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The origins of the legal profession go back some centuries. Before tracing these origins, it will be helpful to discuss what is meant by the idea of a profession.


In the sociological literature, professionalization implies the transformation of some nonprofessional occupation into a vocation with the attributes of a profession. A profession may be defined as a highly skilled occupation that requires prolonged education and training for entrance into it. Also usually included in the discussion of professions are the ideas of a client-practitioner relationship and a high degree of autonomy in the execution of one’s work tasks. Harold L. Wilensky (1964:143) studied occupations that developed into professions and noted that they passed through the following general stages in their professionalization:

  • 1. Became full-time occupations
  • 2. a. Training schools established

b. University affiliation of training schools

3. a. Local professional associations started

b. National professional associations evolved

  • 4. State licensing laws
  • 5. Formal codes of ethics established

Magali Sarfatti Larson (1977) emphasized that professions normally try to control a market for their expertise. This control involves limiting entry into a profession and, because of the limited numbers allowed into the profession, yields higher incomes and status for those who do enter. Larson viewed professionalization as an attempt to translate one type of scarce resources—special knowledge and skills—into another—social and economic rewards. The attempt by professions to maintain scarcity implies a tendency toward monopoly: monopoly of expertise in the market and monopoly of status in a system of stratification. For Larson, the following elements in the professionalization process are inseparably related:

  • differentiation and standardization of professional services;
  • formalization of the conditions for entry;
  • persuasion of the public that they need services that only professionals can provide; and
  • state protection (in the form of licensing) of the professional market against those who lack formal qualifications and against competing professions.

As this analysis suggests, a critical element in professionalization is market control—the successful assertion of unchallenged authority over some area of knowledge and its professional instrumentation (Abel, 2003).

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