Law in Contemporary Society

McDonaldization? at the UFW

-- By XavierSanchez - 20 May 2012

In my last semester of college, I was nine units short of the 120 required to graduate. I registered for the three classes that would fulfill the requirement, but I decided on the night before the first day of classes to register for a sociology class. I had never taken a sociology class, and I figured this was probably going to be the last opportunity I would have to take one, at least for a while. Maybe I should have taken the LSAT prep class my friends applying to law school were taking, but I really did not want to. I figured there would be time later to drill for the test.

One part of the course I remember distinctively was the concept of McDonaldization. McDonaldization? describes the process by which rational, or efficient, methods replace irrational, or inefficient, methods. The process has four main components. They are efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control. I will examine how the law office I’m interning at this summer exhibits McDonaldization? and how it eschews it.

This week I started working for the United Farm Workers (UFW) and its foundation. I will, under supervision of an attorney, be updating the union’s organizing manual so that it is in compliance with the 2012 amendments to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and I will assist in the foundation’s immigration representation program. The UFW Foundation administers the only non-profit immigration legal assistance program in the San Joaquin Valley that is accredited by the Department of Justice. The area, with a total population of 4 million people and a significant low-income immigrant community, is very underserved.

Perhaps some may argue that McDonaldization? cannot easily pervade high-skill jobs that require creativity, such as lawyering. While my limited experience working in a law office seems to bolster that claim, I can still see the push towards a rational system of legal practice. The legal department exhibits some of the four characteristics of McDonaldization? , but not to a particularly obvious degree.


Efficiency can be an end in itself, and not just an ends. Too much emphasis on efficiency can result in losing sight of the ultimate goal the efficient means were supposed to achieve. At the UFW, the supervising attorneys do not try to micromanage the interns, but instead give us a large project, suggestions, and guidance. We then divide tasks among ourselves, and collaborate. I doubt this is the most efficient way to complete work, but it lets each of us focus on the overall project. One of our supervisors also has us take time to hear the testimony of workers describing their deplorable work conditions. Again, this is not the most efficient use of time, but we do not forget why we joined the organization.


McDonaldization? uses routine and systemization to reduce surprises. The legal department does not have much of a routine. Any suggested schedule is usually interrupted by 11 A.M. because the general counsel asks our team to research a particular point of law because he is driving to a hearing 4 hours away and is away from his computer, or the field organizers have run into a particular problem that needs to be resolved within a few days. The interns are constantly moving between the office and work sites. On the other hand, the union’s legal department uses many systems to produce uniform work products. For example, the entire legal staff must use a particular set of forms when entering certification data and a significant portion of orientation is devoted to teaching the interns about the filing system.


Calculability entails reducing interactions and human behavior into units that are easily and uniformly measured. Admission index numbers or promotions based on billable hours display calculability. Categorizing people by numbers makes comparison simpler than if we tried to compare people based on other evaluations, such as recommendations. I have only worked at the UFW for a week so I cannot say what their evaluation process is like. I do not think I will be evaluated based on whether I successfully reached a numerical threshold.

Being a part of a non-profit, the legal department is not concerned with bringing in a particular amount of clients. Its workload is based on the success of various organizing drives. When work is heavy, all the attorneys work on the stream of litigation. When work slows, they are either assigned to different departments or work on civil rights cases brought by the former UFW general counsel who opened his own law firm but maintains close ties with the union. This arrangement appeals to me and stands in contrast with the billable hours model. The union lawyers sometimes speak about judgment sizes on unfair labor practices cases, but I have never heard them speak about hours spent on a case. I asked one of them on Wednesday how much time he spent on the case we were all working on that had already reached the damages phase. He did not know. He instead enthusiastically stated his pleasure at likely getting the judgment.


Rational systems want to eliminate uncertainties in life. The actions of other people can be the most unpredictable part of daily life. A fellow intern told me about her friend who was practicing law at a medium sized law firm in Orange County. She lost her job in December 2009 and desperate for any work and avoiding debt collectors, she took a position at a slimeball operation. The intern told me about her friend’s desperation and about the constant surveillance of the staff. Video cameras are installed throughout the office. This account of what legal practice could be is what led me to write on this topic. Here, the legal department seems to constantly be reacting to the actions of growers or the organizers. The actions of these parties seem difficult to predict.

I think it's evident that you made the right decision about the sociology course, particularly if the alternative was preparing to take a diagnostic test.

But I think the use of George Ritzer's vocabulary here is not quite the same thing as using his ideas. He is trying to show how to make Max Weber's description of "rationalization" relevant to contemporary social conditions, by substituting consumer product organizations in the market (specifically fast food restaurants) for the paradigm type Weber used: German state bureaucracy. For the purpose of explaining the concepts, I agree that this is a more useful contemporary formulation, because more "experience near" for an undergraduate who has never experienced the Prussian state tempus Otto von Bismarck.

On the other hand, familiarity can be misleading. Once or twice you're too loose here, I think in the way you use the categories Ritzer uses to restate Weber. "Efficiency" specifically means for him that rationalization leads to pervasive efforts to minimize expenditure of time. To think about the nature of this aspect of our society's rationalization in your workplace culture, ask how many of the practices and structures you see around you assume that time is the dimension of work that should be minimized at each stage.

In other respects, I think the problem with the categories is the reverse, that you're using them too tightly. This is a problem of scale: Ritzer like Weber is talking about categories that apply broadly. A tool for spanning distances morphologically from market operations to government and thematically from agriculture to culture does not produce detailed models for interpreting the goings on in one office over a couple of weeks.

I think this is an example of the tool interfering with the work. Why not start with your observations, your ethnography of the society in which you've landed? Don't begin with the template to fit it into, but with the life around you grasped as openly as you can. Then you can ask yourself what it means, going from ethnographer to interpreter, back and forth between your experience of being there and your effort to sift what it means, the iterative process the late Clifford Geertz called "ethnographic tacking." Whatever theory you use in the course of that effort yours or someone else's, but the cooking it up together is always you.

Let me know, please, if you want to do more revising before I put in a grade, or whether you'd like to have a grade posted for EIP.

I would like to continue working on this.

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r4 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:21 - IanSullivan
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