Two Hemispheres

May 2nd, 2015 / By

More than thirty years ago, John Heinz and Edward Laumann published a pivotal study of the legal profession. Their book, Chicago Lawyers, focused on lawyers working within Chicago’s city limits, but the findings were widely accepted as representative of the profession.

The study’s primary conclusion was simple, but insightful. Heinz and Laumann concluded that a “fundamental distinction” divided lawyers into “two hemispheres.” One group of lawyers “represent[ed] large organizations (corporations, labor unions, or government),” while the other “work[ed] for individuals and small businesses.” The division between these two was so sharp that “[m]ost lawyers reside exclusively in one hemisphere or the other and seldom, if ever, cross the equator.” P. 319.

In addition to highlighting this bifurcation of the legal profession, Heinz and Laumann noted the strong status differences between them. The hemispheres were not equal in status. Instead, lawyers viewed the “organizations” side of the profession as much more prestigious than the “individual” one.

Heinz and Laumann, joined by two other prominent sociologists, repeated their study in 1995. That research, titled Urban Lawyers, concluded that this status difference remained. Indeed, it had grown even sharper. Lawyers viewed securities law as the most prestigious practice area in both 1975 and 1995; divorce law was at or near the bottom in both years. The percentage of lawyers viewing securities law as at least “above average” in prestige, however, grew from 75% to 85% over those two decades. The percentage according that distinction to divorce law shrank from 9% to 4%.

That’s a tremendous gulf.

The Two Hemispheres Today

No one, to my knowledge, has replicated Heinz and Laumann’s study for the most recent generation of lawyers. The After the JD (AJD) project, for example, did not ask subjects about the perceived prestige of practice areas. Every indication, however, suggests that status differences are alive and well in our profession.

In a number of online forums, prospective law students discuss whether particular law schools will secure them BigLaw positions or leave them stranded in “shitlaw.” These are more colorful descriptors than the ones Heinz and Laumann used, but I suspect they reflect a similar categorization of practice fields.

Legal educators often reflect the same attitude–although, again, with more polite language. Even when we note the drawbacks of BigLaw practice, we tend to praise jobs in smaller firms that serve corporate clients. Or we tout public interest work, which employs very few attorneys and is not a realistic option for most law graduates. How many law professors talk enthusiastically about representing divorce clients, workers’ compensation claimants, personal injury plaintiffs, and criminal defendants?

Some of us might say, “but that’s not my field–I can’t praise those practice areas because I’m not familiar with them.” But that’s just as true of the corporate work done by BigLaw firms; many of us don’t teach in those areas either. Yet we can all make appropriate comments about BigLaw jobs, congratulate students on landing those positions, and discuss aspects of that market. Very few of us know what social security lawyers do or how much they earn.


The existence of these two hemispheres has implications for the profession, the public, and the legal academy. Heinz and Laumann noted one of the effects on the profession. They found that law was a less cohesive profession than other professions like medicine. Lawyers in each hemisphere tended to socialize with one another, rather than with lawyers from the other side of the profession. In addition, the two sides often had conflicting professional goals. Rules that would help one hemisphere often hurt the other.

Heinz and Laumann also speculated that the two hemispheres affected public perceptions of the legal system. The two very different “bars,” they suggested, promoted a public perception that corporations and the government receive a different type of justice than individuals do. This part of their work is speculative–they did not study public perceptions directly–but it is an interesting thought to pursue.

The implications for the legal academy are equally profound. I hope to explore those impacts in a series of posts. Here, though, are a few hints of my views on this:

1. Lawyers working in the two hemispheres may benefit from somewhat different types of education, but the differences are much smaller than many observers believe.

2. Both hemispheres involve mundane, repetitive tasks, as well as intellectually challenging work. Similarly, effective education of “second hemisphere” lawyers is just as intellectually demanding as that for “first hemisphere” ones.

3. Thinking about the needs of second hemisphere clients will help us improve the educational experience for all lawyers. The most important changes we can make in law school, for all clients and lawyers, involve reducing our focus on appellate decision making and enhancing our attention to client interaction. This means much more than adding clinics to the third year; it involves reshaping even parts of the first year.

4. Second-hemisphere law supports just as much scholarship–including interdisciplinary and theoretical work–as first-hemisphere law. Embracing better educational opportunities for lawyers who serve individual clients does not mean abandoning scholarship.

5. Society needs law schools to educate students to serve the second hemisphere. It does not need law schools to educate students for JD advantage jobs.

6. On average, second-hemisphere jobs pay less than first-hemisphere ones. Legal educators have to be candid about this to themselves, applicants, students, and graduates. Law school tuition must take account of these differences, and we can do that without abandoning scholarship.

7. Lawyers, clients, and society would benefit from ending the sharp status lines that mark our profession. I’m not idealistic enough to think we can erase those lines entirely, but we should try to soften them. One way to do that is to reduce the status hierarchies we create within and between our own student bodies.

That’s a healthy agenda, but I’ll try to fulfill it.


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