The sociology of professions has derived most of its theories from empirical cases in the Global North. Despite the growing number of empirical studies on professionals in developing countries, the intersection between professions and development has rarely been theorized. This article uses the case of legal services professionals in China to outline an ecological theory of professions and development. It argues that, in the Global South, professions and development are overlapping ecologies that share some common actors and transform by similar social processes. Professionals occupy at least four different positions in the ecology of development: as facilitators of global institutional diffusion, as delegates of the nation-state, as brokers between global and national market institutions, and as activists of local social resistance. In the process of development, those four types of professionals are often in conflict, and the ecology of professions differentiates among them by means of their social interactions in issue areas such as economic growth, access to justice, and human rights.
The sociology of professions, once a thriving field, has been stagnant and under attack in recent years. As Gorman and Sandefur (2011) comment, sociological research on the professions experienced a “golden age” in the 1960s to 1980s and then went “underground” as the study of knowledge-based work in several subfields of sociology, such as medical sociology, sociology of law, and sociology of science. A recent article in the American Journal of Sociology provocatively endeavors to “replace the sociology of professions with the more comprehensive and timely sociology of expertise” (Eyal 2013a:863). Indeed, even the basic concept of “profession” is difficult to define and often dismissed as a folk concept (Becker  1970; Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992:241–47) or an “Anglo-American disease” (Freidson 1983:26) with limited applicability to other social and cultural contexts.
Is the moribund sociology of professions merely waiting for its death pronouncement? From the vantage point of intellectual history, Abbott's (1988a) encyclopedic book The System of Professions seems to have absorbed most of the theoretical insights of this subfield of sociology. However, despite its frequent citations and the popularity of its core concept, “jurisdiction” (20), in the nearly three decades since its publication The System of Professions has generated only a limited number of empirical studies on the professions explicitly following its ecological and interactionist approach (e.g., Dezalay 1991; Bechky 2003; Liu 2015). In this sense, while Abbott's book shifted the theoretical paradigm for studying the professions, it has also accelerated the decline of the field since the 1990s.
But sociological inquiries on the professions are not dead. As Macdonald (1995:xi) wrote in his influential textbook, “The announcement of death of the sociology of the professions now appears every bit as exaggerated as the report of his own death seemed to Mark Twain, when he read of it in the newspapers.” Although the sociology of professions has extensively studied the nature of professionalism (Becker  1970; Freidson 1970, 1986, 2001; Johnson 1972), the process of professionalization (Wilensky 1964; Larson 1977), jurisdictional conflicts between professions (Abbott 1988a), and the relationship between professions and the state (Johnson 1982; Rueschemeyer 1986; Halliday 1987; Halliday and Karpik 1997), most studies draw empirical cases from developed nations in Western Europe and North America. Despite the fast-growing number of doctors, lawyers, engineers, economists, and many other professionals in developing countries, little effort has been made to theorize the relationship between professions and development in the Global South.
This article proposes an ecological theory of professions and development following the Chicago School of sociology (Park and Burgess  1969; Faris 1967; Abbott 1999). I argue that, for developing countries, the social spaces of professions and development are overlapping ecologies that share some common actors and transform by similar social processes. Using the case of legal services in China, the article demonstrates that, in the Global South, professionals occupy at least four different positions between global neoliberal forces and local sociopolitical institutions in the ecology of development: as facilitators of global institutional diffusion, as delegates of the nation-state, as brokers between global and national market institutions, and as activists of local social resistance. In the process of development, those four types of professionals are often in conflict, and the ecology of professions differentiates among them by means of their social interactions.
In the following pages, I first provide a brief review of the sociological literature on the professions and then present my theoretical framework for conceptualizing professions and development as overlapping ecologies. The rest of the article uses the rise of legal services in post-Mao China as an empirical case to elaborate on this framework. Unlike in the United States, where lawyers enjoy a monopoly in most areas of legal services (Abel 1989), the Chinese legal services market is characterized by the coexistence of multiple professional groups, including lawyers (lüshi), basic-level legal workers (jiceng falü gongzuozhe), enterprise legal advisers (qiye falü guwen), patent agents, trademark agents, foreign lawyers, and a large number of unauthorized practitioners. To explain the emergence of this kaleidoscopic variety of law practitioners, I examine the ecological interactions between legal professions and other sociopolitical actors in three issue areas of development: economic growth, access to justice, and human rights.
FROM PROFESSIONALIZATION TO THE ECOLOGY OF PROFESSIONS
The rise of the sociology of professions in the mid-twentieth century was closely related to the dominance of Parsonian functionalism in sociology (Durkheim 1957; Parsons 1939, 1968). With the decline of functionalism since the 1970s, two theoretical paradigms emerged in the professions literature: market control (Larson 1977; Berlant 1975; Parry and Parry 1976) and jurisdictional conflict (Hughes 1971, 1994; Abbott 1988a).
Market control theory argues that professions seek market monopoly and social closure to increase their collective income and status in society. To become a profession, an occupation must go through a complex process of professionalization (Wilensky 1964). This “professional project” (Larson 1977) first constructs a marketable professional commodity and then seeks collective status mobility through social closure. Market control theorists divide professionalization into two parallel tasks: controlling the production of producers, and controlling the production by producers (Larson 1977; Abel 1989). First, the providers of professional services are produced by apprenticeship, licensing, and professional education. Second, the services they provide are regulated by professional associations with a code of ethics. When a profession has established firm control over both qualification and service provision, it can secure a sheltered place in the labor market as well as high status in the social stratification system (Weeden 2002).
