August 30th marks the 50th anniversary of the appointment of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to be appointed to the US Supreme Court. Thurgood Marshall stayed on the bench for 24 years before retiring for health reasons. An admirer of the Constitution as a youth, he applied to attend the University of Maryland School of Law but was denied based on their segregation policy. He instead went to Howard University Law School and graduated magna cum laude. He spent his legal career as a leading advocate of individual rights, culminating with his victory as litigator in the Brown vs. Board of Education case. He in fact won 29 of the 32 cases he had brought before the Supreme Court during his career. He was also later victorious in his suit against the University of Maryland for their unfair admissions policy.
As I read the Thurgood Marshall article, a little bit of Vermont’s history stared back at me from its Ziploc baggie on my desk. For those of you not following our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram posts, you may not know that some very kind folks at Dartmouth College mailed to us what appears to be an original pamphlet from 1806 entitled “General Regulations for the Gentlemen of the Bar in the State of Vermont.” While we at the VBA all found some humor in the fact that it was meant for only the “gentlemen” of the bar, we considered ourselves fortunate that we have not known a time when women were not allowed admission at all.
After researching the handling of archives, I went with the washed hands, rather than the white cotton gloves, approach. Triple washed, and not as clumsy as white gloves, my hands trembled as I struggled to remember not to lick my finger to help separate the pages. Rather than handle it for a lengthy period of time, it was scanned and immediately returned to the baggie and safe.
So what ARE the general regulations? The anticipation was admittedly greater than the reveal. Curiously, the pamphlet included a reference only to Dartmouth College as the place to study to have “suitable proficiency in the knowledge of the law.” The main mechanism for being admitted to the bar was rather, after receiving a degree in the arts, studying for three years in the office of a “respectable” member of the bar. The candidate, after studying three years with the admitted attorney, or five years without an arts degree, would be admitted after recommendation and favorable votes by two-thirds of the “county society” of admitted attorneys present.
The best line regarding the clerkship is this: “No member of the bar shall receive as a reward for the tuition of a student at law in his office any sum less than two hundred and fifty dollars for the time required by these regulations for admission to practice, and in that proportion for a shorter time.” So the clerkship was not always 100% volunteer work: the ‘respectable’ member of the bar must receive at least $250 for three to five years of supervision of a student! What a deal! The greater benefit to the ‘respectable’ admitted attorney of course was that no student was allowed to profit from the office or receive benefits from the profession of the law, nor be allowed to pursue any other employment.
The pamphlet goes on to state that no sponsoring attorney could have more than two students in his office at any one time and each student had to be approved by the county society. With the student having to come up with funds to pay the ‘respectable’ attorney for the 3 years or apprenticeship and also being forbidden from receiving any compensation, it is presumed that the practicing attorneys in Vermont in the early 1800’s were undoubtedly from the upper crust of society. The barriers to admission were robust.
Certainly, the debate rages on today regarding the socio-economic barriers to admission to the practice of law. Law school tuitions are being touted as excessive and, particularly in Vermont, not on par with the potential future remuneration in many practice areas. Still, the involuntary servitude of law clerks memorialized in this pamphlet is no longer mandatory. And law schools, like VLS, are looking at accelerated and joint degree programs.
Today, with the continued hard-look at removing arbitrary barriers to admission and the focus on universal test scores, those gifted in logic and critical thinking can and will find a path toward helping others in one of the most rewarding time-honored intellectually fulfilling professions. As a bonus, in Vermont, there are countless ‘respectable’ attorneys in our collegial bar willing to lend a hand or mentor new attorneys for even less than the $83.33/year! If you are new and have a question, post to the VBA Connect online communities or give one of your colleagues a call. Mentorship is alive in Vermont, just without the formalities.
If you would like a scanned copy of the 1806 “General Regulations” pamphlet drop me a line at jeb at vtbar dot org.