Where Did The Term “Bar” In Bar Association Originate?

Dick BeresfordA bar association, such as the Washington State Bar Association (“WSBA”), or the American Bar Association (“ABA”) is a professional body of lawyers. But where did the term “Bar” come from?  Here are a couple of theories on the subject.

Most authorities contend it refers to a traditional courtroom which includes a railing or bar separating the area for general spectators from the area reserved for judges, attorneys, juries, civil litigants, criminal defendants and court officials.  Referring back to the development of our American judicial system which followed many of the English traditions, some have argued the term “Bar” is a reference to a sand bar located at the entrance of the Thames River on the English Channel coming into London. The argument is that once one passes over that sand bar, he or she is then subject to English jurisdiction. As the term has developed, a law student passing the bar then crosses the symbolic physical barrier and is “admitted to the bar” and is “authorized to practice law.”

In Washington, as in many other states, lawyers having passed the bar are granted permission by the Washington State Supreme Court to practice law in this state and are admitted to Washington State Bar Association.  There are many other voluntary bar associations, such as the American Bar Association, the Federal Bar Association, and the Bankruptcy Bar Association.

As one of our founding partners, Wayne C. Booth, once said: “Interesting if true, and interesting even if it isn’t true.”

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