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Journal Article

The Transformation of the American Legal Profession

Richard L. Abel
Law & Society Review
Vol. 20, No. 1 (1986), pp. 7-18
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Law and Society Association
DOI: 10.2307/3053410
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3053410
Page Count: 11
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The Transformation of the American Legal Profession
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Abstract

Professions are historically specific institutions for organizing the production and distribution of services. American lawyers constructed the contemporary legal profession between the 1870s and the 1950s by forming local, state, and national bar associations through which they sought, with considerable success, to control the production of and by producers of legal services. In the last two decades, these structures of control have significantly eroded. Lawyers exerted no restraint over the threefold increase in law students since the early 1960s or the changes in the composition of that student body. Restrictive practices taken for granted for half a century have been summarily eliminated by judicial decisions and executive action. To the extent that lawyers have responded by seeking to create new demand, they run the risk of intensifying competition, becoming more dependent on the state, and organizing hitherto atomistic consumers into collectivities that can challenge professional dominance. The image of the profession as a homogeneous collection of independent practitioners is harder to maintain. The proportion of employees is growing, solo practitioners are declining in the face of a hostile economic environment, and units of production are growing in size and becoming more bureaucratic. Divisions of race, gender, age, and class, superimposed over the differentiation of lawyers among structures of practice and the stratification of private practice into two hemispheres, make professional unity increasingly problematic. For similar reasons, self-regulation is being undermined from within while it is challenged from without. These cumulative transformations demand that we reconsider whether it is useful to continue thinking of the practice of law as a profession.

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