Market control theory provides a powerful analytical framework for explaining the rise of the modern professions, such as the increasing monopoly of American medicine and law in the twentieth century (Starr 1982; Abel 1989), but it has a number of flawed “hidden assumptions” (Abbott 1988a:17–19). Most importantly, professionalization assumes that the evolution of a profession is unidirectional, ahistorical, and independent of other professions.
By contrast, the starting point of jurisdictional conflict theory is the assumption that every profession controls some areas of specialized work in the division of labor and that it develops through social interactions with other professions. Abbott (1988a:20,69) calls the link between a profession and its work “jurisdiction” and the interaction between professions “jurisdictional conflict.” His theory advances the Chicago School's interactionist approach to work and occupations (Becker  1970; Hughes 1971, 1994) in at least three aspects. First, Abbott (1988a:35–58) proposes a “cultural machinery” of professional work, constituted by three professional acts: diagnosis, inference, and treatment. Second, with the concept of jurisdiction and the focus on interprofessional competition, he links the cultural content of professional work to the macrostructure of the ecological system of professions. Third, like his Chicago School predecessors (Park and Burgess  1969; McKenzie 1924, 1968), Abbott (1988a:xv) sees social structures as “fluctuating and geographic” and presents a spatial topology of jurisdictional settlements, dominance, connectivity, and other properties of the professional ecology.
Jurisdictional conflict theory is essentially a competitive model that “believes the equilibrating forces prevail, assuming that no profession delivering bad services can stand indefinitely against competent outsiders, however powerful it may be” (Abbott 1988a:135). This theoretical orientation leads to two critiques. First, the theory pays little attention to power and inequality in professional life (Liu and Emirbayer 2016:68). Although Abbott uses concepts such as “subordination” and “oligarchy” to characterize patterns of domination between professions, his ecological theory downplays the dynamics of power struggles and labor exploitation in the workplace (Burawoy 1979). Second, Abbott's “obsession with competition as the overriding dynamic” (Johnson 1989:413) ignores other social processes that shape interprofessional relations, such as cooperation, accommodation, and exchange. In this sense, Abbott's ecological model is a reduction of the first Chicago School's human ecology (Park and Burgess  1969), which emphasizes competition but also fully recognizes the great diversity of ecological interactions.
PROFESSIONS AND DEVELOPMENT: OVERLAPPING ECOLOGIES
Like most ecological theories following the Chicago School tradition (Park, Burgess, and McKenzie 1967; Hawley 1986; Hannan and Freeman 1989), Abbott's ecology of professions is a highly endogenous system, and all the external actors, such as clients and the state, are treated as passive environmental conditions with limited agency to influence interactions within the ecology (Liu and Emirbayer 2016:69). To remedy this weakness, Abbott (2005, 2016) develops a “linked ecologies” framework, which connects multiple ecologies (e.g., professions and the state) with mechanisms such as hinges and avatars.
Nevertheless, even in this modified framework, the two linked ecologies remain largely endogenous. Hinges are issues that provide “dual rewards” for actors in two different ecologies, while an avatar is “an institutionalized hinge” that an actor creates in another ecology as its representative (Abbott 2005:255, 265–66). Both concepts emphasize the influence of external actors on an ecology, but neither attempts to integrate the two ecologies by allowing social interactions across them. As a result, when applying the linked-ecologies framework to social spaces that share common actors, such as lawyers and economists in the ecologies of professions and development (Trubek et al. 1994; Dezalay and Garth 2002; Fourcade 2006), concepts like hinges and avatars appear too rigid to fully capture the dynamics of interaction between social spaces.
In this article, I use a new concept, “overlapping ecologies,” to characterize the relationship between professions and development. Overlapping ecologies are social spaces that overlap and interpenetrate each other. They overlap because some common actors occupy ecological positions in both of them, and they interpenetrate because the interactions within one ecology, as well as those across the two ecologies, simultaneously shape the social structures of both ecologies. Compared to Abbott's linked-ecologies framework, in which two ecologies remain separate and largely maintain their endogeneity, the concept of overlapping ecologies problematizes the boundary between two ecologies and moves one step further toward their structural integration.
My concept of overlapping ecologies bears a resemblance to the concept of “field overlap” (Evans and Kay 2008). Most field theorists, including Bourdieu, pay little attention to the spaces between fields (Eyal 2013b). Fligstein and McAdam (2012:59), for example, identify three types of relationship between fields: unconnected, dependent, and interdependent. Their discussion focuses on the embeddedness of fields and nested (“Russian dolls”) fields, but it does not specify any specific mechanism by which two overlapping (but not nested) social spaces interact with each other. Evans and Kay's study on environmental activism after NAFTA is perhaps the first sociological study that takes seriously the overlapping nature of fields. They propose four mechanisms for understanding the “architecture of field overlap”: rulemaking, alliance brokerage, resource brokerage, and frame adaptation (2008:973–75).
