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The History of Lawyers

The first known legal decision was in 1850 B.C. And in 1700 BC the first written laws were established by a Babylonian king named Hammurabi. Lawyers, some would say paradoxically, are associated with the rise of civilizations which have been recognized as the root of western civilization. Lawyers have always been concerned with the interpretation of the rules which apply to societies and the settlement of disputes through the application of rules. References to lawyers are found in early parts of the Bible. The bible refers to lawyers in the ancient Hebrew nation as ‘experts in the law’. The earliest scribes served as official secretaries, with the responsibility of writing and issuing royal decrees (e.g. 2 Samuel 8:17, 20:25; 1 Chronicles 18:16, 24:6; 1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 12:9-11; 18:18-37). Eventually, the scribes performed other authoritative duties of the nation. There was also a secondary level of scribes, most of whom were Levites, who served as writers e.g. Baruch, who was a scribe for Jeremiah the prophet (Jeremiah 36:4,32). In Biblical terms, after the return from the Babylonian Captivity (see Why Babylon?), when the people of Judah had lost their independence and had no king of their own to serve, the scribes concentrated their activities on the law, becoming “experts of the law,” or “lawyers.” (Ezra 7:6,10-12; Nehemiah 8:1,4,9,13). By the time of the New Testament, the scribes became closely associated with the Pharisees, who added greatly to the writings of the original God-given Law with their own opinions and traditions. It was their view of the Law that brought them into dispute with Jesus Christ:

“And the Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?” And He said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ You leave the Commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.” And He said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the Commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition!” (Mark 7:5-9 RSV)

Indeed, many of jokes about lawyers which appear to have become popular in contemporary times are motivated by the same sentiments which appear in this quote from Jesus in the bible. Lawyers continued to flourish in societies such as ancient greece and rome where the institution of the law was used as a method for unifying, regulating and maintain social order in societies which were becoming organised around foundations which are recognisable to modern lawyers. In Ancient Greece, the Athenian legal system, did allow for representation by others within courts. However, this was not done for financial reasons. Athens in this period was split into administrative regions called demes; each deme would recommend people for posts within the governmental system as administrators. It was therefore in the interests of the richer members of each deme to offer legal aid to the poor in order to gain popularity, and thereby a degree of influence in the city. At the same time, it provided good practice for the Athenian Assembly. As the entire citizen body was allowed to vote on every motion, skilled speakers could sway the voters, thus become de facto rulers despite having no actual power. Learning to persuade a jury was part of learning this skill. There was however a group of people that did make their living from the legal system. Logographers (from the Greek logographoi) were professional speech writers, who would supply their client with a persuasive speech without the need for involving others. The main proponent of this whose works remain extant is Lysias, from whom we have 34 attested speeches, though it is uncertain how many were actually written by him. As with the other logographoi, Lysias was a metic, a rich foreigner allowed to live in Athens but not given full citizen rights.

This tradition was continued by Ancient Rome. A law enacted in 204 BC barred Roman advocates from taking fees, but the law was widely ignored. The ban on fees was abolished by Emperor Claudius, who legalized advocacy as a profession and allowed the Roman advocates to become the first lawyers who could practice openly — but he also imposed a fee ceiling of 10,000 sesterces. This was apparently not much money; the Satires of Juvenal complain that there was no money in working as an advocate. Like their Greek contemporaries, early Roman advocates were trained in rhetoric, not law, and the judges before whom they argued were also not law-trained. But very early on, unlike Athens, Rome developed a class of specialists who were learned in the law, known as jurisconsults (iuris consulti). Jurisconsults were wealthy amateurs who dabbled in law as an intellectual hobby; they did not make their primary living from it. They gave legal opinions (responsa) on legal issues to all comers (a practice known as publice respondere). Roman judges and governors would routinely consult with an advisory panel of jurisconsults before rendering a decision, and advocates and ordinary people also went to jurisconsults for legal opinions. Thus, the Romans were the first to have a class of people who spent their days thinking about legal problems, and this is why their law became so “precise, detailed, and technical.”

In the modern world, the first Law School was not opened until 1100 AD in Bologna, Italy. Although people were actively studying the written law since the BC era, it was the English King, Edward I in the late 1200s AD who spawned the earliest form of modern lawyers through legal reforms in England. These early lawyers were called ‘barristers’ and ‘solicitors’ and they represented ‘for’ and ‘against’ sides in legal disputes. An interesting note, the recent movie Braveheart was based on the story of King Edward I and William Wallace of Scotland in 1304. William Wallace was not allowed by King Edward to be represented by a lawyer.

It was not until the U.S. bill of rights was ratified in 1791 that people in the US were guaranteed legal representation by the sixth amendment. Since then, a modern, disciplined and well organized legal profession has spread across the modern world. In Australia, with a population of just over 20 million people, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, at the end of June 2008, there were 99,696 persons employed across legal services. Other legal services accounted for 85.2% (84,921 persons) of total employment, followed by barristers which accounted for 5.2% (5,154 persons) of total employment and legal aid commissions 2.6% (2,597 persons).

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