Theses Doctoral

The Rule of Lawyers: The Politics of the Legal Profession and Legal Aid in Chile, 1915 to 1964

Gonzalez Le Saux, Marianne

This dissertation is a social, political, and cultural history of the organized Chilean legal profession in the first half of the twentieth century. It explores the causes for the creation of the Chilean Bar Association and its Legal Aid Service in the mid-1920s and follows their evolution until the mid-1960s.

In the early twentieth century, lawyers were dealing with growing internal and external challenges to the traditional power they had occupied in the Chilean state throughout the nineteenth century. The main internal challenge was the social and political diversification of lawyers; the external one was the social question and working- class mobilization, which represented a threat to the existing oligarchic social and political order. Both issues questioned the traditional place of lawyers in society, their formalistic understanding of the legal system, and the role of law as the main state- building tool. In response to these threats, a group of male elite Santiago lawyers founded the Bar Association in 1925, and its Legal Aid Service, in 1932. These two institutional mechanisms created and enforced a hegemonic discourse of “professional prestige” that affirmed the power of the traditional legal elite over the growing number of middle-class, leftwing, provincial, and women lawyers. These two institutions also modified the engagement of the legal profession with the state, replacing its former political engagement with a new technical, “apolitical” and “social” function of lawyers more atuned to the new welfare state.

The internal power dynamics within the Chilean Bar Association and the Legal Aid Service explain the process through which the Chilean legal profession defined the “legal field,” as increasingly distinct from, but in constant tension with, the “political”and the “social” fields. Indeed, through the combined action of the Bar Association and the Legal Aid Service, lawyers were directed to deal with social inequalities, but only to the extent that this engagement did not challenge the formalistic approach to legal procedures and the liberal understanding of property rights. Furthermore, the final result of this professional project was to push lawyers to withdraw from the field of politics and from the public sphere. However, the process of imposing this notion of lawyering was constantly contested and negotiated with a diversifying constituency of rank-and-file lawyers, and subjected to increasing external pressures from the press, the state, and the lower classes. Thus, the professional model that the Bar had contributed to construct and maintain in the first half of the century would become increasingly contested in the revolutionary decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

The relative success of the Bar Association in imposing its model of lawyering in the first half of the twentieth century allows us to understand why the legalistic framework that Chilean lawyers had inherited from the nineteenth century did not change over the course of the twentieth despite the momentous social and political evolution that both profession and country experienced in this period. The history of the Chilean Bar Association thus provides an institutional explanation for the continuity of ideas about the law in the face of accelerated social transformations. At the same time, by revealing the tensions and the resistance that this project faced, the history of the Bar also reveals the gears that would eventually lead to the legal profession’s historical change.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Milanich, Nara
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 10, 2018