Lawyers in England and Wales

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History of Profession[edit | edit source]

From early times, the legal profession in England and Wales has been divided into two groups, barristers and solicitors, the latter usually being called attorneys until 1875. A solicitor cannot be a barrister and speak at the bar, and a barrister cannot be enrolled as a solicitor.

Professional pleaders, who were laymen and not ordained clerics, appear in the King's court in the 13th century and by the end of that century the judges were being appointed from amongst their number. Schools of English common lawyers (as opposed to clerics schooled in canon law) quickly arose in London and were the first in England where men could study for a profession without the necessity of being ordained. In the 14th century these schools developed into four Inns of Court that flourished from the 15th century.

In the reign of Elizabeth I these Inns, the Inner and Middle Temple, Lincoln's Inn and Gray's Inn, all on the Westminster side of London, attained their zenith. Anthony Wagner says they "became in effect the third university of England, to which the nobility and gentry sent their sons to acquire knowledge of the world and of a subject then as useful as any for the management of property and the pursuit of worldly and political ambitions". In fact, as time passed, the majority of students went to Oxford or Cambridge before entering an Inn.

The number of those who qualified at the Inns of Court and were "called to the bar" grew by about 40% between the 1590s and the 1630s. By 1689 there were perhaps 3,000 barristers in England with more than twice as many attorneys. Students for the bar had to keep a certain number of terms at their Inn before being called, a public examination being introduced only in 1853.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and into the 18th century successful lawyers formed a large proportion of the "new" men who entered county society by purchasing land and building manor houses. Their fortunes came from fees and perquisites of the legal and other offices to which they were appointed and it was not until after 1660 that fortunes were made from legal expertise alone. Many, but by no means all, had gentry backgrounds.

Affiliated to the Inns of Court were seven Inns of Chancery that acted as preparatory colleges for younger students. Staple Inn and Barnard's Inn were affiliated to Gray's Inn, Clifford's and Clement's Inn to the Inner temple, New Inn to the Middle Temple, and Thavie's and Furnival's Inns to Lincoln' Inn. Many of the students of these Inns proceeded to the appropriate Inn of Court, but others, without further study, became either solicitors acting for litigants in the Court of Chancery, attorneys acting for litigants in the common law courts, or proctors acting in the church or admiralty courts where Roman law was practised.

Although the more reputable attorneys were beginning to be recognised as gentlemen in the late 15th century, they were in general of less social standing than the barristers who regarded them as inferior. From the 16th century the barristers began to exclude attorneys from the Inns of Court (a process completed in the 17th century), thereby further depressing their status. Thus it was that the remainder of the legal profession developed outside the self-governing guild-like organisation that the barristers attained through their Inns. The Inns of Chancery suffered a long decline and the last was closed in 1900.

Outside London, attorneys were found only in the main towns in each county, particularly those where the assizes and quarter sessions were held. Without traditional guilds, apprenticeship became the only means of entry into the occupation. Giving advice but not selling any product or possessing manual skills, they were perhaps the most genteel of all those who learned their occupation in this way. They paid the highest premiums, nearly always for only a five-year term. In the first half of the 18th century the average fee was £100 or 100 guineas (£105) and this was paid in about a third of cases. The highest premium paid in Wiltshire was £262 10s 0d to an attorney in Devizes but much higher fees could be obtained in London where three Sussex boys were apprenticed for 300 guineas each. They included Bysshe Shelley, the poet's grandfather, who, in 1748, paid an extra £30 for better food. In 1721 an attorney in the Exchange Office in the City of London obtained £450 with an apprentice from Putney. These apprentices were nearly always the younger sons of minor gentry, of clergy and of widows. They were often sent far from home, many to London where the largest fees might eventually be earned.

Attorneys in practice, as they grew more prosperous, might take, over a period of time, several apprentices. Parents looking for suitable masters were advised to consider only those of known integrity with sufficient business. In the provinces a strong family thread ran through many law firms, It was a widespread belief in the first half of the litigious 18th century, when the number of apprentice attorneys doubled, that attorneys were too numerous and easily became dishonest.

