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Lawyers' Roles in Voluntary Associations: Declining Social Capital?

  • John P. Heinz, Paul S. Schnorr, Edward O. Laumann and Robert L. Nelson


The extent and nature of lawyers' participation in civic life probably has important effects on the character of the community's activity and its outcomes. Where and how lawyers participate in voluntary associations may influence the ability of those organizations to function within the larger structure of American institutions.

This paper compares findings from two surveys of Chicago lawyers, the first conducted in 1975 and the second in 1994-95. Contrary to some expectations, the available evidence does not suggest that community activities of lawyers decreased. Moreover, lawyers' energies in 1995 appear to have been devoted more often to socially concerned organizations, those with a reformist agenda, than had been the case in 1975. The types of organizations with the greatest increase in activity were religious and civic associations. A smaller percentage of the respondents held leadership positions in 1995 than in 1975, but, because of a doubling in the number of lawyers, the best estimate is that the bar's absolute level of contribution to community leadership did not change greatly.

In both 1975 and 1995, a hierarchy of social prestige appears to have influenced the pattern of lawyers' community activities. Lawyers who had higher incomes, were middle-aged, were Protestants, and who had attended elite law schools were more likely to be active or leaders in most kinds of organizations. In ethnic and fraternal organizations, however, the elites of the profession had relatively low rates of participation, while government lawyers, solo practitioners, and graduates of less prestigious law schools predominated. Status hierarchies within the broader community—as well as social differences in taste, preference, or “culture”—clearly penetrate the bar.



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