Hypothetically Speaking: Constructing Professional Identity in Law School

Kathryn Elizabeth Ticknor


A significant aspect of learning how to be a lawyer includes the acquisition—through trial and error—of a way of speaking, reading and writing that is unique to the work of doing law. Embodying this professional role requires the ability to parse and produce large amounts of complex, jargon-rich language known as ‘legalese:’ a learned communicative skill which produces a craftbound discourse (Maley 1987). The law school graduate, moreover, typically enters the workforce with little experience in legal practice. A three year education must therefore provide sufficient training for their immediate professional future. Words must fulfill the role that experience cannot.

In conjunction with ethnographic observation of first year classes at a major law school, I analyzed classroom interaction for patterns in talk that foster a sense of professional identity. Hypothetical situations emerged as a striking unit of analysis. Professors presented brief, improvised descriptions of potential legal quandaries, while positioning students as characters in the narratives. Using pronouns such as in “you, the plaintiff,” “you, the defendant,” and asking questions such as “why would you pass a statute allowing these lawsuits?” rather than “why would lawyers/legislators/they pass a statute,” the professor positions students within the legal system, and allows them to cognitively role play with their professional identity. Hypothetical situations as a unit of analysis inform our understanding of law school curriculum, as well as other types of training situations where students must develop the critical thinking skills of the real world within the walls of a classroom.


ethnography, linguistics, professional identity; education

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