Old West Lawyers

When I first starting writing historical romance, I spent hours—okay, yes, weeks—getting lost in the research. It was often a challenge for me to know when to stop gathering information and start the actual writing of the story. I still struggle with finding that balance, but now I have a place to share some of what I learned in those hours of trolling books and Internet sites. That place is here, on this blog. Hurray for Petticoats & Pistols!

While working on my next Love Inspired Historical release, THE OUTLAW’S REDEMPTION (coming July 2013), I needed to know a bit more about 1880s law and, in particular, the lawyers who practiced in the Old West.

As you can imagine, lawyers in the old West were the effective instruments of change, often assuming roles that extended to politics, as well as all facets of social, economic and even religious life. By the late 19th century, lawyers were the champions of the people, marshaling order in the citizenry’s business and private lives. Although criminal cases received all the press, civil cases outweighed criminal cases five to one. By the 1870s, even Dodge City had 37 attorneys practicing law.

By 1875, the United States court system and legal procedures in the settled parts of the country were mature and sophisticated. However, law schools were uncommon in the United States until the late 19th century. Most people entered the profession by reading the law as an apprentice under the supervision of an experienced lawyer. This usually encompassed the reading of the works such as Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England and William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. This type of training was the norm until the 1890s. In fact, a number of jurisdictions in this country still permit this practice, but exact rules vary per state.

The first institution established for the sole purpose of teaching law was the Litchfield Law School, founded in 1773. Within a few years following the American Revolution, the College of William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania established a “Chair in Law.” However, this individual professor merely gave lectures designed to supplement, rather than replace, an apprenticeship.

Harvard University, Yale University and Columbia University eventually set up their own programs. However, law school attendance remained a rare exception until the 1890s, when the burgeoning American Bar Association began insisting states limit admission to the bar to those who had completed several years of instruction at a formal institution beyond college graduation.

Even still, it wasn’t until 1906 that the Association of American Law Schools adopted a requirement of a three-year course of study. And like I said above, even today some states allow an applicant who has not attended law school the right to take the bar exam after reading law under a judge or practicing attorney for an extended period of time. According to my research, the State of New York allows applicants to “read law” but he or she must also have at least one year of law school study before taking the bar exam. Hmmm, wonder if the writers of the fabulous television show SUITS ever considered this option?

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17 thoughts on “Old West Lawyers”

  1. Hi Renee! I wonder what an attorney from the 1880s would say about our current court system? I bet he’d be shocked by the delays and how long trials last. And I used “he” because he’d sure be surprised by the number of women in the court room! Looking forward to your book!

  2. Hi, Renee. Your blog led me to wonder how many lawyer heroes I’d find in Western romance novels. Not many I’d bet.
    When I think of a great lawyer character in the Old West the only one who comes to mind is the man Jimmy Stewart played in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” But he was a great one.

  3. Renee, that’s really interesting information. Personally, I would like to see apprenticeships return to this country, not just in legal matters, but in other fields as well. I think this business of everyone going to college and graduating in debt is ridiculous. It’s interesting that lawyers were the champions of the people during the 1800s,

    Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said “Kill the Lawyers?”

  4. Good morning, everyone! Vicki, you are so right! I bet “he” would be shocked. I suspect the same for a male doctor from that time period walking into an ER. They’d have to revive the poor “fellows” STAT. 😉 Couldn’t resist.

  5. Mary, a shady lawyer? No, how will you ever pull that off. 😉

    Elizabeth, I’m thinking Jimmy Stewart could play any western character well. Could, and did! I’m not sure about you, but I don’t think of a lawyer as a Western hero. Mine grew up on a ranch, so he still counts as a cowboy!

    Margaret, I agree completely! We educate our professionals, then throw them in the deep end. Doesn’t make a lot of sense when you sit down and think about it.

  6. Hmm, my son the law school student worked for a law firm that represented the train company before he started school. Now that is full of possibilities.

    I am just glad you didn’t tell me that lawyers were also the dentists in town ;-).

    Peace, Julie

  7. I have always wondered ……… why they say lawyers “practice” law or for that matter doctors and dentists also. Do I really want help from someone who is practicing on me?

    Loved all the information.

  8. When I was working in the county courthouse in the lat 1970’s, one of the lawyers had ‘read’ the law under another then-deceased attorney who was a grandfather of my best friend..
    A lot of professionals would be well-served by taking some business classes.. as would a lot of other people who have been bilked by con-artists, managers, etc.

  9. Oh, but, Mary…that’s my kind of hero. LOL And, yes, that is how Abe became a lawyer.

    ConnieJ, yikes, you’re right. Practicing law (or medicine) is kind of…spooky. Another odd phrase to me is when the police “like” a person as the suspect. Why would they like him or her?

    Cate, I agree, we could all benefit from a few good business classes.

  10. Hi Renee, I too question why anybody would hire somebody who just “practices” something LOL. Hard to believe anybody could pull off a lawyer hero LOL. Jimmy Srewart played Ransom Stoddard in Liberty Valance. It’s one of hubby’s fave movies and we always catch at least a few minutes of it whenever it plays on TV. Excellent post!

  11. Great post Renee, very interesting. I will have to say I love Suits and I can’t wait for it to come back on in January.

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