While this theory of field overlap is groundbreaking and compelling, the empirical case of a political movement leads Evans and Kay to put their emphasis on networks, resources, and framing, three pillars of social movement studies, without closely examining the processes of interaction between actors across the two overlapping fields. One lesson that field theory can learn from the Chicago School's ecological approach is that the latter has more analytical tools “when it comes to assessing the wide variability of modes of human interaction” (Liu and Emirbayer 2016:74). For the emergence and transformation of social spaces such as professions and development, which are primarily driven not by political mobilization but by competition and cooperation among professionals and other actors, the ecological approach is particularly appealing.
An ecology has three main components: actors, positions, and the relations between them (Abbott 2005; Liu and Emirbayer 2016). For the ecology of professions, the actors are the professions coexisting in it, the positions are the tasks that those professions seek to control, and the relations between actors and positions are “jurisdictions” (Abbott 1988a:20). In Abbott's ecological framework, this is a simple, homogeneous model with only one type of actor (professions) and one type of interaction (jurisdictional conflict).
To conceptualize the social world of development as an ecology, however, requires some significant modifications of this model. Development is often theorized as a process of modernization or a structure of dependency (Evans 1995; Tamanaha 1995; Portes 2015), but it can also be seen as a social space, with actors, positions, and processes of interaction. The ecology of development has a large number of heterogeneous actors, such as nation-states (in both the Global North and South), international governance organizations (United Nations, European Union, ASEAN, etc.), international financial institutions (World Bank, IMF, Asian Development Bank, etc.), political parties, civil society groups, and individuals. These actors are located in a far more complex and fluid topology of positions in the ecology of development than the topology in the ecology of professions. The relations between actors and positions, accordingly, are not a matter of relatively stable jurisdictional control but a temporal “system of adjacencies and relationships that is the momentary social structure, providing the locales, facilities, and constraints that shape the possible actions of the moment” (Abbott 2016:34). The “structure-in-the-moment” nature of development makes it a good case for further developing the ecological approach in sociology.
Professions and development can be theorized as overlapping ecologies for two reasons. First, doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects, accountants, economists, and other professionals play prominent roles in the ecology of development. International development agencies are staffed by these professionals, and the objectives of their projects often include the capacity-building of professionals and their institutions in the Global South (Trubek and Galanter 1974). Furthermore, the nation-state, a dominant institution in the ecology of development (Evans, Rueschemeyer, and Skocpol 1985; Migdal, Kohli, and Shue 1994; Evans 1995), is supported by a large number and variety of professionals—this is precisely what Fligstein and McAdam (2012:74–77) refer to as the dependence of state fields on non-state fields. Lawyers arguably play an active role in politics in many countries across the world (Halliday and Karpik 1997; Halliday, Karpik, and Feeley 2007), but other professionals such as engineers, economists, and doctors can also become politicians and bureaucrats influential in making development policies, especially in specialized ministries such as health, commerce, and labor (Halliday 1985; Meiksins and Smith 1993; Dezalay and Garth 2002; Harris 2015).
Second, interactions in the ecology of development create actors and shape their interactions in the ecology of professions. Competition and cooperation between global and local actors in development give birth to professions and adjust the jurisdictions between them. This is particularly true for developing countries, in which many Western-style professions (e.g., accountants, engineers, journalists, and even sociologists) were created in the last century or so. In comparison to the seemingly laissez-faire history of the Anglo-American professions, few professions in the Global South were developed without the intervention of developmental actors and institutions. The ecology of professions in most developing countries has never been an endogenous ecology such as Abbott (1988a) conceptualizes in The System of Professions. Instead, its emergence and transformation are deeply intertwined with structural changes in the ecology of development.
While it is beyond the capacity of this article to provide a full-fledged analytical framework for the ecology of development, by examining its overlapping parts with the ecology of professions I seek to take a few initial steps toward developing such a framework. The first step is to map the topology of this social space. The ecology of development is an ecology organized around issues, or what Block-Lieb and Halliday (forthcoming) call an “issue ecology.” Just as the ecology of professions can be divided into a number of task areas such as health, law, education, and information (Abbott 1988a), the ecology of development can be divided into a number of issue areas, such as economic growth, public health, education, access to justice, human rights, and environmental protection. In each issue area, a cluster of actors participate in ecological interactions over positions. Some actors, such as the United Nations or the Ford Foundation, may be present across many issue areas, whereas other actors, such as labor rights groups or health organizations, are only active in one specific issue area.
The second step, therefore, is to develop a classification system of actors in each issue area and locate these actors in their positions. Take human rights as an example. There are at least two dimensions by which actors in this issue area can be classified: global versus local, and public versus private. The two dimensions not only classify the various actors participating in human rights projects or cases, but also locate them in different positions in the ecology. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for instance, is a global and public actor (Huneeus 2011), whereas a domestic NGO fighting torture is a local and private actor. Both are concerned with human rights and legal proceduralism, yet they occupy vastly different positions in this issue area. Although boundaries between actors are always reconstructed as the ecology evolves, a classification system can help us make sense of the issue area's spatial configuration.
