Law Firms: Last Vestige of the Medieval Guild System?

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“In the current economic crisis, we see the final demise of the medieval guild in the American legal profession,” said Joel Henning, a law firm consultant at Hildebrandt International Inc.

Carlyn Kolker, 'Medieval' U.S. Law Firm Pay Structure Buckles, (Mar. 16, 2009) (emphasis added).

[I]f the economic system of the [law] firm is frustrating to associates and even some partners, I can tell you that from the standpoint of a metric-driven general counsel, it is more than incomprehensible.  It looks like the last vestige of the medieval guild system to survive into the 21st century.

Mark Chandler (Cisco General Counsel), Transcript of Speech (given Jan. 25, 2007) (emphasis added).

To attain their collective goals, guild members had to cooperate. If some members slacked off, all would suffer. Guilds that wished to lower the costs of labor had to get all masters to reduce wages. . . . Guilds that wished to develop respected reputations had to get all members to sell superior merchandise. Guild members contributed money . . .  and contributed time, emotion, and personal energy, as well . . . .

A guild’s members met at least once a year (and in most cases more often) to elect officers, audit accounts, induct new members, debate policies, and amend ordinances. . . . . Decisions were usually made by majority vote among the master craftsmen. . . .

Members who failed to fulfill their obligations faced punishments of various sorts.  Punishments varied across transgressions, guilds, time, and space, but a pattern existed. First time offenders were punished lightly, perhaps suffering public scolding and paying small monetary fines, and repeat offenders punished harshly. The ultimate threat was expulsion.

Gary Richardson, Medieval Guilds, EH.Net Encyclopedia (Mar. 16, 2008).

Two of the most outspoken critics of the guild system were Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith . . . . Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto also criticized the guild system for its rigid gradation of social rank and the relation of oppressor/oppressed entailed by this system.  From this time comes the low regard in which some people hold the guilds to this day. . . . The practice of law in the United States is also an example of modern guilds at work.

Link: Guild (Wikipedia)