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Divided Selves: Professional Role Distancing Among Law Students and New Lawyers in a Period of Market Crisis

  • John Bliss


In the terms of Erving Goffman's classic role-distancing analysis, newly admitted law students often aspire to an “embraced” lawyer role that directly expresses their personal and political values. Empirical research has suggested that during law school these students are instructed in an amoral and apolitical vision of professionalism. The literature has paid less attention to how students internally experience these norms within their continual processes of self-construction. This article takes an exploratory micro-dynamic look at professional identity formation drawing on longitudinal interviews and identity mapping with three student cohorts. Over the course of their legal education, students bound for large corporate law firms tended to report increasing professional role distancing. In contrast, students who pursued jobs in the public-interest sector tended to sustain a more proximate conception of professional identity, overlapping with racial, gender, political, and other centrally constitutive roles. The article concludes with normative and theoretical implications.



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