Legal Profession

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID
Fiona Kay
Queen's University

This is a copy of a paper in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Online edition.
Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu and Fiona Kay. 2015 “Legal Profession.” In The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, Online Edition. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. Online, October 26, 2015. law school lawyers


From the beginning of sociological scholarship, the legal profession has drawn attention in theory and research concerning the function of the occupational roles that are involved with the administration of law. Of special consideration is the autonomy of the legal profession and its characteristics of closure and monopoly over relevant work. The legal profession has diversified greatly over the past few decades, but the consequences of this increasing diversity are ambiguous. Legal work has most recently been observed to be subject to managerial and globalization trends related to the increasing size of law firms and their expansion beyond national borders.

Keywords: globalization; law; Talcott Parsons; Max Weber

The legal profession refers to all occupational roles oriented toward the administration and maintenance of the legal system. Encompassing lawyers, judges, notaries, mediators, paralegals, counselors, as well as experts of legal education and scholarship, the legal profession has been the subject of considerable reflection in sociology. This sociological interest parallels the enormous attention devoted to the legal profession in various strands of sociolegal studies, including other social sciences besides sociology, as well as jurisprudence. Scholars have been intrigued by the successful monopolization of the execution of legal functions and the resulting social standing and closure of the legal profession. The fact that the legal profession is among the most researched aspects of law is thus a direct function of the professionalization of the legal role itself. Yet, although most scholarly research on the legal profession comes from within jurisprudence and from law-and-society perspectives, there also exists a distinctly sociological tradition on the societal aspects of the legal profession.

The aspiration to maintain occupational autonomy is one of the legal profession’s most critical and sociologically challenging characteristics. This professional independence is a concrete expression of the autonomy of law as a whole. The ideal of legal autonomy finds primary expression in the establishment of an independent judiciary. Further manifestations of the autonomy of law are provided in the workings of the courts and, most importantly, in the professionalization of the legal occupation. The autonomy of legal practice is primarily reflected in legal education and legal practice, as the legal profession has been successful in controlling admission to and the organization of law schools and legal work. Yet, conflicts over jurisdictions, in terms of clientele, training, and certification, occasionally flare up, for example, between notaries and lawyers, between lawyers and paralegals, and between law firms and other professional service firms, such as accountancy firms. The legal profession is a contested one.

Various sociological theories exist on the place and role of the legal profession. Most studies in the sociology of the profession are indebted to the focus on the professionalization of legal work in modern societies that was first systematically addressed by Max Weber and subsequently taken up by Talcott Parsons.

Max Weber defined law intimately in relation to the legal profession by specifying law as a normative order that is externally guaranteed by a specialized staff, including police, prosecutors, and judges. Under the conditions of modern societies, Weber maintained that law rationalized in a formal sense on the basis of procedures that are to be applied equally to all. Legal professionals take on a special role in this context because they are involved in the adjudication of law on the basis of acquired legal expertise. The institutionalization of expertise in matters of law secures the specialized status of the legal professional on the basis of the state formally granting such monopoly.

In modern sociology, Talcott Parsons gave special consideration to the legal profession’s role in securing integration through the legal system. This theoretical understanding harmonizes with the functionalist attention toward law as a mechanism of social control and also reveals a broader sociological concern for the role of the professions in modern societies. The successful acquisition of expertise in a particular occupational role is the profession’s most outstanding characteristic. The legal professional is primarily someone who is learned in the law and who can provide specialized services on the basis of this expertise.

In more recent decades, sociologists have offered more varied theoretical viewpoints on the role and status of the legal profession. New perspectives have been introduced that transcend the functionalist obsession with integration to contemplate the law’s role in terms of power and inequality. Scholars of the critical legal studies movement have pondered the behavior and the ideology in the language of judges and lawyers irrespective of, and often contrary to, law’s self-proclaimed ideals of justice and equity. Arguing that legal reasoning is affected by dozens of personal biases depending on legal professionals’ sociostructural backgrounds, these perspectives have even questioned the very basis of the legal professional’s aspiration to autonomy and neutrality.

Contemporary sociological studies of professional and knowledge-based work also journey beyond definitions of “professionalism” and examine law in terms of themes of expert knowledge base, autonomy, normative service orientation supported by community, and high status, income, and rewards. Numerous scholars have pared off specific styles of legal practice for rich ethnographic study, revealing the complexities, relationships, and routines involved in day-to-day law practice. Studies document the pursuits of cause lawyers and reveal the role of lawyers in establishing international courts, nation-building, and global trade agreements. Other sociological investigations focus attention on professional identity formation and the role of law school, apprenticeship, and early career socialization in learning to ‘think and act like a lawyer.’ Also examined are the topics of volunteerism among legal professionals, in terms of pro bono (free) legal services, and the challenges for access to justice among the economically disadvantaged, disabled, new immigrants, and racial and ethnic minorities.

