Lawyers in 21st Century Societies – The history of a long-running international book project

by Ulrike Schultz

In February 2020 the first volume of the ambitious international project on Lawyers in 21st Century Societies was published by Hart, Bloomsbury in Oxford. Richard Abel, Ole Hammerslev, Hilary Sommerlad and I assembled 74 authors, many of them members of the Research Committee for the Sociology of Law (RCSL). The authors contributed 44 national reports on the situation of the legal profession in countries all around the world, covering North America, Western Europe, Latin America, Asia, Australia, North Africa and the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and former communist countries. The sample also included countries like Libya, Palestine, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Myanmar where there is little official data available on their legal and judicial systems and professional structures. Matthias Kilian and I wrote the chapter on Germany. The volume is weighty not only in terms of the knowledge it contains, making it an epochal book but also in terms of its physical weight at 1.8 kg.

History of the project

The story of the project on Lawyers in 21st-Century Societies goes back almost 50 years. At the end of the 1970s, Philip Lewis[i] from Wolfson College, University of Oxford and Richard Abel from University of California, Los Angeles decided to launch an international comparative project on the history, constitution and role of lawyers in society. A group of scholars gathered for a week in the summer of 1984 at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy. The meeting has since become legendary, forging a group identity and ultimately resulting in the three volumes on Lawyers in Society: one on the common law world, one on the civil law world, and one on comparative theories. These pathbreaking books became the foundation of socio-legal research and teaching about lawyers for decades. The project also launched other comparative sociological studies of lawyers, and in 2005 William Felstiner published an update of changes in ten countries, including an article about Germany which I authored.

The Working Group on Comparative Studies of Legal Professions

Because of the success of our collaboration, the Bellagio group decided to found the Working Group on Comparative Studies of Legal Professions within the framework of the Research Committee for the Sociology of Law (RCSL). The WG has met biannually since 1986, mainly in France, and has a blog. It is by far the biggest and most active of all RCSL working groups. I have chaired the group from 2010 – 2014, which held meetings in Heisterbacherrott/Königswinter (2012) and in Frauenchiemsee (2014). It is an open network, imposing no obligations. The WG has grown from the 32 contributors to the original volumes to more than 300 members, 60 – 70 of whom attend any given meeting. This collaborative enterprise has produced many monographs, articles and international comparative volumes. One of the most productive subgroups is the one on gender issues in the legal profession set up in 1994 which I have headed since. Its many publications include three comprehensive books on women in the legal profession (Schultz & Shaw 2003; 2013; Schultz et al. 2021), contributions to and special issues of the International Journal of the Legal Profession (e.g. Women in the Legal Profession 2003, Women in the Judiciary 2008, Gender and Judicial Education 2014, Women and Judicial Appointment 2020), as well as several volumes on family lawyers, produced under the auspices and editorship of Mavis Maclean. Several subgroups have held their own meetings, often as workshops at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law (IISL) in Oñati.[ii]

Change in the legal professions

The world’s legal professions have undergone dramatic changes in the 30 years since the publication of the three-volume “Lawyers in Society”. The national reports in the first volume of the current project address:

  • the impact of globalisation and neoliberalism on national legal professions (the relationship of lawyers and their professional associations to the state and tensions between state and citizenship);
  • changes in lawyer demography (rapidly growing numbers and the profession’s efforts to retain control, the entry of women and obstacles to full gender equality, ethnic diversity);
  • legal education (the proliferation of institutions and pedagogic innovation);
  • the regulation of lawyers;
  • structures of production (especially the growth of large firms and the impact of technology and paraprofessionals);
  • the distribution of lawyers across roles; and access to justice (state-funded legal aid and pro-bono services).

The juxtaposition of the reports reveals the dramatic transformations of professional rationales, labour markets, and working practices and the multiple contingencies of the role of lawyers in societies experiencing increasing juridification within a new geopolitical order. Hilary Sommerlad and Ole Hammerslev analyse these effects in their introduction entitled “Lawyers in a New Geopolitical Conjuncture: Continuity and Change”.  The volume closes with a final chapter by Rick Abel in which he compares the data disclosed by the national reports from the 1980s to those presented in the new volume and evaluates in what way the “professional project(s)” have developed.