Once actors are located in their respective positions, the next step is to examine the processes of interaction in the ecology (Abbott 2016; Liu and Wu 2016). Whereas competition appears to be the dominant form of interactions in Abbott's ecology of professions, interactions in the ecology of development take a large variety of forms, including competition, cooperation, conflict, accommodation, boundary work, exchange, and so on (Park and Burgess  1969; Gieryn 1983; Abbott 1999; Liu 2015). In development projects, the cooperation between global and local actors and the exchange of resources and expertise between them are as important as their competition and conflict. The boundary work (Gieryn 1983) between nation-states or between international organizations can also take the forms of boundary making, boundary blurring, or boundary maintenance (Liu 2015), depending on the issues involved and the interests of the actors on these issues.
In sum, the ecology of development can be analyzed by examining the topology of its issue areas, the positions of actors in each issue area, and the processes of interaction among these actors. This analytical framework will be illustrated in later sections with the empirical case of legal services in China. Now I proceed to the key theoretical question for this article, that is, how to theorize the overlaps and interpenetration of the two ecologies of professions and development.
By definition, the two overlapping ecologies share a number of actors, that is, professions and professionals who occupy different positions and participate in various processes of interaction in the ecology of development. Professionals’ ecological positions depend on their social distances to four major types of actors in this ecology: international organizations, the state, market institutions, and local social groups. The four types of actors cannot be treated as four fixed structural poles in the ecology, but they draw four different species of professionals toward or away from them through development policymaking or the implementation of development projects.
First, professionals can work for multinational corporations or international organizations as facilitators of global institutional diffusion. Doctors working for the World Health Organization and economists in the World Bank are good cases in point. Second, they can be delegates of the nation-state, such as the large number of professionals working as bureaucrats in the ministries, lawmakers in the congress, and judges and law enforcement officials in the judicial system. Many delegates work in the state sector, but some private professionals, such as lawyers and accountants, are also politically embedded (Michelson 2007) and often represent state interests in their work. Third, they can be brokers between global and national market institutions, assuming intermediary positions in the local offices of multinational corporations or professional service firms. Finally, they can represent subordinate social groups as activists in local resistance to neoliberalism and/or state repression, such as activist lawyers in political reforms, journalist opinion-leaders in the public sphere, and union leaders in labor movements.
In the ecology of development, interactions among the four species of professionals have important structuring effects on the topology of every issue area. Meanwhile, the ecology of professions also evolves through interactions among professionals participating, directly or through proxy, in the ecology of development. These interactions occur both within a single profession (e.g., politically embedded lawyers as delegates versus human rights lawyers as activists; see Liu and Halliday 2011, 2016) and between different professions (e.g., economists as global facilitators versus lawyers as market brokers; see Dezalay and Garth 2002). They interpenetrate the overlapping ecologies of professions and development. As a result, the two ecologies not only share some common actors but also show a tendency toward structural isomorphism in corresponding issue/task areas.
It is important to note, however, that the ecology of professions is not a subset of the ecology of development, or vice versa. Many jurisdictional conflicts between professions have nothing to do with development or the political economy. Instead, they are about the division of labor in the workplace or driven by technological or organizational changes (Abbott 1988a). As a task ecology (in contrast to an issue ecology), the ecology of professions is not organized around issues of development, but around different types of work over which professions seek to establish control. Not all actors in the ecology of development are professionals either. From farmers in the countryside to factory workers in cities, from state-owned enterprises (SOEs) to multinational corporations, from local politicians to national and international leaders, none of those actors can be properly classified as professions or professionals, but all of them play active or even dominant roles in the ecology of development. This non-reducible nature of the two ecologies is another reason why professions and development are better theorized as overlapping ecologies rather than nested fields (Fligstein and McAdam 2012; Childress 2015).
LEGAL SERVICES AS DEVELOPMENT: MAPPING THE OVERLAPPING ECOLOGIES IN CHINA
Law and development is a long-standing research area in the sociology of law (Trubek and Galanter 1974; Tamanaha 1995; Garth 2003), but there has been little scholarly effort to conceptualize the relationship between a country's economic development and the growth of its legal services in spatial terms. Many studies, particularly those influenced by modernization theory or neoinstitutional economics (North 1982, 1990), assume a more or less linear correlation between the rule of law and economic growth, that is, the rise of legal services and the capacity-building of the judicial system facilitate a country's economic development. To apply the ecological theory to study the legal services professionals, we must transcend this “general linear reality” (Abbott 1988b) and analyze the relationship between law and development as historically contingent processes in overlapping ecologies. These social processes do not constitute any teleological path (e.g., market transition, see Nee 1989), but they shape the social structures of a country's legal system and political economy in complex ways.
The rise of legal services in China since the late 1970s provides a de novo case for observing how the overlapping ecologies of professions and development interact with each other and shape the social structures of law, market, and the state in a large developing country. The Cultural Revolution in 1966–76 devastated China's legal system, and all the legal service providers were created or revived from the late 1970s. Lawyers disappeared even earlier—in 1957, when the Anti-Rightist Campaign purged them as “rightists” and abolished the profession altogether. Development was not a policy priority of the Mao era either. Until Deng Xiaoping initiated the economic reform in 1978, political campaigns had dominated the policymaking of the socialist state. This unique historical context enables us to examine the simultaneous emergence of the ecologies of professions and development in the 1980s and their overlapping transformation in the next three decades of China's reform era.
