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The Legal Profession as a Social Process: A Theory on Lawyers and Globalization


  • Sida Liu

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    • Sida Liu is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Law at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Research Fellow at Shanghai Jiao Tong University KoGuan Law School, and Faculty Fellow at the American Bar Foundation. An earlier version of the article was presented at the Fiftieth Anniversary Conference of the Center for the Study of Law and Society, University of California–Berkeley on November 4, 2011. The author thanks Lauren B. Edelman, Christine Parker, Jonathan Simon, David M. Trubek, David B. Wilkins, and anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts. Please direct all correspondence to Sida Liu, Sociology Department, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 8128 William H. Sewell Social Sciences Building, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI, 53706; E-mail:


This article proposes a processual theory of the legal profession. In contrast to the structural, interactional, and collective action approaches, this processual theory conceptualizes the legal profession as a social process that changes over space and time. The social process of the legal profession includes four components: (1) diagnostic struggles over professional expertise; (2) boundary work over professional jurisdictions; (3) migration across geographical areas and status hierarchies; and (4) exchange between professions and the state. Building on the processual theory and using China as a primary example, the author proposes a research agenda for studying lawyers and globalization that seeks to shift the focus of research from the legal elite to ordinary law practitioners, from global law firms to local law firms, and from advanced economies to emerging economies.