The Birth of a Legal Economy: Lawyers and the Development of American Commerce

76 Pages Posted: 17 Feb 2017

See all articles by Justin Simard

Justin Simard

Michigan State University - College of Law

Date Written: December 15, 2016


American lawyers helped lay the foundation for capitalism in the nineteenth century, playing a basic economic role in their legal practices earlier than other historians have documented. At a time when the U.S. state was relatively powerless, the work of the profession was essential. Lawyers helped generate liquidity before the federal government printed money, built legal institutions on the frontier, and made markets secure enough for their clients to participate. In short, they provided the private bureaucracy that capitalism needed to function.

Until now, the foundational role of lawyers in early nineteenth-century economic life has largely remained hidden, partly because legal historians have depended on court documents and published works. This article uses legal account books to uncover the day-to-day work of the legal profession. Through studies of lawyers on the Ohio frontier and in New York City, it reveals that lawyers embraced the routine commercial work that allowed the market to function; they encouraged economic growth and cemented the profession’s place in American commercial life. Taking the routine work of lawyers seriously reveals that scholars have vastly understated the importance of the profession to economic development. Lawyers provided the constraints and built the institutions that economists and economic historians believe are key to growth. The profession must therefore be understood alongside the law as a defining part of the American economy.

Keywords: legal history, legal profession, lawyers, law and economic developement

JEL Classification: N00; N11; N21; O10; K00

Suggested Citation

Simard, Justin, The Birth of a Legal Economy: Lawyers and the Development of American Commerce (December 15, 2016). Buffalo Law Review Vol. 64 (2016), University at Buffalo School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2016-041, Available at SSRN:

Justin Simard (Contact Author)

Michigan State University - College of Law ( email )

318 Law College Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1300
United States


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