For this empirical case, the two overlapping ecologies share a variety of professional, political, and social actors. First, many professional groups coexist and compete with one another in the Chinese legal services market, including lawyers, basic-level legal workers, enterprise legal advisers, patent agents, trademark agents, foreign lawyers, and a large number of unauthorized law practitioners, as well as judges and procurators in the state judicial system. Second, the competing Chinese legal professions are regulated by multiple state agencies with distinct interests and powers, including not only multiple offices in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) but also the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, the State-Owned Asset Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC), and the State Intellectual Property Office (Liu 2011, 2012, 2015). Furthermore, global actors such as multinational corporations, foreign governments, and private foundations have also played an active role in structuring the corporate and public-interest sectors of the Chinese legal profession. More recently, local social groups, such as human rights activists, feminist and LGBT groups, and labor NGOs, have begun to interact with law practitioners in various ways despite the harsh state repression of these efforts to strengthen civil society in China.
All those professional, political, and social actors can also be found in the ecology of development. While corporate lawyers and enterprise legal advisers in major cities serve business corporations and facilitate China's economic growth, lawyers in ordinary litigation, basic-level legal workers, and “barefoot lawyers” (chijiao lüshi) provide legal services to millions of ordinary Chinese citizens across the country and empower them in courts. Patent and trademark agents protect the intellectual property rights of both foreign and Chinese companies, a key aspect of the change of China's development model from labor-intensive import substitution to service-based innovation. Besides law practitioners, all the government ministries and offices that regulate the legal professions also play important roles in China's development, including regulating SOEs, strengthening the rule of law, protecting property rights, and improving access to justice. The international organizations and local social groups mentioned above are frequent or occasional participants in law and development projects too.
How to locate the complex varieties of actors in their respective positions in the overlapping ecologies of professions and development? As discussed above, positions in the ecology of professions are professional tasks, while positions in the ecology of development are developmental issues. Only when these tasks and issues correspond to one another and are taken on by the same clusters of actors can the two ecologies overlap and interpenetrate each other. Although the ecology of development has many issue areas, such as education and public health, in which few legal professionals are active, in the case of legal services in China three issues of development are particularly relevant: economic growth, access to justice, and human rights. These three issue areas represent the economic, social, and political aspects of China's legal development. In each issue area, a cluster of legal professionals and other sociopolitical actors come together to perform its various tasks. It is in their mutual interactions that the social structures of the overlapping ecologies are produced. The next three sections focus on those three issue areas of development and examine the interactions among legal professionals and other actors in each of them.
ECONOMIC GROWTH: LAWYERS AS GLOBAL FACILITATORS AND MARKET BROKERS
Legal professionals contribute to economic growth primarily by providing services to business corporations and individuals engaging in commercial transactions, both domestically and internationally. Lawyers advise corporate clients on a variety of corporate legal services, such as foreign direct investments, mergers and acquisitions, banking and finance, and real estate, but they also assume central roles in dispute resolution, including corporate litigation and commercial arbitration (Dezalay and Garth 1996; Liu 2006; Flood 2013). In-house legal advisers are both “cops” and “counsel” (Nelson and Nielsen 2000) for enterprises in their legal compliance and strategic development. Patent and trademark agents, licensed separately from lawyers in China, protect intellectual property rights for companies and individuals in technological innovation and business development. The legal professionals who perform tasks related to economic growth are often facilitators of global institutional diffusion or brokers between global and national market institutions, but they can also serve as delegates of the state.
When China's economic reform began in the late 1970s, national leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Peng Zhen, who suffered personally during the largely lawless Cultural Revolution in 1966–76, considered the legal system a necessary institution for facilitating economic growth and maintaining social stability—an instrumental view of law that echoes the modernization theory of law and development (Trubek and Galanter 1974; Tamanaha 1995). Accordingly, the profession of lawyers was revived in 1980 under the MOJ's regulation. In the meantime, following the Soviet distinction between enterprise and social legal services, a parallel profession of enterprise legal advisers was also created by the State Economic Commission (a predecessor of the SASAC) to provide legal services to SOEs (Liu 2012). The sharp distinction between lawyers in firms and legal advisers in enterprises persisted until the State Council abolished the licensing of enterprise legal advisers in 2015.
In the 1980s, all Chinese lawyers were state employees working in “legal advisory divisions” (falü guwenchu) or state-owned law firms. In business transactions, they acted primarily as state delegates, even when serving foreign corporations. However, with the opening-up of the Chinese economy, especially after Deng's 1992 Southern Tour legitimized the “socialist market economy,” lawyers’ positions in the ecology of development began to shift from the state toward the market. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the majority of Chinese law firms had been “unhooked” from the state and reorganized into private partnerships (Michelson 2007; Liu 2011), and a number of corporate law firms specializing in complex transactional work such as foreign direct investments and mergers and acquisitions had emerged in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major business centers (Liu 2006). Foreign law firms from Britain, the United States, Japan, and other advanced economies began to set up representative offices in mainland China in 1992. By 2000, there were already 105 foreign law offices in China, mostly in Beijing and Shanghai (Stern and Li 2016:187).
