Hostname: page-component-6b989bf9dc-llglr Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-04-12T14:36:10.429Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Giving and Getting Respect: Prestige and Stratification in a Legal Elite

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Get access


This article focuses on the corporate actor elite of Chicago's legal community—those attorneys who practice law with and for the major business, social, civic, and cultural organizations in the city. A continuation of a previous article, this article focuses on the differential allocation of professional respect made within that elite. Specifically, the discussion centers on the “second-class citizenship” in the legal community to which elite house counsel are relegated by elite partners in private law firms.

The first half of the article probes the social bases for that stigma. Examining a number of alternative explanations, it offers most support to one based on differences in the educational preparations of the respondents, to the effect that house counsel attended less prestigious law schools and performed less outstandingly at these schools than did firm partners at theirs. In the concluding half of the article, the effects of the stigma on elite social cohesion and commonality of purpose are examined. What emerges from this analysis is the finding that the house counsel stigma—strongly felt as it may be by all concerned—nevertheless generates no lasting lines of social cleavage within the corporate actor legal elite.

Research Article
Copyright © American Bar Foundation, 1980 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 See Slovak, Jeffrey S., Working for Corporate Actors: Social Change and Elite Attorneys in Chicago, 1979 A.B.F. Res. J. 465. That article also details the mechanics of interview respondent selection and data collection. Quantitative data used in this article came from that same survey.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

2 Recall that “corporate actor” as used here is a sociological term of art. While “corporation” could stand as an equivalent term, “corporate actor” is used to indicate that the actors with which we will be dealing here need not be business or economic entities. For a more lengthy statement of the meaning of corporate actor, see James S. Coleman, Power and the Structure of Society 14-16 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974).Google Scholar

3 See Collins, Randall, Conflict Sociology: Toward an Explanatory Social Science (New York: Academic Press, 1975), esp. chs. 2, 4, and 5 for a readable discussion of various types of stratification systems.Google Scholar

4 Recall that 66 attorneys were identified and selected as the “corporate actor elite” of the legal profession in Chicago by virtue of their working with or for major business, social, civic, or cultural organizations in the city. Of those 66, 59 were interviewed about their professional careers as attorneys as well as their roles in decision-making processes in the legal and the urban communities.Google Scholar

5 “Ascribed” characteristics, in sociological parlance, are those attached to an individual not by virtue of anything he or she has done, but rather by virtue of the generally immutable situations into which that individual has been born. The distinction between these and “achieved” characteristics is that the latter can be earned as a result, to a large extent, of an individual's own directed efforts, while the former generally cannot. For example, consider occupational prestige. The prestige attributed to a person's father—and thus the family status origin of that person—is based on nothing that person has directly done. It is an achieved characteristic for the father, but an ascribed characteristic for the son or daughter.Google Scholar

6 Laumann, Edward O., Prestige and Association in an Urban Community: An Analysis of an Urban Stratification System 141 (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1966).Google Scholar

7 Peter M. Blau & Otis Dudley Duncan, The American Occupational Structure (New York: The Free Press, 1967).Google Scholar

8 Id. at 170.Google Scholar

9 The problems of using age as an indicator of historical differences are summarized well in Matilda White Riley, Aging, Social Change, and the Power of Ideas, 107 Daedalus 39 (Fall 1978).Google Scholar

10 Neither, we should note, do such differences emerge in the larger population of lawyers. To the contrary, the findings reported here for elite members are almost exactly duplicated in the larger bar, data for the members of a random sample of which were collected by John Heinz and Edward Laumann and described in John P. Heinz, Edward O. Laumann, Charles L. Cappell, Terence C. Halliday, & Michael H. Schaalman, Diversity, Representation, and Leadership in an Urban Bar: A First Report on a Survey of the Chicago Bar, 1976 A.B.F. Res. J. 717. Among our elite members, the association between being a house counsel and being from an urban or suburban place of origin is a mere γ= .09; among the general population, the association is γ = .07.Google Scholar

11 We face a dilemma in making interpretations from data collected from the elite members, who were not selected as a sample of respondents but rather as a universe. Because of this, standard tests for statistical significance on survey data about the elite are not necessary; they provide the bases for making inferences, when there is no larger group to which to make them. Nevertheless, we wilt make use of them in this discussion as interpretive guidelines so as to preclude us from attributing too much explanatory power or relevance to findings of meager or marginal magnitude.Google Scholar

12 Greeley's central thesis is that ethnics have achieved educational, income, and in some cases occupational status levels equal to those of WASP America. See Greeley, Andrew M., The Ethnic Miracle, 45 Pub. Interest 20 (Fall 1976).Google Scholar

13 See, e.g., Erwin O. Smigel, The Wall Street Lawyer: Professional Organization Man? 44–45 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), or Paul Hoffman, Lions in the Street: The Inside Story of the Great Wall Street Law Firms 134–40 (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1973).Google Scholar

14 When the same tests for the same three variables were conducted on the responses of house counsel and large-firm private practitioners from the Heinz-Laumann survey, supra note 10, the same lack of substantive results emerged.Google Scholar

15 A complete discussion of the prestige categories of the law schools is available id. at 726.Google Scholar

16 In these tables and the ones that follow, we have used respondents from the Heinz-Laumann survey, supra note 10, who indicated that they are either house counsel or practitioners in private firms of 30 or more attorneys. Since the vast majority of our elite firm partners are members of firms that large, this seems the fairest way to build a comparison between them and the sector of the larger bar from which they come.Google Scholar

