Going with the Flow of Lawyers

by Sida Liu

The mobility of lawyers is like the flow of water. This is something I found in a recent article “Professional Flows: Lateral Moves of Law Firm Partners in Hong Kong, 1994-2018.” Since my years as a graduate student, I have always been fascinated by how lawyers move round. Some move geographically, from one city or country to another. Others move between law firms, between courts and prosecutor’s offices, or between public and private sectors. Even for those who stay in the same organizational setting, vertical mobility between different roles or positions is still important for understanding their careers.

In an earlier article, “The Legal Profession as a Social Process,” I conceptualized these phenomena as the study of lawyers’ mobility and migration. Using this processual approach, I also examined empirically the spatial mobility of Chinese lawyers between provinces and the gendered career mobility of judges in Chinese courts.

Then this line of research took me to Hong Kong. For the past four years I have been working on a new research project examining the mobility of law firm partners using archival data from Hong Kong Lawyer, the official journal of the Law Society of Hong Kong. Starting from 1994, this monthly journal has reported on the professional moves of partners in all Hong Kong law firms in a highly consistent format. It provides a gold mine for the study of lawyers’ career mobility, including promotion to partnership, lateral moves between firms, attrition from the profession, and relocation to and from Hong Kong.

To dig into this gold mine, my research assistants and I have collected all the 336 monthly issues of the journal’s partner mobility column from 1994 to 2021, which include over 10,000 career moves in total. This, of course, was merely the first step in our research. As much of the data in earlier years was not digitized, inputting the raw data into an electronic database took several months to complete, followed by endless tasks of coding, collecting new information, and recoding.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic made traveling to Hong Kong impossible and we had no choice but to rely on publicly available sources to construct the biographic profile of each partner. Accordingly, my research team looked into the Law Society of Hong Kong’s database, the lawyer databases of other jurisdictions, LinkedIn profiles, news reports, and a variety of other online sources for information. The coding work is still in progress now, but we were able to focus on two subsets of the data to study the lateral moves of partners between law firms and the attrition of lawyers from the profession.

In the aforementioned “Professional Flows” article, my coauthors Daniel Blocq, Ali Honari, Anson Au, and I reported on the findings of this preliminary inquiry on the lateral moves of law firm partners in Hong Kong from 1994 to 2018. The article is titled “Professional Flows” because the more I work on this project, the more I realize that the mobility of professional careers resembles the flow of water. If we change the unit of analysis from individual jobs or firms to the whole ecology of the legal profession, then every lawyer appears to be a drop of water in a large river that flows in multiple spaces over time. There are “waves,” “cycles,” and “turning points” in the flow of lawyers across firms and other organizational settings, just like how water flows in a river. Individual lawyers may have their reasons for moving from one law firm to another, yet the ecological patterns and trajectories of professional flows are not determined by individual choices. Instead, they reflect larger social forces at work in the legal profession.

For example, the massive inflow of Chinese investment into Hong Kong in the 2000s generated many lucrative financial and corporate deals for lawyers, which brought many Wall Street law firms from New York into the Hong Kong market. This led to a wave of lateral moves from elite Hong Kong and UK firms to US firms in the late 2000s, especially after the turning point of the 2008 global financial crisis. When the UK firms responded by poaching partners from other UK and US firms, it generated a cycle of moves among elite law firms in the Hong Kong legal services market.

In my current research, I am extending this ecological and processual view of professional mobility to the study of how and why partners leave the legal profession for other jobs at two major historical turning points in Hong Kong, namely (1) the 1997 Handover from Britain to China and (2) the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests and the subsequent COVID-19 pandemic. This new paper remains a work in progress, but what my coauthors Pamela Tsui, Anson Au, and I have found so far is that lawyers’ career paths are both constrained and enabled by the physical, social, and legal spaces in which they reside. In other words, the flow of lawyers is not random, but a temporal process that unfolds in multiple, intersecting spaces.

What does all this mean for the sociology of law? In the most general sense, I am taking a processual view of legal and social entities (e.g., lawyers) and conceptualizing them not as fixed categories or static things, but as dynamic interactions and unfolding relations situated in space and time. Going with the flow of lawyers is a risky path, and I am still not sure where it will take me eventually. All I know is that the destination will not be a familiar place, but somewhere new and exciting.

Sida Liu is Associate Professor of Sociology, Law, and Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. He is currently the Chair-Elect of the ASA Section on Sociology of Law.

Liu, Sida, Daniel Blocq, Ali Honari, and Anson Au. 2022. “Professional Flows: Lateral Moves of Law Firm Partners in Hong Kong, 1994-2018.” Journal of Professions and Organization 9(1): 1-19.

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