The entrance of foreign law offices not only brought valuable expertise to the Chinese legal profession, but also facilitated the globalization of the Chinese economy, especially after China's WTO accession in 2001. Lawyers in these offices are global facilitators, helping multinational corporations make investments in China's rapidly growing market sectors and, more recently, serving Chinese SOEs and private companies in their outbound investment projects around the world (Liu, Trubek, and Wilkins 2016). Although the MOJ has not officially permitted foreign law offices to practice Chinese law or employ licensed PRC lawyers, global market forces have significantly blurred the jurisdictional boundary between foreign and Chinese lawyers, producing an increasingly large number of hybrid “lawyer compradors” (Dezalay and Garth 2002) who possess both global “know-how” and local “know-who” in complex corporate transactions (Liu 2008). In 2012, there were 174 foreign law offices in mainland China, though most of them remained small outpost offices, “with a median size of eleven lawyers responsible for less than 5 percent of global revenue” (Stern and Li 2016:185).
By contrast, domestic corporate law firms have grown substantially bigger in the early twenty-first century. While no Chinese law firm had more than 200 lawyers in 2002, by 2015 several firms had grown into mega-firms, with thousands of lawyers and a large number of domestic and overseas offices (Liu and Wu 2016). Two Chinese firms even formed two of the largest law firms in the world, King & Wood Mallesons and Dacheng-Dentons, by merging with foreign law firms outside China—a boundary-blurring process aiming at challenging the dominance of Anglo-American firms in the global legal services market. Lawyers working in these hybrid firms include not only global facilitators who bring foreign expertise on corporate legal transactions into China, but also a large number of market brokers who can bridge the gap between the bureaucratic state and the global market economy using their localized expertise—“an experience-based and culturally sensitive expertise” (Liu 2008:775) that combines knowledge of global market rules and local political contexts.
Enterprise legal advisers in SOEs are another type of broker between market and state. On the one hand, these advisers hold bureaucratic ranks like other state officials; on the other hand, most of them have a legal education and are well connected to the legal services market. Compared to lawyers in private firms, the ecological position of enterprise legal advisers is even closer to the state, and sometimes they can become state delegates. Nevertheless, as Chinese SOEs have begun to actively make investments abroad in recent years, enterprise legal advisers have moved closer to the global market. As a regulatory response to this shifting position, the State Council abolished the licensing of enterprise legal advisers in 2015, and the MOJ has been developing a new system of “corporation lawyers” (gongsi lüshi), which is intended to blur the jurisdictional boundary between legal professionals in enterprises and law firms by granting a lawyer license to enterprise legal advisers who have passed the national judicial exam (Liu 2012). Nevertheless, given the different positions of the two legal professions in the ecology of development, a fusion between them in the ecology of professions remains a work in progress.
From the discussion in this section, it is evident that China's rising economic power in the ecology of development has profound consequences for the boundary work in the ecology of professions. Facilitating economic growth has been a major function of the Chinese legal profession in the reform era. As a result, the jurisdictional boundaries between foreign and local lawyers, as well as between lawyers and enterprise legal advisers, have been constructed and renegotiated according to the state's economic policies, which shifted from a socialist model in the 1980s to a developmental state model with increasing global influence. Meanwhile, as global facilitators and market brokers, lawyers have also contributed to China's economic growth, though their input has largely been restricted to policy implementation rather than policymaking owing to their limited opportunities for political participation.
ACCESS TO JUSTICE: GRASS-ROOTS LEGAL PROFESSIONALS AS STATE DELEGATES
Since the rise of the welfare state in the twentieth century, access to justice has been a major concern for both the legal profession and national policymakers in the Global North (Cappelletti and Garth 1977; Rhode 2004). In China, it has also been a pressing concern for the MOJ in the reform era. The creation of basic-level legal workers in the 1980s was a state-led effort to improve access to justice given the shortage of lawyers at the time (Alford 1995; Liu 2011). This grass-roots legal profession originally emerged in a few major cities, and then it was formalized by the MOJ in 1987 with the name “township legal workers” (xiangzhen falü gongzuozhe). Except for criminal defense, in which lawyers had a monopoly, township legal workers were permitted to provide services in all legal cases. Thanks to their lower educational and licensing requirements, township legal workers as a profession grew rapidly in the 1980s. By 1988, there were 81,520 of them across China, more than twice the number of lawyers (31,410) in that year (Liu 2016:183). It was not until 2000 that the number of Chinese lawyers caught up with the number of township legal workers (about 120,000 of each; see Liu 2011:283).
The rapid growth of two parallel legal professions in the 1990s greatly improved the availability of legal services to ordinary Chinese citizens in both urban and rural areas. These grass-roots legal professionals, including both township legal workers and lawyers, were state delegates in the ecology of development. Despite their inferior qualifications, township legal workers were often more competitive than lawyers in ordinary litigation (Liu 2011; Li 2016). Their services were more affordable, and township legal service firms were closely associated with local justice bureaus, sometimes even sharing offices and personnel. By contrast, the profession of lawyers went through a process of privatization in the 1990s, and many of their ties with local justice bureaus were weakened as a result (Michelson 2007). In other words, while lawyers in ordinary litigation were shifting their ecological position from state delegates toward market brokers, township legal workers consolidated their position as the primary delegates of justice bureaus in providing legal services to ordinary citizens, especially the lower-income population.
