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Hierarchies, Specialization, and the Utilization of Knowledge: Theory and Evidence from the Legal Services Industry

  • Thomas Hubbard
  • Luis Garicano

What role do hierarchies play with respect to the organization of production and what determines their structure? We develop an equilibrium model of hierarchical organization, then provide empirical evidence using confidential data on thousands of law offices from the 1992 Census of Services. The driving force in the model is increasing returns in the utilization of acquired knowledge. We show how the equilibrium assignment of individuals to hierarchical positions varies with the degree to which their human capital is field-specialized, then show how this equilibrium changes with the extent of the market. We find empirical evidence consistent with a central proposition of the model: the share of lawyers that work in hierarchies and the ratio of associates to partners increases as market size increases and lawyers field-specialize. Other results provide evidence against alternative interpretations that emphasize unobserved differences in the distribution of demand or “firm size effects,” and lend additional support to the view that a role hierarchies play in legal services is to help exploit increasing returns associated with the utilization of human capital.

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Paper provided by Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau in its series Working Papers with number 04-07.

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Length: 60 pages
Date of creation: May 2004
Date of revision:
Handle: RePEc:cen:wpaper:04-07
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  1. Roy RADNER & Timothy VAN ZANDT, 1992. "Information Processing in Firms and Returns to Scale," Annales d'Economie et de Statistique, ENSAE, issue 25-26, pages 265-298.
  2. Raghuram Rajan & Julie Wulf, 2003. "The Flattening Firm: Evidence from Panel Data on the Changing Nature of Corporate Hierarchies," NBER Working Papers 9633, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  3. Thomas N Hubbard & Luis Garicano, 2003. "Specialization, Firms, and Markets: The Division of Labor Within and Between Law Firms," Working Papers 03-13, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  4. Calvo, Guillermo A & Wellisz, Stanislaw, 1978. "Supervision, Loss of Control, and the Optimum Size of the Firm," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 86(5), pages 943-52, October.
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  7. Calvo, Guillermo A & Wellisz, Stanislaw, 1979. "Hierarchy, Ability, and Income Distribution," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 87(5), pages 991-1010, October.
  8. Romer, Paul M, 1986. "Increasing Returns and Long-run Growth," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 94(5), pages 1002-37, October.
  9. Van Zandt, Timothy, 1999. "Real-Time Decentralized Information Processing as a Model of Organizations with Boundedly Rational Agents," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 66(3), pages 633-58, July.
  10. Qian, Yingyi, 1994. "Incentives and Loss of Control in an Optimal Hierarchy," Review of Economic Studies, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 61(3), pages 527-44, July.
  11. Carmichael, H Lorne, 1988. "Incentives in Academics: Why Is There Tenure?," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 96(3), pages 453-72, June.
  12. Jacques Cremer, 1980. "A Partial Theory of the Optimal Organization of a Bureaucracy," Bell Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 11(2), pages 683-693, Autumn.
  13. Sherwin Rosen, 1982. "Authority, Control, and the Distribution of Earnings," Bell Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 13(2), pages 311-323, Autumn.
  14. Raghuram G. Rajan & Luigi Zingales, . "Power in a Theory of the Firm," CRSP working papers 335, Center for Research in Security Prices, Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago.
  15. Luis Garicano, 2000. "Hierarchies and the Organization of Knowledge in Production," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 108(5), pages 874-904, October.
  16. Alchian, Armen A & Demsetz, Harold, 1972. "Production , Information Costs, and Economic Organization," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 62(5), pages 777-95, December.
  17. Radner, Roy, 1993. "The Organization of Decentralized Information Processing," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 61(5), pages 1109-46, September.
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