German lawyers/advocates in comparison

In comparison to other countries, change in Germany has been slow. The impact of neoliberalism is less marked. The legal system’s traditional structures, firmly grounded in more than 200 years of history, have proved more resistant to change than those in other countries. Market forces had less of an impact on the development of the profession as a corset of state regulations sets limits on self-governance. The contribution to the original project in the 1988 volume on the civil law world, which I wrote in connection with Erhard Blankenburg, was entitled “German Advocates: A Highly Regulated Profession”; my chapter in the 2005 publication edited by Bill Felstiner had the focus on “Regulated Deregulation”, the title of the new one, produced in 2020, is “Resistance and Reactions to Demands of Modernisation”.

Theoretical underpinnings

The influence of general theory of professions developed in the second half of the 20th century (such as, for example, Magali Sarfatti Larson’s, which was published in 1979 and initially had been very influential) has diminished over time, since it did not fit developments outside the U.S. very well. Key issues for analysing the legal profession in the U.S. was the “professional project” with market control theory and the concept of a production (of the legal new blood) by the producers (the lawyers). Over the course of 40+ years of our scholarly collaboration, we have concluded that, given the ongoing fragmentation of the profession, it is difficult to develop uniform theoretical models that are generalisable. Alan Paterson has challenged the model with regards to the Scottish legal profession, and I have shown its incompatibility in the German case in a contribution for the Festschrift for Röhl.  To cite Hilary Sommerlad on the effects of neo-liberalism on the Anglo-American profession:

Thatcher and Reagan with specific programmes to shrink the state, and their related view of public sector professionals as essentially parasitic and of their ‘clients’ as undeserving and dependent (see Colin Crouch, 2011, on the ‘residualisation’ of the public sector) drives a whole series of reforms (New Public Management) which aim to transform the relationship between the state and the public sector. This in turn requires a transformation of public sector professions – i.e. to delegate down to them what was once the state’s responsibility, therefore turning them into managers, and making them entrepreneurial (… creating ‘new subjectivities’), whose primary aim would thus become economic efficiency rather than being shaped by the traditional logics of professionalism. De-professionalisation is thus a fundamental part of this process, […] The process in the legal profession has not only polarised it between the rich corporate, global sector and the private client sector, but also fragmented it, so that the classic sociology of the professions is hardly relevant anymore.  

(Personal e-mail exchange from July 2020)

The gap between the big international law firms and smaller regional and local units including solo-practice had already been described by Heinz and Laumann (1982) in their seminal work on Chicago lawyers as representing two distinct hemispheres, but the gap between these has widened still more. National particularities complicate comparison further but, at the same time, make it the more exciting.

The companion volume 2 on comparisons and theories

In the companion volume, which will be published at the beginning of 2021, 46 authors make use of the national reports and additional data to engage in cross-national comparisons (in Africa, Asia, former communist countries, Latin America, and the Islamic world). They address a wide variety of theoretical issues, including: comparative methodology, lawyers in the EU and international tribunals, large firms, accountants, medical doctors, emerging economies, ethics and regulation, state production, gender, ethnicity, the construction of law, access to justice, legal education, the rule of law, corruption, casualisation, masculinity, information technology, cause lawyers, and sociology of the professions. We are in the process of editing these chapters. The volume will be a little less bulky than the first one.

Change in research and researchers

It is not only theoretical models that have had to be adapted or new ones developed; research methodologies have also changed. There is a marked shift in national research from quantitative to qualitative methodologies, partly due to the fact that in many countries more statistical evidence is available than was the case 35 years ago, and this provides a foundation for deeper examinations of effects, which help in generating more comprehensive explanations of ongoing developments.

