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A Brief Guide to the History of Lawyers

Patrick Davis

Written by

Patrick Davis


April 6, 2021

Lawyers born only 30 or 40 years ago may not realize that the legal profession as it is today did not always exist. A matter of fact, at one point there was no such thing as a lawyer and even after the legal profession was born, before lawyer time tracking software or legal calendaring existed, it has been subjected to booms and declines many times. No one really knows who was the first lawyer in history but we do know that there were ancient lawyers who paved the way for today’s modern lawyers. Let’s take a look at the history of lawyers and the lawyer profession.

Ancient Greece and Rome

The origins of lawyers and the first founders of law make their appearance in Ancient Greece and Rome. In ancient Athens “orators” would often plead the case of a “friend” because at the time it was required that an individual plead their own case or have an ordinary citizen or friend plead their case on their behalf. Also, these ancient lawyers were not allowed to take a fee for their service. However, the law around fees was often violated but the law was never abolished so it was impossible for these early lawyers to establish a formal profession. But in ancient Rome, Emperor Claudius legalized the legal profession and even allowed lawyers (also known as advocates) to charge a limited fee.  However, the fees that Roman lawyers could charge was simply not enough money for the services provided which made making a living tough.  Also, the early legal profession was stratified with lawyers that specialized in the law and others that specialized in rhetoric which meant that clients might have to visit two different lawyers to handle their case. But this specialization also meant that Roman laws became more precise since there was an entire class of people who focused on just studying and understanding the law.

The First Bar

As the legal profession continued to evolve and become more official in ancient Rome it also became highly regulated. There were many rules around being lawyers that controlled how much a lawyer could charge, where they could plead a case, and how they could become registered with the court or bar. Before this time, any ordinary citizen could call themselves an advocate (lawyer) but once the profession became more regulated, there was a very high standard to meet before being allowed to work as a lawyer, and the profession became only accessible to the higher classes. A matter of fact, Rome developed a class of specialists known as jurisconsults who were wealthy amateurs who dabbled in law as an intellectual hobby. Advocates and ordinary people went to jurisconsults for legal advice.

An interesting side note: In ancient Rome, notaries did not have any legal document management skills — in fact, they had no legal training and were barely literate. But they could draft wills, conveyances, and contracts cheaply. They were also known for drawing simple transactions in convoluted legal jargon as a way of making more money since they were paid by the line.

Legal Profession In The Middle Ages

Lawyers in medieval times found themselves struggling to make a living as the legal profession collapsed in the western world. But the profession did have a resurgence eventually but mostly in a form that served the church and its laws. And between 1190 and 1230 the state and the church doubled their efforts to control and regulate the profession. There was a strong push to professionalize the legal profession and make lawyers swear an oath before being allowed to practice law.

It’s interesting to note that ancient lawyers in the middle ages developed quite a negative reputation because there was excessive litigation during that time which was caused by a large number of lawyers who created extra litigation due to their incompetence or misconduct. To put it quite bluntly, lawyers were not trusted and their tight regulation was being pushed from various sectors of society.

American History of Lawyers

When did lawyers first start practicing in the United States? It’s important to understand that the history of attorneys is filled with changes and fluctuations. In order for a society to need lawyers, there must be a certain level of advancement. This means that the first lawyers didn’t immediately appear in the Americas when the British colonies were established. And many people in the colonies were hostile to lawyers, even more hostile than people were in Europe.  Some colonies outlawed lawyers, and where lawyers were allowed to practice, they were tightly regulated and allowed to charge only a small fee. As the colonies began to thrive financially the need for lawyers grew but most lawyers were untrained and a client was simply taking a risk on the quality of a lawyer they hired.  In Massachusetts, there was no special training required to be a lawyer until 1761 when the bar formed an association and required that lawyers have seven years training before they could practice law. The bar also established professional ethics that all lawyers were required to follow.

Eventually, the prejudices against lawyers started to fall away and the legal profession began to gain respect and power. Twenty-five of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence were lawyers. Lawyers were being trained in courts and eventually after the American Revolution, bars were established across the country and the education of lawyers became formalized. Centries before legal practice management software was around, the first law degree granted in the United States was a Bachelor of Law in 1793 by the College of William & Mary. The degree was called an L.B. and eventually was called an LLB. In the 1850s many small law schools were established by lawyers in the United States paving the way for aspiring lawyers to get the education they needed to practice.

Today, lawyers must earn an undergraduate degree before going on to earn their J.D.. Some aspiring lawyers choose an LB or LLB as their undergraduate degree while others choose something different. In any case, it’s important to connect to the history of the legal profession, how it developed over time and how that history impacts the rules and customs accepted in today’s legal profession.

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