Managing Legal Uncertainty

Elite Lawyers in the New Deal

Managing Legal Uncertainty

Book Pages: 272 Illustrations: Published: August 1995

Author: Ronen Shamir

Law, Sociology

With the New Deal came a dramatic expansion of the American regulatory state. Threatening to undermine many of the traditional roles of the legal system and its actors by establishing a system of administrative law, the new emphasis on federal legislation as a form of social and economic planning ushered in an era of "legal uncertainty." In this study Ronen Shamir explores how elite corporate lawyers and the American Bar Association clashed with academic legal realists over the constitutionality of the New Deal’s legislative program.
Applying the insights of Weber and Bourdieu to the sociology of the legal profession, Shamir shows that elite members of the bar had a keen self-interest in blocking the expansion of administrative law. He dismisses as oversimplified the view that elite lawyers were "hired guns" who argued that New Deal legislation was unconstitutional solely because of their duty to represent their capitalist clients. Instead, Shamir suggests, their alignment with the capitalist class was an incidental result of their attempt to articulate their vision of the law as scientific, apolitical, and judicially oriented—and thereby to defend their own position within the law profession. The academic legal realists on the other side of the constitutional debates criticized the rigidity of the traditional judicial process and insisted that flexibility of interpretation and the uncertainty of legal outcomes was at the heart of the legal system. The author argues that many legal realists, encouraged by the experimental nature of the New Deal, seized an opportunity to improve on their marginal status within the legal profession by moving their discussions from academic circles to the national policy agenda.


“Grounded in extensive research in local periodicals, congressional hearings, the reports and proceedings of the bar associations, and other sources, Shamir’s account is our best yet of the corporate lawyers’ assault on FDR’s ‘Wonderland of Bureaucracy’. . . . Managing Legal Uncertainty shows legal historians of the twentieth-century United States how to give ideas, interests, and institutions their due without dissipating the force of a historical narrative.” — , American Journal of Legal History

“Shamir offers a thoughtful, provocative, and often tantalizing treatment of theoretical foils as disparate as the theory of professions, the political sociology of the state, and the jurisprudence of legal formalism and instrumentalism.” — Terence C. Halliday , Law and Social Inquiry

"Managing Legal Uncertainty offers an original account of lawyers in the New Deal. It challenges conventional wisdom in a provocative and persuasive fashion." — Robert Jerome Glennon, University of Arizona College of Law

"Richly detailed, Managing Legal Uncertainty examines the activities of the organized bar during the period of the New Deal in much greater depth than previous accounts. It will quickly become a standard, both in the legal history of the New Deal, and in the literature on the history of the profession." — Lawrence M. Friedman, Stanford Law School


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Ronen Shamir is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Tel Aviv University.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1662-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1650-3
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