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Prof’s work marries two intellectual passions

May 1, 1998

Mark Suchman

Mark Suchman describes his intellectual personality as being comprised of two halves. One focuses on organizational sociology, supported by his doctorate in sociology from Stanford University; the other concentrates on the sociology of law, supported by his law degree from Yale University.

The melding of these two halves in Suchman’s research and teaching has led to a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation and has positioned him as an emerging figure in the growing academic field of law and society.

Suchman will use the four-year, $301,000 early career development grant from NSF to extend his research on how law firms have affected the development of California’s Silicon Valley.

His research exemplifies the law and society movement, which studies how the law and legal institutions are affected by and act as part of society. Birthed in the mid-1960s, the movement is now international in scope.

“Traditional legal scholarship is very doctrinal,” says Suchman, who joined UW–Madison’s sociology department in 1993 and is up for tenure this year. “But doctrine is just the tip of the iceberg in the legal system. My research is my effort to show that we can learn things about the law that are not reflected in doctrine.”

The development of Suchman’s two intellectual halves started at Harvard University, where Suchman completed his undergraduate work in sociology. Born in New York City and raised mostly in Pittsburgh, Suchman was reared in a family of academics (his father, mother and two older sisters have earned doctorates). He knew he wanted to give graduate school a try.

He applied to graduate programs in law, public policy and sociology, narrowed his choice to the latter of the three and began graduate work at Stanford. With law school still beckoning after two years there, however, he came back east to start Yale’s law program.

He used both halves of the country to cultivate both sides of his intellectual personality, persuading Yale to let him do coursework at Stanford while simultaneously working on his doctorate in sociology. He jetted between the schools, which allowed him to graduate with his class at Yale Law School and then finish his Ph.D. at Stanford.

“I was in the transcontinental degree program,” he jokes.

Suchman’s bicoastal education culminated with a dissertation examining the role that law firms played in the growth of the Silicon Valley. Suchman discovered that – like bees pollinating flowers – legal institutions “pollinated” emerging technology companies.

This pollination occurred largely through venture capital financing contracts suggested to the companies by law firms. The contracts are a key financing device in the Silicon Valley.

And as firms like Apple Computers, 3Com and Seagate Technology rapidly grew, so did the law firms serving them, Suchman discovered. The most successful law firm had 12 lawyers in 1975; it now has more than 300 staff attorneys, he says.

“These firms were building their practices less on traditional litigation than on representing emerging growth companies in business transactions,” Suchman says. “In my interviews with lawyers, I found quite a bit of evidence of ‘pollinating,’ although no one used that term. Whenever lawyers engaged in general business consulting or acted as deal makers, they were transmitting basic blueprints for corporate structure – the organizational equivalent of genes.

“Lawyers didn’t create the Silicon Valley,” he adds, “but they clearly played a role in its success.”

With these findings, Suchman is clearly carving out his niche in the law and society movement, which seeks to bridge the law and social sciences such as anthropology, history, sociology, political science and psychology.

Much of the movement’s foundation was laid at UW–Madison through the creation of the Law & Society Association in 1964. The movement gained prominence in 1974, when UW–Madison law professor Marc Galanter published the most widely cited article ever in the field, “Why the ‘Haves’ Come Out Ahead: Speculations on the Limits of Legal Change.” The law school’s Institute for Legal Studies is sponsoring a conference May 1-2 to assess the scholarly impact of Galanter’s article.

“The law and society movement is a Wisconsin original in a sense,” says Suchman. “It’s part of the reason why I came here.”

Although Suchman has never worked as a practicing attorney, he clerked during summers for law firms in California and New York, worked in a Legal Aid office in Connecticut while in law school and passed the Connecticut bar exam in 1990.

He’s comfortable with his decision to pursue an academic career instead of going into private practice.

“Sure, I have a few regrets, especially when my lawyer friends tell me about their latest vacation to Aruba,” he says. “But when they grouse about their clients or complain that they haven’t been able to explore any new and challenging ideas in five years, my regrets tend to evaporate.”

Tags: research