To facilitate the work of township legal workers, local justice bureaus across China permitted them to engage in a series of boundary-blurring processes to imitate lawyers, such as printing the title “lawyer” on their business cards or even displaying a “law firm” sign (Liu 2011:283–84). Many township legal service firms employed former judges, procurators, or justice bureau officials who had yet to acquire a lawyer license and benefited substantially from the political embeddedness of these brokers between market and state (Michelson 2007). For lawyers, township legal workers constituted serious market competitors who enjoyed unfair advantages as state delegates, but for ordinary citizens seeking legal help, the distinction between the two professions was insignificant. More affordable prices and closer symbiotic exchange with local authorities were more important considerations (Liu 2011), which made township legal workers an appealing option. Despite their jurisdictional conflict with lawyers, the proliferation of township legal service in the 1990s greatly expanded the access to justice in grass-roots Chinese society.
In 2000, the MOJ changed the official name of township legal workers to “basic-level legal service workers” and, facing strong pressure from the lawyer community, began to restrict the practice of this secondary legal profession by forbidding many of its boundary-blurring strategies. Consequently, the total number of basic-level legal workers decreased from 121,904 in 1999 to 77,408 in 2006, a sharp reduction of 36.5% in seven years (Liu 2011:284). Meanwhile, the MOJ's regulations on basic-level legal service were nullified by the promulgation of the 2003 Administrative License Law. The existence of basic-level legal workers lost its formal legal basis for nearly a decade, until the 2012 revision of the Civil Procedure Law.
What impact did the shrinkage of basic-level legal service have on access to justice in China? Although the number of lawyers continued to increase in the early twenty-first century, they also started to concentrate in major cities on the east coast, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen (Liu, Liang, and Michelson 2014). At the lower end of the legal services market, many ordinary citizens across China still face major hurdles in finding lawyers or affording their services. The idea of public-interest lawyering has been diffused to China through the legal academy, but only a small number of activist lawyers devote a substantial amount of their time to legal assistance to the poor (see the next section).
This growing vacancy in access to justice in the ecology of development is partially filled by the proliferation of legal aid centers and legal clinics. Some of these legal aid institutions are funded and directly administered by justice bureaus, while others are supported by foreign donors such as the Ford Foundation (Phan 2005; Erie 2009). In comparison to developed countries (Moorhead, Sherr, and Paterson 2003; Sandefur 2007), however, the MOJ's legal aid budget and personnel remain limited, especially given the large size of China's population. The entrance of foreign donors since the 1990s has provided an alternative for the lower-income population to get legal help, yet these donors have been under increasingly strong surveillance by the state in recent years as the Chinese government becomes more cautious of foreign influence on its civil society. Caught between the deficiency in legal aid and the high price of lawyers, it is likely that basic-level legal service will continue to play the role of state delegates in improving access to justice in Chinese society, especially in its rural and less developed regions.
As in the issue area of economic growth, the dynamics of interaction between the two legal professions in the issue area of access to justice are also driven by the political and social demands in the ecology of development. Both the rapid growth of legal needs in Chinese society and the state's effort to meet them have shaped the market competition between lawyers and basic-level legal workers in the ecology of professions and led to different jurisdictional settlements (Abbott 1988a) in different periods. The proliferation of legal service providers has vastly improved access to justice in urban China, though the shortage of lawyers in rural China, the decline of basic-level legal service, and the limited resources in legal aid have made rural justice an enduring problem for China's legal development (Li 2016).
HUMAN RIGHTS: LAWYERS AS ACTIVISTS OF SOCIAL RESISTANCE
Development is not only economic and social, but also political. Lawyers serve corporate and personal clients, but some of them also fight for the improvement of human rights, which often involves challenging arbitrary state power and resisting global neoliberal forces (Halliday and Karpik 1997; Halliday, Karpik, and Feeley 2007; Marshall and Hale 2014). Despite the persistent state repression of civil society activism, a small group of Chinese activist lawyers fighting for human rights and other political causes has emerged in China in the early twenty-first century (Fu and Cullen 2008, 2011; Pils 2015; Liu and Halliday 2011, 2016). On the one hand, the privatization of law firms gave Chinese lawyers some distance and autonomy from the state; on the other hand, rapid economic and social changes brought many conflicts and disputes to the attention of lawyers. As a result, a number of activist lawyers started to shift away from the conventional positions of global facilitator, state delegate, or market broker and take on cases involving the protection of citizens’ basic legal rights. These activist lawyers guard the procedural rights of criminal suspects, help victims of rural land-takings and urban evictions get compensation, protect women from domestic violence and forced sterilization under the one-child policy, represent migrant factory workers in labor disputes, and so on. They are often marginalized in the Chinese legal profession but acclaimed by the international media and human rights organizations abroad.
One prominent area of human rights activism is criminal defense, in which Chinese lawyers have faced great difficulties and risks (Michelson 2007; Liu and Halliday 2016). Lawyers across China complain vigorously about everyday problems in meeting suspects, collecting evidence, and accessing case files in criminal work. More seriously, hundreds of lawyers have been detained, prosecuted, or even sentenced to prison for the crime of “lawyer's perjury,” a crime established by Article 306 of the 1997 Criminal Law and often abused by the procurators to impede and intimidate uncooperative defense lawyers. Facing such precarious working conditions, many Chinese lawyers have chosen to avoid criminal work, yet those who persist have been actively fighting abuse of power by the judicial and law enforcement agencies in their everyday work. In a few causes célèbres, such as the Li Zhuang case in 2009–11 (Liu, Liang, and Halliday 2014), a large number of lawyers across China have mobilized through the Internet and social media to rescue their colleagues and call for the protection of lawyers’ procedural rights. To some extent, the political activism of Chinese lawyers is generated by the plight of their practice and survival in the criminal justice system, which is shaped by their daily interactions with judges, procurators, and police officers, all of whom are delegates of the authoritarian state in the ecology of development.
