A Brief History of the Bar

Timothy Hanna Details the History of the Term “Bar”

By Timothy Hanna  Oct. 7, 2014

“If it takes three years to get there it better be one hell of a bar.” – Clarence Darrow

Mr. Darrow’s clever pun aside, most law students treat the process of being admitted to the bar with little levity. Any mention of the bar exam brings to mind a monumental endeavor, months of toil and tears culminating in three days of the most intense, mind shattering mental Olympics west of the Mississippi. This world shattering ordeal is followed by what I imagine are the longest months of your life waiting patiently for the day you can finally add that E-S-Q to your business card; these months are presumably spent on a beach growing a beard or in a gray office cubicle looking at cat posters. In American jurisprudence, taking the bar exam is a rite of passage. A passing score tells the world you were “admitted to the bar.” A successful undertaking gives you the right to look that senior partner square in the eye and nod; no words need be exchanged to convey the shared sentiment: “I’ve seen some sh*t.” (Disclaimer: Long, lingering looks with a senior partner may be misinterpreted as meaning something far different.)

Let’s walk this back a bit and take a moment to examine how we got this phrase. Black’s Law Dictionary defines the bar, at least in the way I’m using the phrase, as “the whole body of attorneys and counselors, or the members of the legal profession collectively.” This is the modern definition, but the history of the bar is far from a recent development. The Supreme Court of California first established a state bar in 1919, although it didn’t take its present title and form until legislation passed in 1927. To their credit this was a monumental development, but they didn’t coin the term “bar.” Some law students may argue that “bar,” especially when paired with exam, began as a synonym for fear. Those students are sadly mistaken and deeply in need of a good therapist.

The use of the term “bar” to denote members of the legal profession finds its genesis in English History. The origin can be traced back to Middle English, as “barre” which meant the branch of a tree. The first recorded use of the term to denote the legal profession is from a description of the Inns of Court from the 1550s, it was used to describe those who stood at a physical bar, a railing used to separate the hall and petitioners of the Inns of Court from the Court’s entourage. The Court’s entourage would stand at the bar. Comprised of mostly men, the “bar” was comprised of elite, second sons, often still students, who couldn’t inherit in a patrilineal society but were from families with close ties to the rulers of England. They would follow the Inns of Court as they traveled the country side, and serve as advisors to the judge by arguing between themselves about the merits of each petitioner’s claim. By the time a formal court system was established in the early 1600s, the term was well settled in legal language as a description of advocates in the court system. By the time, the American colonies came about “bar” was so entrenched it was universally accepted into court language, eventually evolving into the term we know, love, and use today.

So thanks England, we owe you one. We’ll never forget our cousins across the pond for giving us Beefeater gin, the Beatles, and the Bar.

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