David Hey says that in no other professions in late 17th and early 18th century Britain did so many men make so much money, or make it so quickly, as in the law, drafting wills, drawing up deeds and settlements, arranging mortgages and loans, and acting as stewards, estate managers and rent collectors.

The 18th century saw an expansion in legal work in country towns as a result of Poor Law disputes, when parish officials had often to pay heavy fees to attorneys in settlement and bastardy cases. The historian Joan Lane says that attorneys, profiting from the misfortunes of others, "seem never to have been held in general regard". Frequently their expertise was distrusted and their fees greatly resented. Indeed, Samuel Johnson commented about an acquaintance that he, "did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney".

An Act in 1728 attempted to suppress the less reputable attorneys and the term of apprenticeship (or "articles") was fixed at five years (it is now two years). A society of practitioners was established in London that year, and by the end of the century local law societies had been founded. From 1749 affidavits that their articles had been completed had to be filed in the court in which they practised within three months of their admission to that court, and from 1785 an annual certificate of admission was required. Although the Society in London failed in 1817 it was the forerunner of the Law Society, formed in 1823 and given a charter in 1831 to regulate the profession.

The status of the attorney rose with the reforms of the 19th century when the more successful made further money from property and transport speculations; they became valuable members of town corporations and other governing bodies, and many married into land-owning families. Prior to 1871, however, no "man of the law" was allowed to stand for Parliament. In 1872 there were 13,824 attorneys and solicitors and the following year the Judicature Act merged the two into a single body, from November 1875 all attorneys being styled solicitors. The articling system continued and solicitors, to the end of the 19th century, were seldom university graduates. That is not infrequently the case today.

Records[edit | edit source]

Law Lists[edit | edit source]

Following the Act in 1728, lists of those attorneys and solicitors admitted in the two years 1729 and 1730 were printed by Parliament [not in FHL].

Law was the first profession to have a regularly published list of its practitioners, and these should be the searcher's first port of call. Browne's General Law List appeared annually, 1775-97, and has been continued as The New Law List, 1798-1840, and, from 1841, as the Law List, by other publishers. Up to 1789 the names of some lawyers who had not been formally admitted are listed, but from 1790 the List was based on the record of their annual certificates of admission (and omits those without a certificate in a particular year). The Family History Library has 1799 [FHL 942 N24b; film 897090.2]; 1802 [FHL 924 N24L; not filmed]; 1808, 1818, 1827, 1840 [all FHL 942 N24L; film 1696676.4]; 1812 [FHL fiche 6202650]; and 1843 [FHL 942 N24L; film 1696626.8].

The Lists contain separate lists of barristers and of London and country solicitors but give no indication of age or parentage. For a solicitor the List shows his name and the name of the firm and place where he practised. The date of qualification appears from 1861. The disappearance of a name may suggest death and a will, but it is not uncommon for a solicitor not to make a will. There are good runs of theList at Guildhall Library, London, from 1799 at The National Archives, Kew, and from 1812 at the Society of Genealogists.

Attorneys and Solicitors[edit | edit source]

Solicitors were legal practitioners who dealt with the more traditional requirements of the law, such as wills, title deeds for property, inheritance, divorce, and general legal advice. Solicitors were then, and are also today, much more numerous than Barristers, and were considered socially to be of a much lower class of the gentry and the law profession than Barristers.

As mentioned above, those solicitors who practised in the courts had, from 1728, to take oaths and be formally admitted and, from 1749, to file an affidavit of due execution of articles. If the articles themselves were also filed they generally show the name of the father or guardian. Most of the surviving records (at The National Archives) are described in The National Archives' Research Guide 36,Lawyers: Records of Attorneys and Solicitors (available at but for each court there are various series that may need to be checked. Most of the records prior to 1749 are for the Court of Common Pleas where the admission books start in 1724 (with supplementary entries back to 1656), but from 1749 a good series starts in the Court of King's Bench. The Palatinate Courts of Chester (from 1697) and Durham (from 1660) seem to have the earliest entries. Most courts have some indexes. The National Archives also has a microfilm of a 'roll' in four volumes with indexes of the solicitors admitted in the Court of Chancery, 1729-1858 (C216/21-25), the original of which is on loan to the Law Society.

