Professor Richard Moorhead is the author of one of the chapters in Oxford Handbook of Empirical Legal Research devoted to lawyers and other legal services providers. Our self-image is usually full of ethical claims regarding the way how we provide legal services to our clients. I found it extremely interesting to learn how it looks in eyes of empirical social researchers. Unfortunately, most of the results come from the USA and other common law countries. But it should not be a consolation for continental lawyers as I see a lot of analogy. And it does not look very nice.
1. Lawyers are not uniform. There are castes among them. Surprisingly the division runs not along the statutory distinguished professions (attorneys at law, barristers, public notaries, tax advisors, and others) but along the clients, whom services are provided. Those who work for large organisations (mainly business) are considered to be an elite, contrary to those working for individuals with low and medium incomes. Normally this status is associated with higher rates, salaries and partnership in a big law firm.
2. This higher status could be justified by incomes but rather not by a professional ethic. Lawyers often emphasise their autonomy, independence both from authorities and clients. This is not the case of elite lawyers, They are less likely to define their clients' problems, rarely report value conflicts and almost never give up their jobs on that basis. It looks like either they strongly identify themselves with clients' aims and values, or simply subordinate their values to their jobs.
3. In the assessment of legal candidates, meritocracy is a myth. Law students are typically a privileged group, from upper strata, well-educated families. The recruitment to law firms does not base on pure merits too. "...hypothetical elite student has 70% chance of entering the profession compared to only 11% chance of a black woman with the same level of formal qualification."
4. Lawyers strongly distinguish between clients who pay them more and less. For those not wealthy enough they do too little, especially in reference to criminal defence. Lawyers leading role is to persuade clients of merits of pleading guilty. They rather represent the interest of the state and prosecution, and this does not arise out of rational, technical-legal assessment of the strength and weakness of the individual case.
5. The picture is more ambiguous in reference to the wealthy, business clients. The hypothetical claim that lawyers do too much to them (i.e. record too many billable hours) is not plausible enough. Researchers disclose great variability both among lawyers and clients.
6. The quality of services does not depend on the lawyer formal membership in any statutory professional group. But it depends strongly on their informal specialisation. Formally underqualified lawyers (paralegals), who specialise in a particular legal issue render better services than well qualified general practitioners.
We may sum it up with a claim which would be trivial for the economist: The pretence of lawyers to be perceived in terms of their special role in society and their vocational ethic is highly unjustified and contradicts to the observed practice. But their analysis it terms of professional services provided in a free market, subordinated to the law of supply and demand, does not disclose any peculiarities. With one important reservation: "Lawyers work at the heart of social and economic controversies. In evaluating what they do researchers have to grapple with major instabilities in our understanding of law and justice."