In recent years there have been a number of popular and scholarly books on the work and professional experiences of large-firm
lawyers (e.g., Nelson's PARTNERS IN POWER, Galanter and Palay's TOURNAMENT OF LAWYERS, Pierce's GENDER
TRIALS). According to the most recent edition of the LAWYER STATISTICAL REPORT (1994), this group (lawyers in firms
of 101 or more lawyers) constitutes 12.6% of private practitioners. In contrast, the 67.5% of private practitioners working in solo
or small firm (10 or under) practices have received much less attention from scholars. Carroll Seron's book, THE BUSINESS OF
PRACTICING LAW, fills this gap giving us the first extensive look at such practitioners since Carlin's LAWYERS ON THEIR
As did Carlin, Seron bases her analysis on extensive interviews with practitioners in a major metropolitan setting (New York City
and its environs). From the information provided by her informants, she is able to provide an interesting portrait of the realities of
working in a small firm or solo setting in the 1990s. The book documents both continuities and change in this type of law practice.
(Seron includes among her interviewees a number of lawyers working for large multi-office firms such as Jacoby and Meyers;
strictly speaking, they are not "small-firm" lawyers, but their practice situation is sufficiently similar to the small firm setting that
she included them in the study.)
Seron organizes her discussion into nine chapters:
Professionalism versus Commercialism
The Terrains of Postindustrialization
"Managing the Marketing End"
Serving Clients and Consumers
Serving the Public
The Social Patterns of Private Professional Practice.
Three themes bind these chapters together: the problems of making a living in small firm or solo legal practice, the implications of
entry of large numbers of women into legal practice, and post-industrialism. The first two themes work better than the last one.
The problems of attracting clients is an issue that is constant in the highly competitive "personal plight" sector of legal practice (this
is increasingly an issue in the "corporate services" sector as well). This is by no means a new issue; it was one of the central
concerns of the lawyers discussed by Carlin. Perhaps what is most interesting in what Seron describes is that, despite relaxation of
many of the restrictions on advertising and solicitation, most of her respondents rely upon the same types of "client-getting"
approaches that lawyers have used throughout the twentieth century: word-of-mouth, "news" coverage of their work, civic and
organizational (e.g., church, "service" clubs, etc.) activities, etc. Relatively few lawyers have succeeded in building practices using
media advertising or direct mail solicitation.
More generally, while Carlin's lawyers did not seem to think in terms of "the business of practicing law," the similarities in the
tension between business-related issues and professional ideology from the late 1950s to the early 1990s are striking. For many
small firm and solo lawyers, law practice is (and was) financially precarious. Figuring out ways of attracting clients, and then
servicing them in ways that are profitable, are (and were) ever present. Solving these problems may involve finding a geographic
or legal niche. It may involve cultivating contacts with other lawyers who will refer cases. It does involve managing staffs, setting
fees, and collecting bills. Furthermore, while the business side is the material reality ("law is an instrumental means to a very
successful financial end"), the image of professionalism and professional status continue to be the symbolic goals of these
practitioners ("wanting to be independent, to work directly with people in solving their personal problems, and to be respected
pillars of their communities", p. 18). However, while there is an ideology of professionalism, there is also a resentment of some of
its implications; this is most evident in Seron's discussion of her respondents' negative views of mandatory pro bono work (chapter
8). Furthermore, there is less of a taboo today than there was 35 years ago about talking in explicit, entrepreneurial terms about
the business side of legal practice (p. 104).
Seron's second organizing theme, gender, works for two related reasons. First, one of the biggest changes in the sociology of
private legal practice (and the legal profession generally) since Carlin wrote is the entry of large numbers of women into the
profession. Today, about 45% of law students are women, about one third of new bar admissions are women, and 17.8% of those
currently in solo and small firm practice are women. Overall, women comprise 20% of lawyers in 1991 (estimated to rise to 27%
by the year 2000), compared to 3% when Carlin was writing. The second reason that gender works as an organizing theme is that
private practice lawyers are in the business of selling their skilled time, and gender sharply structures the ways that time is and is
Seron shows that the demands of small firm legal practice clash with gender demands just as much as gender clashes with the
demands of big firm practice (see Pierce's GENDER TRIALS, or Hagan and Kay's GENDER IN PRACTICE). While a small
firm lawyer may have more control over the amount of time devoted to work for clients than does a big firm lawyer, the division of
labor in the home which continues to assign a disproportionate share to women, severely limits the time available to devote to the
types of civic, organizational, and social activities outside the law office which are crucial for attracting clients. Interestingly, one
issue that Seron does not pick up on is that among practice settings (solo, small firm, large firm, government, and corporate),
women are most underrepresented in small firms, where they comprise only 12.7% of practitioners. Is this because the nature of
the time clashes in this setting is particularly severe, or is it due to reasons unrelated to time demands?
