Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

February 1992


Published in Great Plains Research 2:1 (February 1992), pp. 67-96. Copyright © 1992 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Used by permission.


The legal profession is highly differentiated by practice situation, clientele, and community setting, producing multiple professions within the practice of law. Using community size as the independent variable, this paper argues that the structuring of a legal career has less to do with the commonalities of legal training or the presumed solidarity of a learned profession and more to do with the characteristics of the community in which professional practice takes root. With a comparative approach, using data selected from a sample of rural lawyers in communities of 20,000 or less in Missouri, a midsize (150,000) Missouri city, and a metropolitan setting (Chicago), this paper demonstrates that law careers are deeply rooted in the social, economic, and political characteristics of their communities and tend to mirror the dominant local institutions. In large-scale settings where the population is broadly stratified, legal careers are distributed within a professional hierarchy that mirrors the economic and social setting. Institutional practice is the norm while entrepreneurial practice is experienced as a residual form. In smaller settings, where populations are more homogeneous and the economic base does not support institutional practice, entrepreneurial practice is the norm. Entrepreneurial careers include diverse clientele, a concentration on personal plight matters and deep involvement in community activities. The community is thus argued to be the prior and fundamental source of structuring for the professional career of lawyers.