Self-Directed Growth

Cultivating self-directed growth in law students is among the most important roles that law schools have. Sure, knowledge of legal topics and analytical skills remains a priority. However, legal academia has increasingly learned that their students need more than that. A 2017 Survey of Law Schools stated learning outcomes demonstrated that a substantial number of schools included self-directed learning and professional development in the law schools learning outcomes. See, Learning Outcomes Database, on St. Thomas Law School Holloran Center website, at

Self-directedness is perhaps the foundational component on which students begin their growth as professionals. It begins with a commitment to evaluate oneself and accept evaluation of others on skills and competencies crucial to professional excellence. Dean Natt Gantt and I surveyed over 600 first-year law students at six different law schools of various sizes around the country. The results showed that a surprisingly large number, over forty percent, classified themselves in categories that conceded they were not self-directed. See . Because such surveys usually reflect elevated evaluations (due to social desirability bias), the true category of students who lack self-directed skills is likely far greater.

We were sufficiently convinced by our work (and that of Professors Neil Hamilton and Jerry Organ) of the need to make development of self-directedness a priority that we, with our faculty’s approval, began a mandatory first-year course that begins the process of self-directed growth. We partnered with our School of Psychology and Counseling to have that school administer both personality and vocational interest testing. Students then receive evaluations from that department and later are paired with a faculty coach who stays with the student through graduation. The student and professor discuss the student’s self-evaluation of her strengths and weaknesses, as well as a 360 degree evaluation including others who know the student. By the middle of a 1L’s spring semester, our students have developed a written plan for professional development. That plan includes steps the each will take to develop the competencies important to the legal profession. It also includes concrete plans for venturing into the legal world.

The interesting question now is how to measure students’ progress in self-directedness. The preparation of written plans will help in this process. By their second and third years, we hope that students will have learned to take ownership of the need to develop the competencies of an effective lawyer and to pursue opportunities proactively. The challenge for us and for others who have embraced learning outcomes that include self-directedness (and other professional identity competencies) is to generate reliable assessments to determine whether our programs have led to progress in the competencies. Fortunately, a group of law professors from many law schools are working together, with the support of St. Thomas’ Holloran Center, to create rubrics that should allow schools to assess the degree to which students have advanced in self-directedness and the other skills associated with an effective lawyer. Rubrics and assessment tools on self-directedness, as well as other skills associated with professional identity formation, should be available within a year. That may sound like a long time. However, we just celebrated last year the ten-year anniversary of the Carnegie Report. The movement

to make Carnegie’s “third apprenticeship” a reality in law schools is well underway and, one only hopes, will continue to gain momentum.


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