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What Good Are Lawyers?


This essay—the introductory chapter to a book that examines the powerful intellectual legacy of Richard Abel—frames a central question posed by Abel’s scholarship: Is the professional project of lawyers a political one—defined by the protection and extension of fundamental rights and equality under law—or is it instead a commercial one—determined by lawyers’ material interest in maximizing the return on their services? Do lawyers stand for justice? Or are they an impediment to its full realization?

The essay offers two perspectives—one empirical and the other theoretical—on this fundamental “paradox of professionalism.” The first charts the development of the U.S. system of institutionalized pro bono as an example of the increasing interdependence of lawyers’ professional and commercial aims. One lesson to be drawn from this examination is that to the extent lawyers assimilate their political project (doing good) to their commercial one (doing well), commercial ends define the limits of what professional means can achieve—with profound consequences for the quantity and quality of justice served. Building off this case study of pro bono, the essay then suggests an approach to understanding legal professionalism that attends to its multiple meanings in practice, but also seeks to determine how the competing ideologies of professionalism ultimately shape the overall distribution of power. Toward this end, it rejects the standard binary formulation of the professional project—are lawyers a force for good or ill writ large?—and instead asks: Under what conditions do which lawyers advance which projects—and what are the consequences for social justice?

This question constitutes the central inquiry of the book, which seeks to provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between lawyers’ commercial aims and public aspirations. Drawing upon interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives, the book explores whether lawyers can transcend self-interest to meaningfully contribute to systems of political accountability, ethical advocacy, and distributional fairness. Its contributors, some of the world’s leading scholars of the legal profession, offer evidence that while justice is possible, it is never complete. Ultimately, how much—and what type of—justice prevails depends on how lawyers respond to, and reshape, the political and economic conditions in which they practice. As the book demonstrates, the possibility of justice is diminished as lawyers pursue self-regulation in the service of power; it is enhanced when lawyers mobilize—in the political arena, workplace, and law school—to contest it.

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