From the Middle Ages the legal profession was divided into three main branches:

  • serjeants-at-law
  • barristers-at-law
  • attorneys and (from the 16th century)solicitors

    Originally known as narrators, serjeants-at-law acted as advocates in the Court of Common Pleas and became a select group from which judges were chosen. During the 15th century, some of them organised themselves into two societies, which acquired property in the City of London. They became known as Serjeants' Inn, Fleet Street, and Serjeants' Inn, Chancery Lane.

    By the end of the 14th century, the appointment of a barrister as a serjeant had become accompanied by a formal 'creation' ceremony. The senior barrister left his Inn of Court and gave a sumptuous feast and distributed gold rings with personal mottos. He was then invested with serjeants' robes and the distinctive headgear known as the coif. Appointed at first by the Justices of Common Pleas, the position of serjeant was later endowed by royal writ. The serjeants, who enjoyed a monopoly of audience in the Court of Common Pleas, also had rights of audience in the other royal courts, although there they had compete for business with the barristers-at-law.

    The superior status of serjeant-at-law was undermined by the creation of the position of King's Counsel, and with the loss of their monopoly to plead in the Court of Common Pleas in 1846. In 1875, the Judicature Act removed the exclusive appointment of judges from the ranks of serjeants-at-law. In 1877 last of the Serjeants' Inn, in Chancery Lane, was sold.

    The term 'barrister' is first recorded in the 15th century, when a new degree of lawyer arose. The barrister learnt his profession by observing the royal courts in session and by studying at one of the Inns of Court (see glossary). In the Middle Ages, it was common to attend one of the lesser Inns, or Inns of Chancery (see glossary), to gain grounding in the common law, prior to attending an Inn of Court. This practice had largely ceased by the 18th century.

    Qualification as a barrister
    Throughout the year, students took part in vocational exercises known as moots, at which the hall was laid out to resemble a law court. At first the students watched the proceedings from within the 'bar' of the 'court', and were known as 'inner barristers' (a term which fell out of use). When qualified to argue points of law, they moved outside the 'bar' and became outer (or utter) barristers. In due course they might be selected to deliver a lecture (or reading) one of the legal statues at their Inn of Court or associated Inn of Chancery (see glossary). They were subsequently entitled to sit on the bench at moots and became known as Masters of the Bench (or Benchers). From the 16th century, the status of ' outer' barrister conferred by the Inns of Court, became publicly recognised in the central law courts. It was, and continues to be, the Inns of Court that called qualified students to bar, the first stage of entitling them to practice as barristers, and disbarred them for misconduct or at their own request (see glossary). To qualify for call to the bar, students were required to keep a fixed number of terms and, after 1872, to pass a bar examination.

    King (or Queen)'s Counsel
    In the medieval period the King retained his own attorneys in each of the royal law courts. In the 15th century, two legal officers, the King's Attorney-General and Solicitor-General, were chosen by the King. The Crown also appointed certain serjeants to act on its behalf. These were known collectively as King (or Queen)'s Counsel in Ordinary. The first King's Counsel 'Extraordinary' was Francis Bacon, who had been chosen by Elizabeth I as her 'learned counsel extraordinary' in 1597, but without patent or fee. In 1603, James I confirmed him in office as King's Counsel by Letters Patent with 'place, precedence and pre-audience'. Other King's Counsel were subsequently appointed by James I and Charles I. The precedence enjoyed by King's Counsel made the office more desirable and lucrative than the position of serjeant-at-law, which ultimately led to the demise of the order of serjeants.

    Attorneys and solicitors
    Since the legal profession came into existence, there has been a division of function between those who pleaded and argued cases in court (serjeants and barristers) and those who prepared cases and managed them through court on behalf of clients and became known as attorneys. Attorneys had to have their names enrolled on the official list of the courts in which they wished to act. To qualify for enrolment, they were supposed to have served an apprenticeship with an authorized practitioner, but this was not always the case in practice. Moreover such apprenticeships were informal and were not officially recorded. Attorneys could join one of the Inns of Chancery, which provided rudimentary education in the writ system employed in the royal courts, but membership of one of these Inns never became compulsory and did not offer licence to practice. In the 16th century a new class of lawyer emerged, the solicitor, whose role augmented that of the attorney.

    By the 17th century, the solicitors' profession had become clearly separated from that of barristers. It became similar to the profession of attorney, preparing cases and acting directly on behalf of clients. In 1729 both became subject to tighter regulation and practitioners were expected to a new professional association entitled 'the Society of Gentlemen Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity', with a regulatory role subsequently assumed by the Law Society (incorporated in 1826). The attorney's office was formally abolished in 1875.

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