Migration and Social Structure: The Spatial Mobility of Chinese Lawyers


  • Sida Liu,

    Corresponding author
    • Address correspondence to Sida Liu, Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 8128 William H. Sewell Social Sciences Building, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI, 53706; Telephone: (608) 262-2082, Fax: (608) 265-5389; E-mail: sidaliu@ssc.wisc.edu.

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  • Lily Liang,

  • Ethan Michelson

  • Financial support for this project is provided by a research grant from the Graduate School of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The article was presented at the American Sociological Association 106th Annual Meeting, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, Zhejiang University, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received helpful comments from many colleagues, particularly Daniel Blocq, Mustafa Emirbayer, Robert Freeland, Rongjie Lan, Jenna Nobles, Becky Pettit, Pamela Oliver, Gay Seidman, Carole Silver, Robin Stryker, Ruiqing Zhong, and anonymous reviewers.


This article uses the case of Chinese migrant lawyers to examine how the spatial mobility of individual practitioners shapes the social structure of the profession. Drawing on data from 261 interviews conducted in twelve Chinese provinces during 2004–2010, the 2009 Chinese Legal Environment Survey, lawyer yearbooks, and other public sources, the authors examine the patterns, causes, outcomes, and structural consequences of Chinese lawyers' internal migration. The empirical analysis shows that the spatial mobility of Chinese lawyers has not only increased the stratification and inequality of law practice in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, but it has also aggravated the shortage of legal service and intensified interprofessional competition in western and rural China. Based on findings from the Chinese case, the article connects the sociology of law and migration studies and moves toward a new processual theory for understanding the relationship between microlevel mobility and macrolevel stratification in the legal profession.