law was perceived to be all-consuming of 100 percent of your time and life. You were either at the office, or you were not working.

Lauren Jennings

Stressing how “being a corporate lawyer” risks becoming all-consuming, Jennings also reflects on how she and her colleagues often lead with their professional identity in social settings. She says, “Why is it that we all present ourselves as our profession, as opposed to presenting ourselves as people who have other parts to our lives?” Jennings continues,

So I often thought if I could really introduce who I think I am, I’d say, “Hello, my name’s Lauren Jennings. I’m married, I’m the mother of two kids, and I really care about my family. I also happen to be a lawyer, and I’m very involved in my career. But I’m interested in other things as well. I do some nonprofit work.” But that’s just not the way we talk about ourselves. It’s almost as if, when you get separated from your profession, you also get separated from your identity.

Faced with relentless career demands, it is no surprise that so many lawyers find it difficult to separate themselves from their professional identity. As Jennings describes, lawyers have to be extremely—almost single-mindedly—goal oriented to be successful, and they have to maintain a singular focus while working to achieve those goals. Other interests and commitments have to take a backseat while associates gun for partner and partners work to develop business. For Jennings, it was only after she became managing partner that she was able to really reflect on the sort of work she actually wanted to do:

I was goal oriented. I wanted to achieve a certain level of practice. I wanted to be a partner. I never thought I’d be managing partner, but then I was, and that was interesting. So you sort of hit all of these benchmarks, and then at some point you say, “OK, wow, I’ve done all of that. Now what interests me?”

Back to the future?

So what about the new generation of corporate lawyers? Young lawyers are not waiting to think critically about what it is they do and how that work fits with their other interests. Whether due to changes in the profession, or to the millennial mindset of seeking meaningful work, young lawyers are particularly positioned to question how their personal and professional identities overlap.

Frances S. Lewis graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 2010 and, in many ways, is on the traditional path to succeed within corporate law. After graduation, she worked for Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in New York City for one year before clerking for a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. She ultimately landed at the Los Angeles office of Susman Godfrey, a boutique litigation firm with a national practice. She has had opportunities often unseen by young associates, from taking dozens of depositions to arguing in the Federal Circuit to presenting witness testimony at trial. Indeed, Lewis is quick to note how much she enjoys law. “I’m really in love with the practice of law,” she said emphatically. She goes on,

I really enjoy advocating for my clients, and I enjoy being adversarial in a competitive but collegial way. I’m drawn to the process through which our legal system works. We as a society get better results if we have an advocate on each side of a dispute coming toward each other with a full arsenal of ideas and positions, and hashing it out in front of a neutral arbitrator. That process and that mindset is just really fun to me. I don’t know how else to explain it.

I’m really in love with the practice of law.

Frances S. Lewis, an attorney at Susman Godfrey

Lewis conveys a passion for the legal system and the intellectual rigor of her work, and she strongly believes that her professional identity as a lawyer is central to who she is. However, her current identity as a corporate lawyer is not without tension with her other commitments. More specifically, in talking to The Practice, she notes that at times she feels some distance between her personal identity and her current professional role as a commercial litigator—not unlike the sort of role distancing noted in “The Professional Identity Formation of Lawyers.” Her original decision to pursue a career in law was motivated by a summer spent at the San Francisco public defender’s office, an organization dedicated to providing legal assistance to those without means. During her time at Michigan, she also held leadership positions within student groups interested in public-interest law. She says:

I struggle with this idea that currently my professional identity is a commercial litigator, because I have this lingering memory of wanting to go to law school to be a public defender and wanting to do public interest. I wrestle with the question of “Is this my identity, being a commercial litigator?” Is it enough that I’m having fun, or do I need to be doing more good in the world?

Lewis clarifies that corporate law does grant some opportunities to “do good” and advance social justice. Indeed, she stresses that her firm is committed to pro bono and public-interest work. “My firm has said to me very clearly that if I want to bring a pro bono case, they will support me 100 percent. In that sense, my firm cares very deeply about pro bono work.” However, like Jennings, Lewis also says that the relentless nature of the work and the constant drive to do more for less often means that associates like herself often don’t have the time or space to invest in anything other than client work and billable hours. She explains:

I wish I did pro bono work, but right now I just don’t have the energy or bandwidth to seek it out. The work would be on top of my current caseload, which is heavy. As much as I love being a lawyer, I want time to spend on the other important areas of my life—friends, family, hobbies—which already feel pushed to the side.

Corporate lawyers—of all generations—continue to strive for professional identities that are both central to their selves as well as integrated with their wider interests.

Echoing Jennings, Lewis worries that corporate law could become all-consuming in such a way that it crowds out her other interests, passions, and identities—even those related to the law. Even as she devotes most of her time to her work, Lewis says she still hesitates to identify as a corporate lawyer because this would be an acknowledgement—and even an acceptance—of the fact that this work defines her daily life.

Future identities

What should one make of all this? There seems to be cause for both optimism and pessimism. On the one hand, it seems that corporate lawyers are increasingly governed by the forces of billable hours and the increasingly relentless marketplace for legal work and client demands. On the other hand, corporate lawyers—of all generations—continue to strive for professional identities that are both central to their selves as well as integrated with their wider interests. Derek Davis, executive director of the Center on the Legal Profession and a longtime corporate lawyer, offers another perspective. “The goal is integrating your role as a lawyer with your wider personal identities,” says Davis. “Being a corporate lawyer is hard work and often requires sacrifice. However, the practice of law is incredibly rewarding, personally and professionally. There ought to be no reason why lawyers should feel compelled to choose between their role as lawyers and their wider identities.”