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The History of Legal Profession The History of Legal Profession

Bronze medal Reporter Adv. Aneeta Posted 1 Nov 2020
The History of Legal Profession

No one exactly knows the beginning of the legal profession. Every ancient culture has some system of justice, whether by spells, witnesses testifying before respected elders, or torture, including the guilty walking across a bed of coals.

The justice system was tightly integrated into the culture of ancient days. Performance of duty and violation of duty was potentially a crime. From the earliest writings of all cultures, certain practices were considered crimes: theft, murder, and other offenses against the local dharma or religious practices.

Therefore, there was no need for an advocate. Judges were priests or holy people revered by those who sought justice.

Penalties could be harsh: death or the cutting off of hands for theft, “an eye for an eye” death for murder or treason. The customs of each particular culture detailed these penalties.

Ancient Greece and Rome are among the early societies that identified “law” as codes separate from religious and cultural norms. In Athens, an “orator” would plead the case of a “friend” before appointed respected elders whose judgments were based on oral and written customs as well as oral and written precedents. This became “the Law.”

Orators did not depend on pleas for justice before elders for income. It appears that orators were also used for funerals, military victories, or any celebration. Oratory---and being an orator---became a profession, where payments were negotiated. Orators began to take up full-time orator work.  

In ancient Rome, Emperor Claudius created the legal basis for the legal profession. Those recognized as practitioners of the Law could charge a published fee. Yet often it was not enough for them to live on only as law professionals.

Later the Roman laws became more precise. People focused on just studying, understanding, and applying the Law full time as their profession. Lawyers had many rules about how much they could charge and how they could register at the Court. In the very earliest days, any ordinary citizen could call themselves an advocate (or lawyer). Once the profession became more regulated, there was a very high standard to meet before being allowed to work as a lawyer.

During the time of the Byzantine Empire, the legal profession had become well-established, regulated, and highly stratified. Roman judges and governors would routinely consult with an advisory panel of jurisconsults before rendering a decision.

By the 380s, Advocates (Lawyers) had to enroll in the Bar (professional guild.) Advocates studied law in addition to rhetoric, continuing to be professional orators.

The legal profession of Western Europe collapsed after the fall of the western Empire. . As James Brundage has explained: “no one in Western Europe could properly be described as a professional lawyer or professional canonists in anything like the modern sense of the term ‘professional.”

Law recovered in the European Middle Ages. In France, lawyers took an oath that pledged care, diligence, and the seeking of justice.  These oaths were taken as ecclesiastical lawyers. This French legal tradition had a lasting influence even today. 

China has a history of unofficial legal advisers operating in the shadow of an imperial legal code prohibiting the instigation of litigation.  These quasi-lawyers enjoyed a fair measure of tolerance from officialdom, which suggests that such advocates may have served useful purposes.

In the United States of America, from the time of Independence, lawyers assumed a prominent role in both public and private life. This led the French social observer Alexis de Tocqueville to write early in the 19th century that “it is at the bar or bench that the American aristocracy is found.” 

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