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Big Changes in Character of Legal Profession

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October 4, 2005 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

CHICAGO --- Over the last quarter of the 20th century, the legal profession became much more concerned about business than solving everyday problems of people’s lives, according to a new book “Urban Lawyers: the New Social Structure of the Bar” (University of Chicago Press, 2005).

“The whole character of the legal profession has changed,” concludes co-author John P. Heinz, Owen L. Coon Professor of Law and professor of sociology at Northwestern University.

In their first big look at Chicago’s legal profession, Heinz and University of Chicago Professor Edward O. Laumann found that lawyers serving corporate clients and those working for individuals and small businesses inhabited two distinct hemispheres. The lawyers from the two hemispheres seldom, if ever, crossed the equator, the researchers concluded from their 1975 survey of Chicago lawyers.

The new book, “Urban Lawyers,” is based on another American Bar Foundation survey conducted in 1994/95, 20 years later. The book concludes that the divide between the two sets of lawyers continues to widen -- to an extent that the two-hemispheres metaphor doesn’t even work any more.

The two parts are distinguished by substantial differences in socioeconomic and ethno-religious backgrounds, education credentials, social networks, prestige and incomes.

“In 1975, the two-hemispheres metaphor was appropriate, because the two sets of lawyers were roughly the same size,” says Heinz.

“But by the mid-1990s the corporate area of practice had become more than twice as big as the personal and small business sector of Chicago lawyers. And the difference between those making the most and the least money is striking. Income for those doing corporate work at the big firms is going like gangbusters, while it is declining for those in solo practice.”

Besides Heinz, co-authors of “Urban Lawyers: the New Social Structure of the Bar” are Robert L. Nelson, director of the American Bar Foundation and professor of sociology and law at Northwestern; Rebecca L. Sandefur, assistant professor of sociology at Stanford University; and Edward O. Laumann, the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. (Heinz and Laumann also are co-authors of the 1982 book, “Chicago Lawyers: the Social Structure of the Bar” (revised edition, Northwestern University Press and American Bar Foundation, 1994).

The “Urban Lawyers” researchers not only compare the 1975 and 1995 data to illustrate the dramatic transformation of the Chicago bar that took place at the end of the 20th century, they also draw on leading research that offers a sweeping look at the legal profession as a whole, going back to “the golden age” associated with stable partnerships with lifetime tenure.

The book offers a colorful picture of American lawyers, who for much of the 20th century were disproportionately likely to be white, male, Protestant, of northern European ancestry and from the upper reaches of society. In 1975, the legal profession still was relatively stable, the data shows, but it was on the brink of rapid change. The hierarchies within the profession that had evolved since the middle of the 19th century were about to shift with the entry of large numbers of women and minorities. 

By the 1990s, the extraordinary concentration of capital and growth of large companies were influencing every part of society, including the growth of national and international mega-firms. Accordingly, the dominance of large firms in the practice of business law rose substantially.

With the expansion of large law firms also came more business-like management structures, increasing specialization, intense competition for segments of corporate business, unprecedented mobility of lawyers between firms and decreasing offers of life-time partnerships.

The percentage of total income quadrupled for the big firms (more than 100 lawyers), the data shows, while the percentage of all practicing lawyers employed by those firms tripled. For solos, house counsel and the smallest firms, the share of practicing lawyers declined.

Reflecting the dynamics of the legal profession overall, Chicago lawyers’ incomes are among the most unequal of those in any profession. 

In 1975, the top quarter earned $266,733 (1995 dollars) on average and collected an estimated 54 percent of all lawyer income. By 1995, their average incomes were 22 percent higher, $325,050, and they collected 61 percent of the earning of Chicago lawyers.

At the same time, earnings for those at the bottom end of the bar declined. In1975, lawyers whose incomes were in the lowest 25 percent of the profession made an average of $43,231 in constant (1995) dollars and together collected an estimated 9 percent of the total income received by all practicing lawyers. By 1995, their incomes averaged about $10,000 less, $33,816, and they secured only 6 percent of total income.

“When work is relatively poor paid, the quality as well as the quantity of lawyers may suffer: it may be difficult to recruit good lawyers to do that work,” the book’s researchers conclude in the chapter on income and income inequality. They point to capital sentences imposed on defendants whose lawyers were inexperienced, ignorant of relevant law, drunk in court or asleep during proceedings.

Steeper and clearer than ever, the stratification of the Chicago bar is strongly related to where a person starts out in life. Shared family backgrounds, education, political and social networks, and gender have a notable impact on where you end up in the bar hierarchy.

Women, African Americans and Hispanics had significantly lower probabilities of top-quartile income and partnerships in firms of any size – large or small.

“Their lower rates of success do not appear to be attributable solely to the prestige of their diplomas,” Heinz says.

So, lawyers -- including those poorly paid at the bottom of the hierarchy and those competing fiercely in the highly structured mega-firms at the top -- are unhappy, right? Contrary to that well established notion, which has received so much attention in recent years, the answer is “no.”

“One of the most striking findings is the generally high level of satisfaction reported by all categories of lawyers, a result that is clearly at variance with the common wisdom,” Heinz says.

In somewhat of a paradox, women report the same degree of overall job satisfaction as do men despite being less satisfied with most specific aspects of their work. Over time, most people find their way to satisfactory jobs. If they are unhappy, they leave.

Other highlights of the findings:

• One dramatic change is the percentage of women in the two samples, 3.9 percent in 1975 and 29 percent in 1995, reflecting the sharp increase nationally in the number of female law graduates.

• Women were significantly underrepresented among law firm partners in 1995, constituting 7 percent of partners, which is 22 percentage points less than their presence in the bar.

• By 1995, a majority of respondents had worked as an associate in a private firm at some point, but they were less likely to have been promoted to partnership in the first firm in which they worked, and partners were less likely to spend their career in a single firm.

• In 1995, the probability of a graduate of a prestigious law school being in the top income quartile was 34 percent, but for those who went to regional or local schools it was only 20 percent

• Among lawyers in private practice, solo practitioners have the lowest average prestige score.

• Even though large numbers of women entered the profession, and the rapid growth of the bar reduced the mean age, lawyers overall became more conservative.

• More respondents were active in religious organizations in 1995 than in any other category, and that category showed one of the largest increases in rates of activity from 1975 to 1995

• In the last quarter of the 20th century, practice organizations became a primary engine of change in the social structure of the bar. As more lawyers became employed by large organizations, bureaucratic rules increasingly governed their work and the course of their careers.