What do lawyers do? It's a question that still seeks answers. And if we are to understand how the legal world, the rule of law, even society function, we need to have some idea of how to describe and theorise lawyers' activities. There are stock answers such as lawyers' work involves drafting, counseling, litigating, but they don't take one very far. There have been more innovative approaches. For example, Maureen Cain described lawyers as kinds of translators. Ken Mann saw them as controlling information flows. I argued that lawyers managed uncertainty for clients.
Much of the work on lawyers, however, avoids tackling these types of questions. Scholars would rather study the organisation or politics of lawyers, which are not unimportant. There is a reason, I think, which underlies this avoidance. If you want to understand the relationships between lawyers and clients (or doctors and patients, for that matter), the relationship itself requires close scrutiny. What actually goes on between them? Who says what, when, and how? Observation, or participant observation, is difficult to do. It's time consuming. And there is always the problem of access. How do you observe that which is supposed to be a privileged relationship? The answers vary according to jurisdiction and personality type. Some lawyers and law firms recoil at the thought of a social scientist observing them, while others welcome it. I like observing people--I do it all the time--but there are others who feel more secure with a clump of statistics for whom life in the raw is too unmediated.
A new project is underway in Germany and Italy which is quite fascinating. Livia and Marius Holden (anthropologist and film maker) have been observing and filming a lawyer, Lionello Manfredonia, in the south of Italy. They have looked at his cases, his clients, his files even, and how he conducts cases in court. They have put up a website called "Doing Nothing Successfully", which shows what happens when a lawyer decides the best strategy in a case is to do...nothing. There is a trailer (in QuickTime) for a longer film which gives highlights of the researchers' approaches and the lawyer's strategy. Watch it. I think it will make you want to see more of the project as it emerges.
More about Dr Livia Holden and the "Law-in-Action" research project she is part of can be found at the project website. There are papers produced by other researchers, such as the "Micro-Formation of Criminal Defence". It is a rich repository, so enjoy...