The Professions Are Dead, Long Live the Professions: Legal Practice in a Postprofessional World

Article excerpt

The American legal profession is facing challenges that are sending tremors through its institutional foundations. On the one hand, U.S. lawyers appear to be wielding ever increasing power as reflected in recent victories in litigation with cigarette manufacturers and in the now pending challenges to the firearms industry. At the same time, the profession finds its traditional prerogatives under increasing challenge with the push for multidisciplinary professional practices, direct encroachment by a variety of service providers (accountants, consultants, paralegals, etc.), and mounting political attacks on the profession for its apparent greed (e.g., huge fees from the tobacco litigation) and apparent arrogance (Glaberson 1999). Much as the businesses and governments who bear the bulk of health care expenses forced major restructuring of health care delivery, the large consumers of legal services (which are consuming an ever larger share of legal services; see Heinz, Nelson, & Laumann 1998) are seeking means of limiting and monitoring the costs of those services (ibid.; Kritzer 1994). Lawyers increasingly find themselves working not as independent professionals but as employees of bureaucratically organized law firms, corporations, and government. The dynamics of this change, combined with shifts in where legal effort is directed, have attracted the attention of scholars (Galanter & Palay 1991; Heinz et al. 1997; Heinz, Nelson, Laumann, & Michelson 1998; Seron 1996; Spangler 1986; Van Hoy 1997) in no small part because it has major implications for how we think about the legal profession, in its multiplicity of forms, as a profession.1

Although revolutionary changes are still nascent for the legal profession, change has been very dramatic in the American medical profession. In less than a decade, American doctors were brought into a structure of institutional and corporate medicine that contrasts sharply to the professional structure that had developed and thrived during most of the twentieth century (see Brame 1994; McKinlay & Stoekle 1988).2 Services that were once the exclusive preserve of licensed professionals are being delivered by specialized nonprofessionals who may or may not work under the nominal supervision of a professional (see also Beardwood 1999). Sellers of products such as pharmaceuticals pitch directly to consumers rather than limiting their marketing to the medical practitioners who must prescribe the product for the consumer to have access to it. Consumers turn to information sources unavailable in the mid 1990s to obtain information that once was the virtual preserve of the professional service provider, and they can access that information without having to first learn a complex system of categorization of the type customarily used to organize specialized information (but see Brody 1999; Davis & Miller 1999; Miller 1999). In addition, consumers can connect with other consumers to share experiences and information and to provide support to one another (Bly 1999a, 1999b).

We are moving into a period in which the role of professions such as law and medicine as they are known in the Anglo-American world is radically changing and may be in sharp decline (Abel 1986a). Although I hesitate to add another "post-xxx" to a lexicon now overflowing with "posts" (postmodernism, poststructuralism, postmaterialism, postindustrialism, post-Soviet, post-- this, and post-that), a concept that begins to capture the full dimensions of these developments is postprofessionalism.3 In the discussion that follows, I focus on this idea; I do not seek to provide a comprehensive review of either the concept of "profession" or of recent developments in legal professions around the world.4 Rather, I describe what I see as key major developments, both within and outside the profession, that are driving changes in the way the lawyers practice and how consumers, broadly defined, access legal services in the Anglo-American world. …