BECOMING A LAWYER IN THE OLD WEST
Thank you, Fillies, for having me today! I’m so excited to share a little about my story, Wedded to Honor, from The Convenient Bride Collection. In this novella, trouser-wearing tomboy Honor Cahill marries Eastern-bred attorney Ashton Rutherford III, in order to keep her beloved California ranch from falling into the hands of her greedy half-brother. Ash earned his law degree from Harvard, but in order to write this novella, I found myself having to research the various ways one could become a lawyer in the 1870’s.
Would it surprise you to know that during the colonial days, there were no law schools, either here in America or back in England? It wasn’t until a few years after the American Revolution that the first colleges—the College of William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania—added a “Chair in Law” to their collegiate staff. By 1784, the Litchfield Law School opened, becoming the first official law school. It wasn’t until the 1840s and beyond that Yale, Harvard, and other prestigious institutions known today opened the doors to their law schools. And if you were a woman hoping to practice law, your choices were even fewer. Women were not allowed to study law in colleges and universities until the late 1800s or early 1900s.
So how did one become a lawyer with few choices for schooling? The short answer is—you became an apprentice. Sounds simple enough, though in my estimation, the process was anything but…
The process, called “reading law,” was composed of only two steps. First, the would-be lawyer would need to find an experienced, practicing lawyer who was willing to apprentice or mentor him. Second, under the tutelage of a willing teacher, the new apprentice would begin a period of study. There was no determined length of this period of study, so I’m led to believe the term depended on the how quickly the student learned and could convince his teacher he understood the law.
There were two main texts used in this study time. The first, The Institutes of Lawes of England written by Sir Edward Coke, was a series of legal articles first published between 1628 and 1644. The other, Commentaries on the Laws of England written by Sir William Blackstone, was a 18th century publication on the common laws of England published in four volumes. Can you imagine trying to muddle through these extensive tomes on a self-study course? It would be difficult at best, and would probably require many long discussions between the experienced lawyer and the apprentice. In addition, other lesser-known texts could be used for clarification and support, and lectures by the “Chair of Law” professors at various colleges and universities were also used to bolster the apprentice’s understanding, if he were near enough to attend such events. For those living in out of the way places, they relied strictly on the two resources named above.
As the study progressed and the apprentice grew in knowledge, the mentoring lawyer would allow him to do more of the work of a full-fledged lawyer, whether that was researching laws, filing petitions, or helping to prepare for trials.
In 1878, the American Bar Association was formed. Due to the association’s pressure upon the states not to admit just anyone to the Bar, the method of apprenticeship began to wane. By the 1890s, the new standard was to attend at least a couple of years of law school before one could be admitted to the bar.
Interestingly, while the standard today is for people to attend law school, California, Maine, Vermont, Virginia, and New York allow for would-be lawyers to “read law” under a practicing attorney. In 2013, sixty people in the U.S. were admitted to the Bar Association under this process.
It’s your turn: Would you employ the services of an attorney today who had “read law” rather than attended law school? Leave me a comment, and you will be entered in the drawing for a copy of The Convenient Bride Collection.
The Convenient Bride Collection:
Join nine brides of convenience on their adventures in a variety of times and settings gone by—from a ranch in California…to the rugged mountains of Colorado…to a steamship on the Mississippi…to the dangerous excitement of the Oregon Trail…into high society of New York City. No matter the time or place, the convenient brides proceed with what must be done, taking nuptials out of necessity. . .and never dreaming that God might take their feeble attempts to secure their futures and turn them into true love stories for His glory.
Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen, when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has won five writing competitions and finaled in two other competitions. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers and lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, teenaged son, and four fur children.