Between 1710 and 1811 the apprenticeship of an attorney may also be traced through the volumes of Apprentices of Great Britain (indexed to 1774), also at The National Archives, though they do not give the fathers' names after 1752.

The Law Society maintains a Register of Attorneys and Solicitors listing all those admitted since 1845 (with admissions from about 1790 for most courts) and some Registers of Articles of Clerkship since 1860. This is held at the Law Society's Solicitors Regulation Authority, Ipsley Court, Berrington Close, Redditch, B98 OTD (

Barristers[edit | edit source]

There were formerly three degrees of barristers: ordinary barristers, King's or Queen's Counsel and Serjeants at Law.

A Barrister was the lawyer who was allowed to plead a case in court. Barristers could be selected on merit to become a member of one of the Inns of the Temple in London’s major courts, and could then be nominated to become a Judge. Their function was to use the codes of law that had been handed down by tradition over hundreds of years, and had become the standards of the courts. Britain even today does not have a document such as the USA bill of rights, or the Constitution, as a basis for its laws.

Serjeants at Law were the highest in status, and before 1846 had a monopoly of pleading in the Court of Common Pleas, but the last appointed was in 1868 and they were abolished in 1873. See J.H. Baker, The Order of Serjeants at Law: a chronicle of creations (Selden Society Supplementary Series, vol. 5, 1984) [FHL 942 H2bj]. Lives of a select 58 were compiled by H.W. Woolrych, Lives of Eminent Serjeants at Law of the English Bar (2 vols. 1869) [not in FHL].

King's or Queen's Counsel, first appointed in 1604, are listed by Sir John Sainty in A List of English Law Officers, King's Counsel and Holders of Patents of Precedence (Selden Sociey, 1987) [not in FHL].

As most barristers are university graduates, some details of them may be found in university and college registers. Like these registers the admission registers of the Inns of Court are uneven in the detail they provide, though most show the name, status or occupation, and place of residence of the father. The age of the student appears in the 19th century, when the university attended and the date of being called to the bar may be added.

For Gray's Inn there are Joseph Foster, The Register of Admissions to Gray's Inn 1521-1889 (1889) [FHL film 844906.1] and R.J. Fletcher, The Pension Book of Gray's Inn 1569-1800 (2 vols. 1901-10) [FHL 942.1/L1 C4gr; film 1426151.1-2]. Admissions 1521-1889 are online[1]

For Lincoln's Inn there are The Records of the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn: Admissions 1420-1799 and 1800-1893 (2 vols. 1896) [not in FHL] and W.P. Baildon, The Records of the Honourable Society of Lincoln's Inn: the Black Books (4 vols. 1897-1902) [FHL film 845175-6]. Admissions 1420-1799 are online[2]

For the Middle Temple there are H.A.C. Sturgess, Register of Admissions to the Middle Temple ... to 1944 (3 vols. 1949) [FHL 942.1/L1 C4st; film 873850-1], C.H. Hopwood, Middle Temple Records (4 vols. 1904-5) [FHL 942.1/L1 C4m; film 873848.1-2] and J.B. Williamson, The Middle Temple Bench Book (2nd edn. 1937) [FHL 942.1/L1 U2t; not filmed]. Records 1501-1603 are online[3]

For the Inner Temple, W.H. Cooke's Students Admitted to the Inner Temple 1547-1660 (1877) [not in FHL] only covers the early period, though some admissions appear in F.A. Inderwick and R.A. Roberts, Calendar of the Inner Temple Records (5 vols. 1869-1937) [FHL 942.1/L1 C4in; film 845173-4]. For details of students since 1660 one has to write to the Librarian at the Inner Temple, London EC4. Admissions Database 1547-1920 is online[4]

The genealogist Joseph Foster circulated barristers and judges and compiled a most useful biographical dictionary of those alive in 1885 that he called Men at the Bar (1885) [FHL 942 U24fj; film 845204; fiche 6028223] and that may include parents, wives and children.

