Current Institutional Affiliation
Doctoral Candidate, History, Columbia University

Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2015
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
History, Columbia University
Poor People’s Lawyers: Rule of Law, Access to Justice, and the Politics of the Legal Profession in Chile, 1925 to 1989

My dissertation addresses the history of the relationship between the legal profession and the lower classes in twentieth-century Chile, to show that the legal representation of poor people was not a marginal aspect, but rather a central dimension in the development of the legal profession, and that this relationship between lawyers and poor people was instrumental in shaping broader ideas about the rule of law and social inequalities in this country. Concretely, I focus on the Chilean Legal Aid Service and other legal intermediaries who represented the lower classes such as state officials, informal legal agents, and lawyers working for leftwing parties, labor unions, and NGOs. I show that a process of expanding access to justice took place in Chile beginning in the 1920s, and that this process was the result of a contest in which Chilean lawyers competed with other professionals, non-professionals, the state, and also among themselves to establish a close bond with the lower classes. I suggest that this bond was essential in maintaining lawyers' social prestige and power over the state in a moment when the traditional status of the legal profession was under threat. Through this contest, the Chilean legal profession contributed to the creation of a discourse that established legality as an integral part of Chile's national identity. However, the legality for which Chilean lawyers advocated reinforced more than challenged entrenched social hierarchies. In Latin America, the literature has linked the weakness of the rule of law to prevailing social inequities. Chile, however, has traditionally been considered a regional exception in terms of its respect for the rule of law, but in terms of inequality it is no different than the rest of Latin America. My research will illuminate this paradox by explaining the emergence of Chile's "legal exceptionalism," thereby engaging broader debates on the connections between the rule of law and social inequalities.