Networking in the Shadow of the Law: Informal Access to Legal Expertise through Personal Network Ties

Published date01 September 2017
Date01 September 2017
Networking in the Shadow of the Law: Informal
Access to Legal Expertise through Personal
Network Ties
Erin York Cornwell
Emily S. Taylor Poppe
Megan Doherty Bea
Civil legal problems are common in everyday life, but the costs of obtaining
legal representation create barriers to legal action and contribute to disparities
in access to justice. Some individuals, however, may have informal access to
legal assistance through personal network ties with lawyers, enhancing their
responses to justiciable problems. In this study, we draw from theories of
social capital and network formation to examine the distribution and mobili-
zation of network-based legal expertise. Using nationally representative sur-
vey data, we find that network-based access to lawyers is widespread, and
most people who have ties to lawyers expect to informally mobilize legal assis-
tance when facing a problem. But people who are most likely to afford formal
legal representation are also most likely to have informal access to lawyers.
Thus, while informal access to lawyers may shape responses to legal problems,
it may also exacerbate inequalities in experiences with civil justice events.
Social scientific research on law indicates that formal engage-
ment with the legal system represents only the tip of a massive
iceberg of justiciable problems in individuals’ everyday lives
(Felstiner et al. 1980). At any given time, it is estimated that more
than 44 million American households are experiencing a problem
that falls within the domain of civil law. This includes issues
related to family and intimate relationships, work, benefits, hous-
ing, debt, medical care, and consumer purchases, as well as prob-
lems with neighbors (Sandefur 2012; and see American Bar
Association [ABA] 1994; Curran 1977; Currie 2009; Genn et al.
1999; Hensler et al. 1991). Studies of how individuals respond to
these situations tend to focus on engagement with lawyers and
legal institutions (Sandefur 2008). However, survey research esti-
mates that less than a quarter of justiciable problems are taken to
a lawyer (Kritzer 2008; Sandefur 2012), and an even smaller pro-
portion reaches the courts (Felstiner et al. 1980).
Please direct all correspondence to Erin York Cornwell, Department of Sociology,
Cornell University, 364 Uris Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853; email:
Law & Society Review, Volume 51, Number 3 (2017)
C2017 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
One reason for the lack of formal legal action in the face of a
civil legal problem is that hiring a lawyer can involve significant
costs (Galanter 1974; Hadfield 2000). In addition to monetary
costs, individuals often face difficulties in identifying lawyers who
provide the type of assistance needed, and in convincing an
appropriate lawyer to take on the representation (Kritzer 1997;
Ladinsky 1976; Lochner 1975; Monsma and Lempert 1992).
These challenges are thought to put lawyers and legal action out-
of-reach for many individuals, particularly those who lack socio-
economic resources (Sandefur 2008).
However, a less explored possibility is that some people may
be able to access legal expertise and assistance through informal
channels—that is, through existing personal relationships—and
use this to interpret or address issues that arise in their everyday
lives. A friend or family member who is a lawyer might agree to
provide legal representation, perhaps for free or at a reduced
rate. Or, he or she might recommend another lawyer, provide
information about substantive legal issues, assist with administra-
tive procedures such as locating and completing forms, or even
offer guidance for individuals who are representing themselves in
court proceedings. In a more nuanced way, through informal dis-
cussions or interactions, a lawyer might shape an individual’s
legal consciousness (Ewick and Silbey 1998) or awareness of the
scope of the law, legal rights, and legal remedies. Familiarity with
these aspects of the law may, in turn, affect whether individuals
conceptualize their everyday problems as legal problems and how
they think about the options available for addressing them (San-
defur 2012).
Informal mobilization of legal expertise may therefore be an
unexplored mechanism through which individuals engage legal
actors or respond to legal problems. If network-based access to
legal expertise is widely available and frequently mobilized, prior
research may underestimate the role of lawyers in justiciable
problems. Moreover, network-based access to legal expertise
could reduce disparities in access to legal representation, particu-
larly in civil disputes (Sandefur 2008). However, previous
research has not examined the extent to which individuals’ per-
sonal networks contain lawyers—or the likelihood that individuals
will mobilize legal assistance through their network ties when
they face justiciable problems.
In this paper, we consider how network ties to lawyers are
distributed across socioeconomic and racial/ethnic groups, and
the extent to which individuals are able to mobilize network-
based legal expertise when they face a legal problem. Patterns of
network exchange (Blau 1964; Homans 1958; Lin 2001), network
homophily (Laumann and Senter 1976; McPherson et al. 2001),
636 Networking in the Shadow of the Law
and residential segregation (e.g., Wilson 1987) may restrict
network-based access to legal experts among racial/ethnic minori-
ties and those with lower socioeconomic status. Building on this
work, we consider how network ties to lawyers are distributed
across socioeconomic and racial/ethnic groups. We also examine
the likelihood that individuals who have network ties to lawyers
will ask for—and receive—legal assistance through those ties.
Recent work highlighting the distinction between access to and
mobilization of network-based resources suggests the potential
for socioeconomic and racial/ethnic inequalities in individuals’
ability to utilize social capital (Smith 2010). Moreover, network
structural characteristics such as tie strength (Lin 1999a; Wellman
1992) may also influence individuals’ ability to mobilize network-
based legal expertise. We empirically explore these questions
using data from a nationally representative survey of American
adults, and then conclude by discussing the implications of our
findings for research on inequalities in access to justice and the
process of legal mobilization.
Social Capital and Legal Action
Theories of social capital emphasize that resources rooted in
social connections and interpersonal relationships can enhance
individual action (see, e.g., Coleman 1988; Lin 1999, 2000; Portes
1998). Social capital may inhere in structural features of one’s
social network (Burt 1992; Coleman 1988) and the presence of
specific types of network ties—such as strong ties (Bian 1997; Lin
2001), weak ties (Granovetter 1973), and kin ties (Kana’iaupuni
et al. 2005). Much of this research has emphasized the advan-
tages of social capital, in the form of network structure and tie
characteristics, for job seeking through informal channels (Fer-
nandez and Fernandez-Mateo 2006; Granovetter 1974; Lin and
Dumin 1986; Portes 1998; but see Mouw 2003).
Importantly, social capital may also be located in specific
resources possessed by a network alter, which may enhance
instrumental actions (Lin 1999b). Resources accessed through, or
borrowed from, an individual with whom one has a personal
relationship are termed “contact resources” (Lai et al. 1998).
Examples include money, power, information, material goods,
symbolic goods, and tertiary network connections. Expertise is a
contact resource that may be particularly beneficial for individual
actions that intersect with economic, social, legal, or political insti-
tutions (York Cornwell and Cornwell 2008). Expertise may take
the form of specialized skills, techniques, or knowledge that are
not commonly available, but gained through the completion of
YorkCornwell, Taylor Poppe, & Doherty Bea 637

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