Few records of the Inns of Chancery have been published, but D.S. Bland's Bibliography of the Inns of Court and Chancery (Selden Society Supplementary Series, vol. 3, 1965) [FHL 942 A3bb] describes the surviving manuscripts as well as the printed sources. The admission registers of Clement's Inn, 1656-1883, are at The National Archives, and its Pension Books, 1658-1883, were published in volume 78 of the Selden Society series (1960) [FHL 942 P3ss]. A list of admissions to Staple Inn, 1716-1884, appears in E. Williams, Staple Inn (1906) [FHL 942.1/L1 H2ws; not filmed].

Judges[edit | edit source]

Judges, being normally chosen (until the middle of the 19th century) from amongst the serjeants at law, will be found in the above-mentioned sources. They are listed in Sir John Sainty, The judges of England 1272-1990; a list of judges of the superior courts (Selden Society Supplementary Series, volume 10, 1993) [FHL 942 N2sj]. Short accounts of those in the higher courts may be found in Edward Foss, Biographical Dictionary of the Judges of England 1066-1870 (1870) [FHL 942 D3fo; fiche 6036846] and in A.W. Simpson, Biographical Dictionary of the Common Law (1984) [not in FHL]. John Campbell compiled Lives of the Chief Justices of England (3 vols. 1849-58) FHL 942 U24cj; film 845191-2]. Many judges appear in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Justices of the Peace[edit | edit source]

Justices of the Peace (or magistrates) were unpaid laymen. Until very recent times they had no formal legal training, though a stipendiary magistrate in the busier courts was salaried and legally qualified. Magistrates were appointed by the Crown and in order to qualify, by an Act of 1439, they had to have an estate within the county in which they served worth at least £20 a year. This was increased to £100 in 1731, but occupation of a house rated at £100 per annum became an alternative in 1875. These requirements were abolished in 1906 and anyone residing within seven miles of the county then qualified.

From 1745 justices were required to register their qualifications under oath and the records were filed with the Clerk of the Peace. They are now in county record offices along with those of the other oaths that they took, but rarely show more than names and addresses. From 1665 the appointment of justices features irregularly in The London Gazette and there are some lists and entry books amongst the Crown Office records at The National Archives.

Canon Lawyers[edit | edit source]

In the church courts as well as the Court of Admiralty and the Court of Delegates, the solicitors were known as advocates and the barristers as proctors.

Advocates were generally doctors of law with university degrees. At the end of the 15th century they formed an association that developed into the College of Advocates, situated in an area that had become known as Doctors' Commons near St Paul's Cathedral. In spite of the requirements of canon law, very few advocates worked in the church courts, most of them for the Archbishops of York (at York) and Canterbury (at London) and for the Bishop of London. The records of the College of Advocates are at Lambeth Palace Library and were used extensively by George Squibb in his Doctors' Commons (1977) [FHL 942 C4sq]. This includes an annotated transcript of the Subscription Book, 1511-1855. A list of the graduates admitted before 1803 was published by Charles Coote in 1804 [not in FHL].

Outside London and the courts centred at Doctors' Commons the proctors (or procurators) worked almost universally in the local archdeaconry and bishops' courts. They had usually been apprenticed to other notaries for a seven-year term and were not normally graduates. At the start of their careers, like the attorneys, they were formally admitted to practise by the various courts (though the records usually give only their names).

Bibliography[edit | edit source]

Brian G.C. Brooks and Mark D. Herber, My ancestor was a lawyer (Society of Genealogists, 2006) [FHL 942 D27bbg].
Article by John Titford, 'Old occupations: proctors' in Family Tree Magazine (UK), vol. 7, no. 3 (January 1991) pages 4-5.

[Adapted from an article by Anthony Camp on 'Records of lawyers in England and Wales' in Family Tree Magazine (UK), vol. 17, no. 5 (March 2001), pages 22-24].

Related Wiki Articles[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Joseph Foster, The Register of Admissions to Gray's Inn, 1521-1889, Together with the Register of Marriages in Gray's Inn Chapel, 1695-1754 (London: The Hansard Publishing Union, Limited, 1889). Digitized by Google Books.
  2. The Records of the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn. Vol. I. Admissions from A.D. 1420 to A.D. 1799 (Lincoln's Inn, 1896). Digitized by Google Books.
  3. Charles Henry Hopwood, Middle Temple Records (London: Butterworth and Co., 1904). Digitized by Google Books.
  4. The Inner Temple Database.