With the exception of a couple of US states, all fledgling attorneys must pass the bar exam before practicing law independently. This expression may conjure up images of lawyers in a tavern arguing and presiding before an impromptu court or perhaps toasting their trial victories down at the local pub. Though humorous, these are not where the bar exam came from. Neither does it refer to “raising the bar,” with which any committed high jumper or pole-vaulter can certainly sympathize, nor is bar some aristocratic and stuffy acronym for “British Accreditation Registry,” as some have suggested. The etymology (the story or history behind a word or expression) of passing the bar is actually quite old and is based on the English legal system. Moreover, variations of the expression, including barrister and disbarment share the same history grounded in English law.
When searching for the etymology of a word or expression, one of the best investigative sources is the Online Etymology Dictionary (OE). Assembled from a compendium of sources, including the sage and venerable Oxford English Dictionary, the OE is a directory spanning hundreds of years, a kind of catalog of all English language expressions. Basically, it records the first appearance of a word or phrase as it initially appeared in written form along with some interpretation of the context for that expression. Think of it as the Google of English language, literature, and history.
By the early 14th century, the concept of the bar referred to a physical railing that separated benchers from the hall of the Inns of Court; the area past the bar held the judge, the barristers (attorneys), and the prisoners or those accused or liable. Passing the bar referred to the ability to enter that space, and the term barrister (which is what attorneys in England are called) loosely meant “a student of law who has been called to the bar” to advocate on behalf of another.
Apparently, early courtrooms were often raucous places, and the separation between public viewing and official legal affairs required more than just a physical barrier; in fact, the courtroom was typically overseen not only by the judge but also by a bailiff – an underling of the sheriff – or a similar authority figure (but these are etymologies for another day). Witness the loud outbursts, “Here-here-ing,” and hullabaloo of English parliament today, and you’ll get an earful of the of the early court’s likely atmosphere. Wonder why judges use a gavel? Imagine routinely trying to restore order in a rowdy courtroom and you’ll get the idea.
As a metonym (a word, name, or expression used as a substitute for something else with which it is closely associated), the bar now also refers more broadly to the association of licensed attorneys of law; for example, in the US, the American Bar Association (ABA), with nearly 400,000 members, still remains “one of the largest voluntary professional membership organizations in the world.” Similarly, the bench, at which the judge sat and presided, came to represent the larger judiciary or law establishment in general.
So why aren’t attorneys in the US called barristers? Though attorney is actually a French term meaning “one who is appointed,” in the English system it referred to one who was a “qualified legal agent in the courts of Common Law.” An attorney is actually the English equivalent of a solicitor: someone who can stand in place of the client or in the client’s shoes, so to speak. But a barrister, however, would typically only advocate and represent a client at the bar or during the actual trial. In the US, the distinction was dropped, and attorneys often perform both roles, depending on their specialties.
After attainment of licensure, the specter of disbarment hovers above attorneys. Literally, it means to “deprive of the privileges of a barrister,” or to physically bar the advocate from the area where legal proceedings occur. We can only wonder about the depths of objections, contempt, and unprofessional behavior that might have disbarred those early barristers in the rowdy 14th century, but it must have been at least as colorful as some of the more sensational trials of past decades.
Of course, passing the bar exam doesn’t create an excellent attorney any more than passing a driver’s test creates an excellent driver. It’s both the knowledge and the experience that truly sets an attorney above those who’ve simply passed the bar. You can learn more about the qualifications of our team and read up on some of our recent successes on our website.
