Many facets of the legal system are rooted in tradition. Judicial robes and even where the prosecution and defense sit follow conventions that courtrooms have adhered to for centuries. Likewise, the name of the bar exam, the final step a law student needs to pass before becoming an attorney, is also rooted in traditions dating back several hundred years.
The term “bar exam” comes from 14th Century England. During this time period, legal disputes were held in what was known as the Inns of Court. In this setting, a physical bar separated the judge, attorneys, and those accused of committing crimes from the rest of the hall. An attorney, who was known as a barrister, could pass the bar and advocate the judge on a client’s behalf. The term bar has since become synonymous with the legal profession, both in reference to the physical space occupied by the judge and the symbolic nature of legal work that often requires attorneys to act on a client’s behalf away from the courtroom. As such, in the United States and most of Europe, in order for a law student to complete their studies and act as a professional attorney, they must pass the bar exam.
Although the American legal system uses the term “bar,” legal representatives in the United States are not referred to as barristers. The reason behind this lies further in the British legal system. In the British system, there are two types of representatives: solicitors and barristers. While a solicitor can stand in place of a client, only a barrister can advocate on a client’s behalf before a judge. The American legal system combines the solicitor and barrister roles into one person, who is usually referred to as an attorney. The word attorney itself is a derivative of the Old French word “atorne,” which translates to “one who is appointed.”
With so many terms being derived from the British legal system, many wonder why American courts do not follow the British style of wearing powdered wigs. In the British system, jurists wear this type of clothing to highlight the supremacy of the law over their own personal feelings. American attorneys and judges began eschewing powdered wigs soon after the Revolutionary War in an effort to distance themselves more formally from the old system. John Marshall, the chief justice of the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835, cemented the split by no longer wearing a wig and dressing in a plain black robe.