In the United States, there are more lawyers per capita than in any other country, and the legal profession exerts tremendous economic and political power. I use legal and historical sources to track the profession’s development and examine its influence, focusing particularly on the relationship between lawyers and commerce. Charting these connections illustrates the way that the routine work of lawyers has shaped the development of the American economy and wedded the profession to its commercial clients. My research looks beyond traditional court-centric sources to the account books and papers of lawyers, providing a bottom-up portrait of an elite profession. It therefore brings attention to the vast majority of legal work--such as drafting documents, giving advice, researching titles, and collecting debt--that takes place underneath the profession’s veneer. 

Account Book of Daniel Lord
Account Book of Daniel Lord, 1815-1823

By focusing on the often overlooked routine work of lawyers in the nineteenth century, my current project reveals insights that other legal scholars have missed. Lawyers’ account books show that by beginning of the nineteenth century, law was a business in addition to a profession, and that the greatest demand for lawyers came from those active in commerce. In aggregate, the day-to-day work of lawyers on behalf of commercial clients shaped the American economy in unexpected ways. Though undertaken under the guise of “private law,” legal work was never wholly private. Lawyers created liquidity, enforced property rights, encouraged investment, and knit together a national economy, providing state-like functions in an era when state and federal governments in the United States held relatively little power. Ironically, a legal culture that distanced lawyers from the acquisitiveness of the market ideally positioned them to practice commercial law. The routine work of the legal profession not only made lawyers and their clients wealthy, it helped to cement their importance in American life.

For more on my research, please see my papers at SSRN.