Autonomy-Mastery-Purpose: Structuring Clinical Courses To Enhance These Critical Educational Goals


  • Leah Wortham Columbus School of Law, The Catholic University of America
  • Catherine Klein Columbus School of Law, The Catholic University of America
  • Beryl Blaustone CUNY School of Law



“There is a science to what we do”

This article takes its name from the keynote plenary that the authors presented at the 8th International Journal of Clinical Legal Education conference held at Northumbria University in July 2010 The presentation and this article link research on human motivation and well-being to the structure and methods of clinical legal education. The quote above is from a conference participant in response to a question that we posed to small groups at our plenary regarding how the concepts of autonomy support and mastery resonate with their experience in clinical education and legal education more generally.

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the “tripod of Type I behavior” formulated by Daniel H. Pink in his 2009 book, DRIVE: THE SURPRISING TRUTH ABOUT WHAT MOTIVATES US. Pink postulates “Type I” behavior as that driven by intrinsic, self-generated motivations as opposed to “Type X” behavior directed toward extrinsic factors outside the self such as imposed production quotas, bonuses, competitions to “best” others, or avoiding punishments.

Pink develops a computer-operating-system metaphor to advocate “Motivation 3.0” as an optimal organizing principle for 21st century business built on providing employees opportunities for autonomy, mastery, and purpose as opposed to an outmoded “Motivation 2.0,” which assumes a controlling work environment based on the premise that people respond best to carrots and sticks. Pink’s book cites examples of businesses structured to support autonomy, mastery, and purpose and describes their successes in enhanced creativity, innovation, retaining valued employees, and productivity. He contrasts such businesses with work places organized around specifically dictated job conditions and traditional structures where workers are subject to externally controlled rewards and punishments.

Pink provides an engaging, easily accessible entry to a body of social science literature on motivation, achievement, and feelings of well-being that also has been applied to legal education. This article seeks to provide user-friendly access to theory regarding the basic human needs for autonomy, mastery, and purpose as well as regarding intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. The article provides examples of choices clinical teachers can make to promote student learning and feelings of well-being through methods supporting satisfaction of those basic human needs and encouraging students to find their self-driven motivations.

Part I describes the difference in extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and reviews the negative effects of business and educational models assuming extrinsic motivation to be most effective rather than seeking to stimulate intrinsic motivation. Part II describes the Carnegie Foundation’s Preparation for the Professions project’s call for law schools to focus on law students’ sense of identity and purpose as part of their professional education, as well as noting the similar goal that students learn “how to be” as articulated by the Tuning Project of the Bologna process regarding higher education in Europe. Part III provides basics on the theory of human needs for a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose on which the rest of the article is based. Part IV applies work contrasting autonomy-supportive teacher behaviors with controlling instructional behaviors to the clinical context. Part V of the article draws on cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and learning theory to suggest four methods useful for assisting novice law students on the steep road to mastery of lawyering competence within the time constraints of clinical programs and the professional demands of client service. Methods identified also contribute to satisfaction of students’ need for relatedness, which too often is undermined in other parts of law school. Part VI extends the discussion of clinics’ potential contribution to the need for relatedness and focuses on clinical education’s capacity to support development of students’ sense of how a career in law can contribute to their sense of life purpose in being part of something larger than themselves.

Many of this article’s applications of theory to clinical teaching are from the clinics in which students provide client representation or are engaged in transactional legal problem solving under faculty supervision, the type of clinics in which Professors Klein and Blaustone teach. We think, however, that clinical teachers will be able to see applications of the theory presented to the various types of clinical programs that exist around the world, e.g, street law programs in which students teach community members and externship programs in which students work under the supervision of a lawyer in an organization external to the law school. We hope, like Pink’s book, to offer an accessible gateway to a body of theoretical and empirical work that can help clinical teachers think critically and creatively about both their clinical program’s structure and their teaching and supervision. We hope to inspire teachers to think about ways they might apply this theory toward nurturing the type of life-long self-direction that motivates people to continually seek greater mastery and provides a sense of well-being both now and in the students’ future careers.