Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Networking in the Shadow of the Law: Informal Access to Legal Expertise through Personal Network Ties

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Networking in the Shadow of the Law: Informal Access to Legal Expertise through Personal Network Ties

Article excerpt

Social scientific research on law indicates that formal engagement with the legal system represents only the tip of a massive iceberg of justiciable problems in individuals' everyday lives (Felstiner et al. 1980). At any given time, it is estimated that more than 44 million American households are experiencing a problem that falls within the domain of civil law. This includes issues related to family and intimate relationships, work, benefits, housing, debt, medical care, and consumer purchases, as well as problems with neighbors (Sandefur 2012; and see American Bar Association [ABA] 1994; Curran 1977; Currie 2009; Genn et al. 1999; Hensler et al. 1991). Studies of how individuals respond to these situations tend to focus on engagement with lawyers and legal institutions (Sandefur 2008). However, survey research estimates that less than a quarter of justiciable problems are taken to a lawyer (Kritzer 2008; Sandefur 2012), and an even smaller proportion reaches the courts (Felstiner et al. 1980).

One reason for the lack of formal legal action in the face of a civil legal problem is that hiring a lawyer can involve significant costs (Galanter 1974; Hadfield 2000). In addition to monetary costs, individuals often face difficulties in identifying lawyers who provide the type of assistance needed, and in convincing an appropriate lawyer to take on the representation (Kritzer 1997; Ladinsky 1976; Lochner 1975; Monsma and Lempert 1992). These challenges are thought to put lawyers and legal action outof-reach for many individuals, particularly those who lack socioeconomic resources (Sandefur 2008).

However, a less explored possibility is that some people may be able to access legal expertise and assistance through informal channels-that is, through existing personal relationships-and use this to interpret or address issues that arise in their everyday lives. A friend or family member who is a lawyer might agree to provide legal representation, perhaps for free or at a reduced rate. Or, he or she might recommend another lawyer, provide information about substantive legal issues, assist with administrative procedures such as locating and completing forms, or even offer guidance for individuals who are representing themselves in court proceedings. In a more nuanced way, through informal discussions or interactions, a lawyer might shape an individual's legal consciousness (Ewick and Silbey 1998) or awareness of the scope of the law, legal rights, and legal remedies. Familiarity with these aspects of the law may, in turn, affect whether individuals conceptualize their everyday problems as legal problems and how they think about the options available for addressing them (Sandefur 2012).

Informal mobilization of legal expertise may therefore be an unexplored mechanism through which individuals engage legal actors or respond to legal problems. If network-based access to legal expertise is widely available and frequently mobilized, prior research may underestimate the role of lawyers in justiciable problems. Moreover, network-based access to legal expertise could reduce disparities in access to legal representation, particularly in civil disputes (Sandefur 2008). However, previous research has not examined the extent to which individuals' personal networks contain lawyers-or the likelihood that individuals will mobilize legal assistance through their network ties when they face justiciable problems.

In this paper, we consider how network ties to lawyers are distributed across socioeconomic and racial/ethnic groups, and the extent to which individuals are able to mobilize networkbased legal expertise when they face a legal problem. Patterns of network exchange (Blau 1964; Homans 1958; Lin 2001), network homophily (Laumann and Senter 1976; McPherson et al. 2001), and residential segregation (e.g., Wilson 1987) may restrict network-based access to legal experts among racial/ethnic minorities and those with lower socioeconomic status. …

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