The change in demography of legal academia is also apparent in the gender composition of the research group. The original three volumes had 32 authors: 26 men and just 6 women (Magali Sarfatti Larson, the specialist on the theory of the professions, Georgina Murray reporting on New Zealand, Laura Cardia-Voneche on Geneva family law lawyers, Ann Boigeol on France, Carrie Menkel-Meadow with a chapter on women in the legal profession which inspired us to further work on the subject, and myself as a specialist on Germany). In total, 120 scholars contributed to the two volumes of the current project; of the 74 contributors to volume 1, 38 are women, and 36 men and volume 2 has 46 authors, 22 women, 24 men. Due to the expansion in higher education with more positions and research possibilities in law faculties and related fields, a flourishing of socio-legal research in the intervening three decades, and the ongoing facilitation of communication by electronic devices, we were able to recruit more specialists and authors from Africa, the Middle East, former communist countries, Latin America and Asia, which in former times had proved particularly challenging.

The development of E-mail and the internet represented an enormous improvement in our capacity to collaborate: in the 1980s the contributors still wrote on typewriters, corrected with Wite-Out, rarely made the very expensive international phone calls, and were limited to snail mail for communicating and transmitting drafts. The 1984 meeting in Bellagio had obtained a subsidy from the Rockefeller Foundation and the American Bar Foundation. For the current project we were granted the status of an International Research Collaborative by the Law and Society Association for the big socio-legal meeting in Mexico City in 2017 which helped us to obtain funding from the American National Science Foundation for several colleagues from B and C countries for the meetings in New Orleans, Mexico City and Washington. In 2018 we also arranged a workshop in Onati at the International Institute for the Sociology of Law to which Hart Publishers contributed some funding.  But overall the funding for both projects was quite minimal, they depended on the interest of the contributors and the enthusiasm, dedication and energy of the organisers, and intensive networking. Both projects were interdisciplinary, although at the time of the first project the disciplines were less fragmented than today, but both brought together a multiplicity of perspectives. In Bellagio the age of the scholars ranged between 35 and 50 and several were already quite well-known in the field.  This time we had a larger age spread from the late twenties to almost 90. Four participants in the first project were involved again: Rick Abel, myself, Benoit Bastard from France and Alan Paterson from Scotland, but we knew many of the other contributors from bi-annual meetings of the legal profession group and other international socio-legal conferences.

Ongoing research

In spite of the wide coverage of issues in the volumes Lawyers in 21st Century Societies we are not running out of topics. New International Research Collaboratives on “lawyers and state transformations” and on “the notariat across borders” have been created. The other sub-groups of the legal profession group are continuing with their work on ethics, deontology; family, policy and the law; international lawyering and large law firms; judiciary; lawyers and clients; legal aid; legal education; legal professional values & identities; regulatory reform; women/gender in the legal profession; histories of legal professions; lawyers and imperialism. The future for socio-legal work on the professions therefore promises to be bright, and ongoing change will keep the authors in the field busy.

If you want to join the Working group, please, write an e-mail to


[i] Philip Lewis died on the 10th of September 2019 at the age of 86. The first volume is dedicated to him and his memorable work.

[ii] I have organized workshops about gender and the legal profession in Onati in 1999, 2009 and in Schönburg/ Oberwesel 2016. The 2016 workshop was to prepare a publication on Gender and Careers in the Legal Academy in connection with my German project JurPro on the scarcity of women law professors in Germany. Videostreams of the presentations in the workshop are accessible via here and here.

Ulrike Schultz is a lawyer and retired Senior Academic at the FernUniversität Hagen specialised in European law, the sociology of law, in particular the sociology of the legal professions, and questions of gender and law.  She has been member of the International socio-legal Group on the Comparative Studies of the Legal Profession since its inception in 1980, has been chair of the group from 2010 to 2014, and has been heading the Women/Gender in the Legal Profession subgroup since 1994. She is on the editorial board of several journals and a board member of the International Institute for the Sociology of Law in Onati/Spain. In 2018 she was elected President of the Research Committee for the Sociology of Law RCSL in the International Sociological Association.

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