Seron convincingly argues that "the allocation of time between public and private tasks remains a gendered resource that continues
to advantage men over women" (p. 33). She discusses the various choices individuals have made to deal with the conflicts of
public and private demands on time, but suggests that the individual solutions fail to come to grips with "what remains, essentially, a
social problem" (p. 46). Presumably, by "social problem," Seron means that society has failed to provide the kinds of resources
(e.g., child care, and the like) that would facilitate the lives of working women (particularly mothers) or that the gendered division
of home tasks has not moved to a more equalized sharing of responsibilities. Seron does not present any convincing argument that
these problems are actually solvable, short of shifting the core responsibility for parenting from the family to a larger social group.
The dilemma is that having a family makes severe demands on time, and inevitably conflicts with other things (e.g., professional
careers) which make equally severe demands on time.
Seron's use of her third theme, postindustrialism--the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service economy--is disappointing.
She never provides a good motivation for why postindustrialism should significantly impact on small firm legal practice. In fact, the
only place she provides even a working definition is in an endnote. In Chapter 2, Seron refers to one firm as being of a
"postindustrial design," and another one as being "postindustrial to its core"; what this means is not clear. In fact, most of Chapter 2
deals with the differences between practices set in Manhattan, the other boroughs, and the suburbs. While Carlin's focus was on
practice in the city of Chicago, suburban legal practices aimed at suburban residents and small businesses are not new.
Furthermore, many of the issues confronting suburban lawyers may be very similar to those in even less urban settings (see
Landon's COUNTRY LAWYERS).
Seron may have missed an important theoretical opening. Toward the end of the book, she briefly returns to the post- industrialism
theme when she raises another issue confronting some small firm practitioners: the rise of competition from nonlawyers (p. 147).
The dilemma confronting many of the lawyers Seron interviewed may not be one of post-industrialism. Rather, it may be
something we should label post-professionalism: the deprofessionalization of many relatively routine tasks that were previously the
exclusive domain of lawyers. In the medical arena, we see many services being provided by paraprofessionals which previously
were handled only by licensed physicians. In the legal arena, there are increasing calls to permit paralegals and legal technicians to
offer their services to the public for many routine legal tasks which have been the bread and butter of small firm and solo practice.
How have, and will, the lawyers Seron talked with cope with the coming changes?
Finally, there is a fourth theme that is worth noting, although it does not function as an organizing theme: the impact of information
technologies. Seron shows that information technologies have opened opportunities for multi-site law offices, increased access to
legal information, and made it possible for routine tasks to be handled in more efficient ways (i.e., through the use of electronic
form books). None of this is surprising. What is surprising is the resistance of many of her respondents to interacting directly with
the technology; their offices have various types of equipment, but many lawyers have no computer on their desks, and many
continue to rely upon traditional dictation practices. Respondents would explain this in terms of efficiencies, although that in reality
might account for only part of their distancing themselves from direct contact with the technologies. Seron does not consider the
degree to which part of the absence of computers in some lawyers' offices might be a generational gap: many experienced
lawyers may simply not want to take the time to learn how to use the technologies. Another impact of the technologies (fax,
CD-ROM legal libraries, etc.), combined with services that did not generally exist 35 years ago (e.g., overnight courier services),
may serve to tie lawyers closer to their offices. Seron does discuss what she refers to as the "tyranny of the telephone:" lawyers in
personal plight practices are constantly receiving calls from clients, potential clients, other lawyers, insurance adjusters, etc.; it is
difficult to work for any sustained period of time without being interrupted by an incoming call. I suspect that 35 years ago,
lawyers were not as office-bound, and the telephone was less tyrannical, although Carlin does comment on the prevalence of
telephone communications for several aspects of the legal practices he studied (e.g., interaction between lawyers and insurance
adjusters was largely via telephone).
In conclusion, Carroll Seron has provided for us an interesting portrait of small firm and solo legal practice in a large metropolitan
area. She blends together a number of important themes in developing this portrait, although she does not succeed in any producing
any major theoretical advances. Even without a major theoretical advance, this book is a very valuable contribution to the