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THE RISE OF THE CORPORATE ATTORNEY

Before the Civil War, much legal business concerned land and commerce. After the Civil War, the most lucrative legal business involved the large corporations, beginning first with railroad companies. During this period, lawyers became closely involved with the major banks and began to sit on boards of directors. By the turn of the century, corporate law firms were edging to the pinnacle of professional aspiration and power (Auerbach, 1976). Lawyers were instrumental in the growth of corporations, devising new forms of charters and helping companies to organize national business, while taking maximum advantage of variable state laws concerning incorporation and taxation. At the turn of the century, the emergence and proliferation of firms specializing in corporation law provided their lawyers with an opportunity to secure personal power and to shape the future of their profession. But only lawyers who possessed what Gerald S. Auerbach (1976:21) calls “considerable social capital” could inhabit the world of the corporate law firm. These individuals were white males from privileged backgrounds.

Through corporate law firms, the large modern-style law firm came into existence. Before the middle of the nineteenth century, law practice was either done by a one-person firm (solo practitioner) or carried on in two-person partnerships. After 1850, partnerships dealing with business interests began to specialize internally, with one person handling the court appearances and the other taking care of office details. At the same time, business clients started to solicit opinions from law firms on legal aspects of prospective policies, a practice that gradually led to the establishment of permanent relationships between law firms and corporations. The size of major law firms began to grow. The idea of the “Wall Street law firm,” allied with major corporations, originated in the late nineteenth century; the prestige and influence of these firms grew along with that of the corporations whose economic dominance these firms helped make possible.

In addition to changes in the structure and functions of the profession, there have been substantial changes in its numbers. In 1850, there were approximately 24,000 lawyers in the United States. In the next 50 years, after the Civil War and the transformation of the American economy, there were significant changes in supply and demand. The number of lawyers increased to approximately 60,000 by 1880, and to 115,000 by 1900 (Halliday, 1986). Beginning in the 1960s, law became one the fastest-growing professions in the United States. The number of lawyers increased from 285,933 in 1960 to 355,242 in 1970, before reaching 649,000 in 1984 (Curran, 1986). In 2006, there were 1,116,967 attorneys, and today (2015 data), there are about 1.3 million attorneys in the United States (American Bar Association, 2015).

 
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