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John Hustaix: The History of the Legal Profession

John Hustaix: The History of the Legal Profession

John Hustaix is a lawyer who advises and negotiates on behalf of clients in their contractual matters. This article will look at the legal profession throughout history.

The origins of the legal profession lie in ancient Rome and Greece. In ancient Greece, Athenian ‘orators’ would plead the case of a ‘friend’, as back then it was customary for individuals to either plead their case themselves or have a friend plead it on their behalf. These ancient lawyers couldn’t charge for their services, although this law was often violated.

It was Emperor Claudius who legalised the legal profession in ancient Rome, finally allowing lawyers, then known as ‘advocates’, to charge a limited fee for their services. However, these fees were very meagre, making it a challenging means of earning a living.

As the legal profession continued to evolve in ancient Rome, it was increasingly tightly regulated by authorities. Rules were created stipulating not only what a lawyer could charge but also where they were permitted to plead cases and how they could be registered with a court or bar. Prior to this point in history, any Roman citizen could call themselves a lawyer. However, once the profession began to be regulated, high standards were established defining particular criteria that citizens had to meet to work in the profession, effectively making the role accessible only to the higher echelons of society.

Rome developed a class of specialists known as ‘jurisconsults’, who were essentially wealthy amateurs who dabbled in law as an intellectual hobby, providing legal advice to advocates and ordinary people. In reality, the notaries of ancient Rome had no legal document management skills or formal legal training and were barely literate. Nevertheless, they could draft conveyances, contracts and wills cheaply. They were notorious for using convoluted legal jargon to transcribe simple transactions as a means of making more money as they were paid so modestly.

During the Middle Ages, the fall of the Roman Empire pre-empted the collapse of the legal profession in Western Europe. In its place came a small number of experts practicing canon law to further other occupational goals, such as serving as a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. However, between 1190 and 1230 a critical shift took place, paving the way for increasing numbers of men to practice canon law and establishing law as a lifelong profession. The revival of the legal profession was marked by renewed efforts by both the church and state for tighter regulation.

Today, many lawyers begin their career with an LB or LLB undergraduate degree. According to World Population Review, Israel has the most lawyers per capita by country (2024), followed by the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Italy, Greece, Portugal, New Zealand, Cyprus, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Claire James