17 Smigel, supra note 13, at 86.Google Scholar

18 Id. at 87.Google Scholar

19 Id. at 74–78.Google Scholar

20 Id. at 64.Google Scholar

21 It has little direct bearing on the hypotheses under consideration, but it is interesting to note that the experiences of Chicago's corporate actor legal elite stand at variance with those of Smigel's Wall Street lawyers with regard to the roles played by private firms in placing attorneys with their business clients. Only one of the firm partners interviewed for this study suggests that his law firm plays a placement role similar to that reported by Smigel in the Wall Street context. What causes this difference? One respondent attributes it to a difference in community context. His words carry some weight in light of the fact that he has practiced corporate law in both New York and Chicago during his career.Google Scholar

Chicago is a much more activist community, at least with regard to the business community. The attitude of the business community here is to get involved actively in community and civic affairs; involvement upon the part of business lawyers is strongly encouraged. It is with the private firms too. The private practitioner in New York has a much more limited view of his role in the community. The banks and the companies there do much more outside referral of legal work; the private lawyers get much more committed to individual clients than to the larger community. So there's a lot more of that placement kind of thing. Out here, a lawyer makes more of his own opportunities.

Our respondent may well be correct at the level of broad generalities, but the comments of many of the elite house counsel suggest that there is another phenomenon that helps to explain their coming to their present positions. Consider the words of one of them:Google Scholar

Before I came here, I was with a small partnership that did a lot of corporate work. When my partner died, I didn't want to keep the firm going by myself. A friend of mine at a large firm that did a lot of work for [corporation] knew that they were looking for a general counsel, and that I was looking around as well. So he gave me a call, and here I am today.

The words of this respondent call to mind Mark Granovetter's discussion of the “strength of weak ties” in providing job opportunities and offer some support to his basic argument. See Mark S. Granovetter, Getting a Job: A Study of Contacts and Careers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974).

22 Even if we relax our conventional criteria and simply examine which comparisons generate larger values of chi-square, we cannot support the hypothesis of value affinity. In fact, we would build more support for the opposite, for on four of the six questions included in the table, noncareer house counsel are closer to firm partners than they are to career house counsel.Google Scholar

23 Davis, Allison, Burleigh B. Gardner, & Mary R. Gardner, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941).Google Scholar

24 Suttles, Gerald D., The Social Order of the Slum: Ethnicity and Territory in the Inner City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968); see also id., The Social Construction of Communities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).Google Scholar

25 Blau, Peter M., On the Nature of Organizations (New York: Wiley-Interscience. 1974).Google Scholar

26 Laumann, supra note 6.Google Scholar

27 Parsons, Takott, Structure and Process in Modern Societies (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960).Google Scholar

28 Goffman, Erving, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963).Google Scholar

29 There are, of course, many contexts within which people make the acquaintance of others. One of those is the professional setting. In the case at hand, we would expect the firm partners to make each other's acquaintance relatively often in the professional setting as legal adversaries, fellow bar association members, referral sources and recipients, etc. The house counsel might become acquainted with each other through bar associations but would hardly rub shoulders very often in court or in conference with each other on legal problems. Nevertheless, our house counsel have sources for becoming acquainted with each other which would not include the firm partners. We saw in the first paper in this series that the majority of house counsel interviewed for this study also carry corporate responsibilities as secretaries or vice-presidents for their respective corporate actors. Common membership in organizations like the Association of Corporate Secretaries (which many of our house counsel respondents noted belonging to in an interview question on organizational membership) could also serve as sources for making the acquaintance of other house counsel. In short, there are enough of such contexts for both house counsel and firm partners to make our test a reasonably unbiased one.Google Scholar

30 We should note here that the list of attorneys' names from which our respondents made their selections was so constructed that no one private firm accounted for a preponderance, or even, for that matter, a large plurality, of the attorneys on the list. Our firm partners are not simply choosing other partners in the same law firm but other partners in other law firms as well.Google Scholar

31 Edward O. Laumann & Franz U. Pappi, Networks of Collective Action: A Perspective on Community Influence Systems (New York: Academic Press, 1976).Google Scholar

32 Lingoes, James C., The Guttman-Lingoes Nonmetric Program Series (Ann Arbor, Mich.: Mathesis Press, 1973).Google Scholar

33 Laumann & Pappi, supra note 31, at 139.Google Scholar

34. See Levine, Joel H., The Sphere of Influence, 37 Am. Soc. Rev. 14 (1972); also Maurice Zeitlin, Corporate Ownership and Control: The Large Corporation and the Capitalist Class, 79 Am. J. Soc. 1073 (1974).Google Scholar

35. Goffman, supra note 28, at 4.Google Scholar

36. Id. at 4–5.Google Scholar

37. See Freidson, Eliot, Professions and the Occupational Principle, esp. at 33–34, in Eliot Freidson, ed., The Professions and Their Prospects 19–38 (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1973).Google Scholar

38. Hoffman, supra note 13; see also Mills, C. Wright, The Power Elite (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956).Google Scholar

39. On commonality of purpose, see Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1959). On group cohesion, see Mancur Olson, Jr., The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups (New York: Schocken, 1968).Google Scholar