American Bar Association. (2015). About us. Retrieved from http://www.americanbar.org/aba.html
Harper, D. (2015). Attorney. In Online etymological dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=barrister&searchmode=none
Harper, D. (2015). Bar. In Online etymological dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=barrister&searchmode=none
Harper, D. (2015). Barrister. In Online etymological dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=barrister&searchmode=none
Harper, D. (2015). Disbar. In Online etymological dictionary. Retrieved from http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=barrister&searchmode=none
Morris, E. (1998). Come bear with me. In The word detective. Retrieved from http://www.word-detective.com/093098.html
Related ArticlesView All Blog Articles
What Should You Do After a FedEx Truck Crash in Texas?Dec 09, 2022
With more than 100,000 vehicles, nearly 125,000 drivers, and an annual revenue estimated at around $84 billion, FedEx is easily one of the largest trucking companies in the United States. With numbers like these, it’s no surprise that FedEx freight trucks are involved in injury-causing truck crashes nearly every day on American roads. In fact, […]
Out-of-State Car Accident Jurisdiction: A Visitor’s Guide to Texas Injury LawNov 03, 2022
Texas isn’t just the second most populous state in the U.S. It’s also one of our nation’s biggest destinations for out-of-state travelers. According to Travel Texas, the state hosts more than 70 million visitors per year. While we certainly wish that everyone who visits our state enjoys a stress-free trip, the reality is that more […]
What Happens if You Get in an Accident With a Delivery Truck Driver?Nov 01, 2022
If your neighborhood is anything like ours, chances are you see a steady stream of delivery trucks, vans, and other vehicles pass by your house or apartment on a daily basis. The trend really took off at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it certainly shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Nowadays, […]
How to Prepare for a Deposition in a Texas Personal Injury CaseOct 24, 2022
If you’ve suffered a personal injury that wasn’t your fault and you need to file a civil lawsuit to get the compensation you deserve, sooner or later you will likely have to provide your personal testimony in a deposition. Although depositions are not given before a judge, the things that you say will be considered […]
Can You Get a Concussion Without Hitting Your Head?Sep 21, 2022
Concussions, also known as mild traumatic brain injuries, are far more common than most people realize. Most estimates figure at least 3 million new cases occur in the United States each year, with falls, sports accidents, and car crashes commonly responsible. But because so many people with mild traumatic brain injury delay or skip medical […]
U-Turn Laws in Texas: Who’s at Fault After a Crash?Aug 24, 2022
There’s a lot of confusion about Texas’ U-turn laws. While U-turns are generally legal in Texas and a convenient way to quickly change direction, they’re also known for leading to numerous car accidents. If you’ve been involved in a U-turn accident, it might not be immediately clear who is at fault. First, although the driver […]
11 Things You Need to Know About a Bicycle Accident Insurance Claim in San AntonioJul 23, 2022
Cycling is a great way to get some fresh air, exercise, and save on gas money. So it’s no surprise that bike commuting is increasing in popularity. But even with dedicated bike lanes and increased awareness of cyclists, motor vehicle accidents are still a serious concern. While San Antonio has made great strides in becoming […]
5 Reasons You Should Always Talk to a Commercial Vehicle Accident Lawyer After a CrashJul 21, 2022
After a traffic accident, you have a lot to think about and plenty of decisions to make. One of them is whether you’ll work with a commercial vehicle accident lawyer to demand compensation for your losses. You should always talk to an attorney if you’ve been hurt in a car or truck accident. No matter […]
What Causes Texas Oil Truck Accidents (and What to Do If You’re Injured)Jul 13, 2022
In Texas, the oil and gas industry is big business. More than 400,000 Texans are directly employed within the industry, helping to produce, transport, and refine more than 1.5 billion barrels of crude oil per year. The sheer amount of oil tankers we have on the ground virtually guarantees that at least a few serious […]
Considering a New Braunfels Car Accident Lawyer? Here’s What You Need to KnowJul 07, 2022
New Braunfels, TX has come a long way in just a few decades. Comal County remains one of the fastest growing in the country, and new developments continue to be built throughout the region. One negative consequence of all this growth? An increase in car accidents. There were 2,715 recorded crashes in the county in […]
Do you or a family member
need legal advice?
Crosley Law Firm, PC is a professional corporation of trial lawyers focused on representing individuals and families who have suffered serious personal injuries or wrongful death. If you’ve been injured, fill out the form for a free consultation, or call 210-LAW-3000.