Among criminal defense lawyers, a critical mass who specialize in human rights cases began to concentrate in Beijing in the mid-2000s. These lawyers are political activists who do not practice law for client service or economic gain, but to pursue systemic reforms in China's legal and political systems (Fu and Cullen 2008, 2011; Pils 2015). Although they are often harshly repressed by the Chinese state, some notable activists have also received generous funding from foreign donors and development agencies seeking to promote criminal justice and political reforms in China, such as the ABA Rule of Law Initiative, China Aid, Ford Foundation, and International Bridge to Justice. In Beijing, notable activist lawyers form a close-knit group and enjoy great exposure to international support, but they handle cases across the country, including the most politically sensitive cases, involving Falun Gong practitioners, Tibetans, Christian house churches, and victims of torture (Pils 2015; Liu and Halliday 2016). By making alliances with foreign donors and development agencies, these notable activists occupy a key bridging position between the overlapping ecologies of professions and development. On the one hand, they use resources from the global development agencies to challenge local state repression, help the disadvantaged population, and push for legal and political reforms. On the other hand, by actively pursuing human rights causes in the ecology of development, they are marginalized in the ecology of professions as outlaws among Chinese lawyers, frequently harassed by law firms and bar associations, and sometimes even detained or tortured by the police and security agencies. The “July 9 crackdown” on human rights lawyers in 2015, in which more than 200 lawyers across China were taken in for questioning, detained, or prosecuted, was a recent reminder of their important but precarious position in the ecology of professions (Liu and Halliday 2016).
Yet notable activists in Beijing are not the only lawyers who pursue rights-oriented practices. There are also emerging networks of public-interest lawyers who take on labor rights or housing eviction cases, environmental lawyers who seek to sue polluted factories, feminist lawyers who fight domestic violence, and, most recently, LGBT lawyers who strive for the equal protection of sexual minorities in China. Some of these networks are supported by foreign donors in similar ways as the human rights lawyers are, whereas others are bottom-up grass-roots movements generated by indigenous grievances. Labor protests, for example, are often the result of direct or indirect exploitation by foreign investors who own factories in China, and the law practitioners who take on labor cases include not only lawyers but also basic-level legal workers, legal aid workers, and unauthorized practitioners who are more affordable and friendly to migrant workers (Lee 2007; Halegua 2016). Some of them have become activists by “climbing the weiquan (rights-protection) ladder” (Fu and Cullen 2011), a radicalizing process based on their work experiences with injustice and rights violations.
In the issue area of human rights, therefore, the ecology of development influences the ecology of professions in two different ways. First, the large number of foreign donors, development agencies, and human rights organizations working in China provide funding, personnel, international media exposure, and other intangible support to activist lawyers in their rights-oriented work. For Chinese lawyers fighting for basic legal rights, international support is crucial not only in the material sense but also in the psychological sense, as some lawyers have suffered a great deal from state repression of their individual or collective action (Pils 2015). Second, the dominance of foreign capital and the neoliberal developmental state in China have also generated strong local resistance from factory workers, land-taking victims, religious or ethnic groups, and so on. The activist lawyers who represent them in litigation may or may not have the support of global actors, but the targets of their activism are not only the Chinese state but also the multinational corporations and other foreign investors who collude with the state in their exploitation of China's labor, environment, and culture in the name of development (Lee 2007; Stern 2013). In both scenarios, activist lawyers are spokespersons for Chinese citizens and social groups in the courtroom, on the street, and in cyberspace. Their social distance from both the state and the market provides a space for their political activism.
Professionals play prominent roles in development, and professions are often the direct products of development, especially in the Global South. In this article, I have outlined a theory of professions and development, in which they are conceptualized as overlapping ecologies that share some common actors and transform by similar social processes. Using the case of legal services in China, I have demonstrated that legal professionals occupy four different positions in the ecology of development (facilitators, delegates, brokers, and activists) according to their social distance to international organizations, the state, market institutions, and local social groups. In China's post-Mao reform era, interactions among different legal professions occurred mainly in three issue areas of development (economic growth, access to justice, and human rights), which produced a fragmented market for legal services with a kaleidoscopic array of professional groups.
For the sociology of professions, this article is a theoretical effort to move beyond Abbott's (1988a) endogenous model of interprofessional competition by relating the ecology of professions to adjacent social spaces (e.g., the ecology of development). With the framework of overlapping ecologies, I have demonstrated how the professions are socially constructed not only by their mutual interactions but also by their interactions with actors in other ecologies. Furthermore, professionals are actors in social interactions beyond the ecology of professions, and, based on their positions, they play a variety of roles in shaping the social structure of other ecologies. The life of the professions, therefore, does not merely rest on their market monopoly (Larson 1977) or jurisdictional conflicts (Abbott 1988a). Instead, it is through their complex and dynamic patterns of interaction in overlapping social spaces that professionals find the meanings of their work.