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This study delves into the nuanced role of lawyers in authoritarian legal systems, with a focus on China. Through surveys of 1,152 lawyers and 1,600 citizens, we examine factors mobilizing lawyers in supporting rule of law under autocracy and citizen preferences for lawyer selection. Our findings reveal that morality and professionalism can effectively inspire legal activism, whereas political mandates have little impact on lawyering behaviors. Citizens predominantly prefer politically connected, experienced, and elite lawyers, yet professional mobilization resonates more with lawyers of the opposite kind—those less established or without political ties. This research illustrates the dual nature of lawyers in authoritarian legality: they operate semi-independently, acting as a critical player in coordinating state-society tensions, but are influenced by economic and political pressures, leading to misalignment within the civil society. This study explains why growing legal professionals cannot guarantee a stronger rule of law or progress toward democratization. These insights illuminate the intricate dynamics between the state, legal professionals, and citizens within authoritarian contexts.