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Defining Events

Many important events in the history of the legal industry have made it what it is today. The introduction of formal legal education, standardized testing for admission to law school, the founding of the American Bar Association (ABA), and the implementation of ethical standards (especially the adoption of the Canons of Professional Ethics, the first national standards of ethics for lawyers, by the ABA in 1908) improved the professionalism of lawyers and increased public trust in the industry. The industry continues to evolve as a result of changes in technology and other developments.

Formal Legal Education Begins in the United States

The first law school in the United States was established at William & Mary College in Virginia in 1779. Until then, aspiring lawyers either trained via apprenticeships with experienced attorneys or attended law school abroad. The apprenticeship system was derided as uneven, and it was often considered poor preparation for a legal career. The establishment of the William & Mary law school marked the beginning of a trend toward formal educational preparation for lawyers. Dozens of law schools were founded during the next century, and by the 1890s, most areas required aspiring lawyers to have earned a law degree. The William & Mary law school was groundbreaking not only because it was the first in the United States but also because it established a goal of training “citizen lawyers,” those who are inspired to serve the public good as judges, as politicians, and in private practice. This ethic remains a strong aspect of the practice of law, and it is manifested in the industry’s dedication to providing pro bono services to those who cannot afford legal representation, as well as in the large number of lawyers who serve as human-rights activists and appointed and elected officials.

Women Legal Pioneers

Female lawyers are a common sight today, but it might come as a shock to learn that women were not allowed to practice law until the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1869, Arabella Mansfield became the first woman lawyer in the United States when she passed the bar examination in Henry County, Iowa. She did not attend law school, instead honing her skills in her brother’s law office. Ironically, Mansfield spent most of her life as a teacher, not a lawyer. (Also in 1869, Myra Colby Bradwell passed the Illinois bar exam, but the Illinois Supreme Court refused to admit her to the bar.) In 1870, Ada Kepley became the first woman to earn a formal law degree in the United States. She graduated with an LL.B. from Union College of Law (which is known as Northwestern University today).

Other milestones for female legal pioneers include:

  • 1872: Charlotte E. Ray became the first African-American female lawyer to be admitted to the bar.
  • 1934: Florence E. Allen became the first female judge appointed to a federal circuit seat.
  • 1981: Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female justice to be named to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • 1993: Janet Reno became the first female to be named U.S. attorney general.
  • 2009: Sonia Maria Sotomayor became the first female Latina justice to be named to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mansfield, Kepley, O’Connor, Reno, and Sotomayor are just a few of the legal pioneers who served as an inspiration for other women lawyers, but it remained extremely difficult for a woman to become a lawyer for nearly a century after Kepley earned her degree. Most law schools admitted only men, and women who did persevere and passed the bar often faced skepticism about their abilities, were subjected to sexual harassment, or simply were not hired by law firms.

It wasn’t until the 1960s and 1970s that law schools opened their doors to female students. Today, women have made great advances in the legal profession. In 2016, nearly 49 percent of law school students were women, according to the American Bar Association (ABA), an increase of nearly 40 percent since 1972. In 2019, approximately 36 percent of lawyers were women, according to the ABA. This was an increase of 5 percent from 2009. The number of female lawyers continues to grow, although women are still vastly underrepresented at the partner level. Organizations such as the National Association of Women Lawyers, Legal Momentum, National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations, American Bar Association, and state and local bar associations continue to advocate to improve opportunities for women in the legal profession—especially at the partner level.

Founding of the American Bar Association

The American Bar Association (ABA) was founded in 1878 by 75 prominent lawyers from 20 states and the District of Columbia. Today, its membership is more than 350,000, and the association has played a key role in the development of the legal profession in the United States. Until its founding, legal education and practice were largely unregulated. The quality of law schools, as well as the professionalism of attorneys, varied greatly. The ABA’s two biggest roles within the American legal profession are approving law schools and establishing ethics standards. It also offers a wealth of career information and guidance to members, sponsors educational seminars and conferences, publishes books and periodicals, rates lawyers who are nominated for judgeships (e.g., the ABA will announce that it believes a given nominee is qualified, well qualified, or not qualified to be a federal judge), and publishes statements on the legality of certain actions, such as the president’s interpretation of Constitutional rules.

Technology Changes the Face of the Legal Industry

Throughout the last several decades, technological developments such as the computer, the Internet, mobile devices, social media, artificial intelligence (including machine learning), and cloud computing have changed the way lawyers do their jobs. The international law firm Minter Ellison, for example, has introduced a Web-based video collaboration tool that enables teamwork among associates in the firm’s offices in Australia, China, Hong Kong, New Zealand, United Kingdom, and other locations. Litigation lawyers are using iPads and projectors to present evidence to juries. Most large law firms now back up files and important systems at remote locations so their employees can remain working even if disaster strikes. Greenberg Traurig, an international law firm with approximately 2,000 lawyers, had just such a system in place a few years ago when a hurricane hit its Miami office. “We were up and virtually running in about half an hour, with our lawyers working from their homes or other locations,” explained Cesar Alvarez, the firm’s senior chairman in an interview with Robert Half Legal.

Technology has changed the field in many other ways. Electronic document filing allows attorneys to avoid having to travel to courthouses to file motions or other documents. Lawyers can now use electronic discovery to access electronically stored information (in e-mails, text messages, etc.) for use in litigation. E-mail has become an essential method of communication between lawyers and their clients. Lawyers still advertise their services in the phone book and through word of mouth, but they also use social media to promote their businesses, to network, and to raise their industry profiles, as well as to gather evidence to be used in litigation. An increasing number of lawyers, paralegals, and other legal professionals are working remotely (often from home) as a result of mobile devices, cloud computing, video conferencing software and hardware, and other technology. In a matter of just a few decades, technology has changed the way the legal industry does business, and these changes will continue at a fast pace in the future.