Professional Identity: Mandela and Obama

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Long title: 
Professional Identity in Motion: Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and the Ethics of Transformation
Author(s): 
Hansford, Justin
Author(s)' contact information: 
Saint Louis University, USA
Conference title: 
International Legal Ethics Conference VI
Conference location: 
City University London
Country: 
USA
Year: 
2014

Before becoming the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama spent three years as a law student, one summer as an intern at a traditional law firm, and four years as a civil rights attorney. In these legal roles, he migrated from traditional zealous representation to lawyering designed to extend the benefits of the civil rights movement to a new generation of underprivileged citizens of color by working to expand the quality of their political participation. Many supporters expected President Obama to take a more aggressive approach to advocating for similarly progressive policies, particularly on issues of civil rights, when he assumed office. However, many of the President’s most progressive supporters have been disappointed by the administration’s approach on these issues. It appears that President Obama’s ideals of professionalism have transitioned from hired gun, to cause lawyer, to lawyer-statesman, where today he promotes a broader view of the public good that eschews partisan advocacy and embraces statesmanship. Is this a betrayal of his supporters, a betrayal of himself, or growth?
This paper sets out to contextualize this problem by comparing President Obama’s transition to that of an even more storied lawyer who interned at a traditional law firm, practiced cause lawyering, and later assumed high political office and eschewed highly partisan advocacy and embraced statesmanship—Nelson Mandela. By interrogating the dynamics of transition in the ethical norms of these lawyers turned leaders, this paper will demonstrate both the fluidity and the profound consequences of ideals of legal professionalism.

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