Among the more enduring sociological puzzles is the increasing diversity within the legal profession since the latter half of the twentieth century. Unlike the cohesive group of old, legal professionals nowadays are composed of a wide variety of practitioners, educated in a multitude of legal programs, and are more broadly representative of contemporary society with respect to gender, age, and ethnicity. The greater diversity in the legal profession also includes diversity of professional mandates, systems of professional regulation, and spheres of practice.

The increasing diversity of the legal profession has not always been accompanied by growing equality, as many disparities have been observed to persist, such as earnings and advancement disparities between lawyers of different genders and racial and ethnic backgrounds. For example, research by Garcià-López (2008) finds that minorities are less likely than whites to form developmental relationships with white mentors, who are more established in the power hierarchy of firms and can provide improved opportunities for advancement. Kay and Gorman (2012) also document persistent disparities in their study of 1,300 large US law firms, despite formal development practices and cultural value intended to level the playing field for African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

Recent studies suggest that gender bias is reduced when firm decision-makers are influenced by female clients and when they have worked in contexts where female leadership is present. For example, research by Beckman and Phillips (2005), analyzing data on 200 large law firms, found that the number of female partners grew faster in firms that represent corporate clients with women in leadership positions. Similarly, Gorman’s study of 1,450 promotions in over 500 large law firms showed that firms are more likely to promote women when they already have a large proportion of female partners. The legal profession also shows increasing diversity in terms of the settings in which lawyers work. Recent research has pointed to several emerging trends. First, there are dramatic differences in cultural and economic capital between solo practitioners and lawyers working in small firms, on the one hand, and lawyers employed in large corporate and global law firms, on the other. Further, the traditional model of solo practice and small firm partnerships is shifting toward the dominance of larger law firms. Second, a trend can be noted toward a global expansion of law firms and a growth of foreign offices. Law firms have expanded tremendously in size, with an increasing number of branch offices, both domestically and abroad. Third, the structure of law firms is changing, with multiple tiers of salaried employees and even splintered ranks of equity partners, raising new challenges for cohesive firm cultures, strategic decision-making, and professional autonomy. The high degree of stratification and global reach in the legal profession today has brought about new chasms in professional unity, prompting calls for reform from within the profession.

SEE ALSO: Law, Sociology of; Occupations; Parsons, Talcott; Professions; Weber, Max; Work, Sociology of

  • Beckman, C.M., and Phillips, D.J. (2005) Interorganizational determinants of promotion: client leadership and the attainment of women attorneys. American Sociological Review, 70(4): 678–701. 
  • Garcià-López, G. (2008) “Nunca te toman en cuenta” [They never take you into account]: the challenges of inclusion and strategies for success of Chicana attorneys. Gender & Society, 22(5): 590–612. 
  • Gorman, E.H., and Sandefur, R.L. (2011) “Golden age,” quiescence, and revival: how the sociology of professions became the study of knowledge-based work. Work and Occupations 38(3): 275–302. 
  • Kay, F.M., and Gorman, E.H. (2012) Developmental practices, organizational culture, and minority representation in organizational leadership: the case of partners in large U.S. law firms. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 639: 91–113.

Further Readings
  • Galanter, M., and Henderson, W. (2008) The elastic tournament: a second transformation of the big law firm. Stanford Law Review, 60: 1867–1930. 
  • Halliday, T., Pacewicz, J., and Block-Lieb, S. (2013) Who governs? Delegations in global trade lawmaking. Regulation & Governance, 7: 279–298. 
  • Heinz, J.P., Nelson, R.L., Sandefur, R.L., and Laumann, E.O. (2005) Urban Lawyers: The New Social Structure of the Bar. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL. 
  • Relis, T. (2009) Perceptions in Litigation and Mediation: Lawyers, Defendants, Plaintiffs, and Gendered Parties, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 
  • Sandefur, R.L. (2008) Access to civil justice and race, class, and gender inequality. Annual Review of Sociology, 34: 339–358. 
  • Sarat, A. (ed.) (2010) Law firms, legal culture, and legal practice. Studies in Law, Politics and Society, special issue, 52. 
  • Sarat, A., and Scheingold, S. (2008) The Cultural Lives of Cause Lawyers, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 
  • Shdaimah, C.S. (2009) Negotiating Justice: Progressive Lawyering, Low-Income Clients, and the Quest for Social Change, NYU Press, New York.

This paper is revised and expanded from: “Legal Profession.” Pp. 2583-2584 in The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

See other writings on law.