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A Brief History of Attorneys

A Brief History of Attorneys

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Formal systems of laws have existed since Hammurabi erected his code in the courtyards of temples during his reign as ruler of the Babylonian empire early in the 18th century B.C.E., and since then there has been a need for individuals to study and interpret those laws. However the history of attorneys, those who are professionals dedicated exclusively to the study, interpretation and application of the law is much more recent.

The sophists of ancient Athens were probably the first who existed as a class of people who were considered as something akin to lawyers. However, there were some societal situations that inhibited the development of a legal profession. One was an Athenian law requiring citizens to plead their own cases. This eroded over time as more and more requested friends to act as an advocate for them. More importantly, though, was the law the disallowed anyone from exacting a fee to plead for someone else, thereby preventing anyone from presenting themselves as a legal expert.

The first real development in the history of attorneys occurs in the ancient Roman Empire. During the reign of the Emperor Claudius in the first century C.E., the ban on fees is abolished and legal advocates are allowed professional status. During this time, a class of legal professionals quickly evolves and by the late fourth century a true legal profession has taken shape, dedicated to the study and practice of law, with regulations and standards in place for guidance.

During the Middle Ages, paralleling the collapse of the Roman Empire in the west, the legal profession essentially disappears. Within the Church, a body of men pursued the study of Canon Law, but practice in civil law was rare, if it existed at all. By the mid-thirteenth century, the legal profession begins to reemerge. In England, the Magna Carta effectively shifts power and authority away from the monarchy and into the hands of a larger number of people. By the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, as a greater number of political states begin to evolve away from control of the Church, a more thoroughly structured concept of the legal profession begins to appear and oaths and ethical expectations, educational requirements, and fee controls were implemented, although there was no universal standard.

By the end of the American and French revolutions, a greater need for a legal profession manifests itself as the power of monarchies is being broken. With this wearing away of absolute power in the hands of a single individual, and varieties of democratic states appearing, the legal profession grows. With the concept of all citizens equal before the law being a cornerstone of democratic philosophy, a greater need for attorneys is evinced. A brief history of attorneys reveals a movement from a loose concept an advocate who offers assistance to an individual appearing before the council of the Greek city-state to a system of legal organizations, areas of specialization, licensing, government regulation, and uniformity of procedures that shapes and forms the modern legal system and the values of its practitioners.

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