Legal History

A few ‘begats’ and ‘thou shalts’: An abbreviated history of lawyers

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Marcel Strigberger

Marcel Strigberger.

Where are the lawyers? As a retired one, I recently wondered about this, querying where in history we see lawyers mentioned and in what light? Actually, after thinking about it, I see little or no sign of lawyers for millennia.

I figured the best place to start my quest was in the beginning. The good Lord forbids Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge. We now have a law. The pair violates this first ordinance, and they get booted out of the Garden of Eden. Would the situation have been different if they’d had a lawyer to plead their case? I guess since Adam blamed Eve for hounding him to eat the forbidden fruit, they would have needed two lawyers, given the conflict of interest. Make that three lawyers—let’s not forget the case for that talking serpent.

Moving on to Cain and Abel and history’s first homicide: When confronted by God as to where Abel was, Cain blurts out, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This would have been an opportune time to have a lawyer around to argue that Cain had a right to remain silent. But alas, no lawyer. I suppose there was no need yet for our services.

My mind then jumped ahead a few begats. I thought about Noah. Even if there were lawyers around already, Noah certainly did not invite them aboard the ark. Maybe he had his own reasons. He may have retained a lawyer to advise him on, say, environmental issues. Could there have been a dispute about the bill? It does not take much for clients to turn on their lawyers. Who knows why he may have thrown his lawyer under the bus—or rather, under the ark. I suppose if there had been one aboard the vessel, this would have likely represented history’s first in-house counsel.

Many centuries later, Moses comes down the mountain carrying those two stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. Given that Moses was likely at least in his 80s, chances are he would have injured himself lugging those heavy tablets. I’m much younger and have problems dragging out the trash bag. Perhaps he did hurt his back, but there was no lawyer around to advise him of his workers’ compensation rights. The book of Exodus is silent on this issue.

There is a hint of the concept of lawyers once we get to ancient Greece, where we see orators doing the talking for other people. A most prominent one was Demosthenes. He must have been a great speaker; according to legend, he practiced talking with pebbles in his mouth. (Caution, colleagues: Do not try this one at home). But orators were not lawyers per se. I have seen no evidence of archeologists coming cross a shingle reading something like, “Demosthenes—If I don’t win, you don’t pay.”

We start seeing some resemblance to the legal profession in ancient Rome. For ages, however, these advocates were prohibited from charging a fee. Emperor Claudius fixed this problem eventually somewhat, but fees had a low ceiling. I would guess this status of remuneration led to the coining of the term “pro bono.” Who knows? It certainly wasn’t bono for the lawyers.

For the next millennium-plus, we don’t hear much about lawyers. I Googled something like, “Dark Ages, any lawyers?” I found nothing even remotely resembling anything like, “Goth, Visigoth and Leif the Lucky, counselors at law.”

Interestingly, Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales mentions a number of characters with callings who came along on the pilgrimage. There was a gentleman referred to as the Man of Law, but I wonder whether the other pilgrims took kindly to him. Maybe they had something to fear or dislike about lawyers. The Physician may have asserted, “Leave him out, lest he sue me for malpractice.” Or the Wife of Bath may have commented, “My lawyer cleaned me out during my divorce case. I really took a bath.” Or the Monk simply said, “No lawyers. They talk too much.”

If it’s any consolation to us, this eclectic group also did not include a dentist. I don’t know why.

The next reference to lawyers I could think of did not make me too comfortable. I speak of Shakespeare’s not overly complimentary reference, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Provocative comments such as these might certainly discourage some prospects considering a career in law from taking the LSATs.

At least, failing to mention lawyers is not as bad as threatening them. Better silence. Like that Monk.

Charles Dickens is kinder with his Sydney Carton lawyer character in a Tale of Two Cities. This English barrister gentleman switches places with a French doppelganger, choosing to take his place with Madame Guillotine. In my opinion, the creation of this character was a far, far better thing that happened to lawyers’ reputations than anything most authors have done.

As for my personal history, I thought about when I first heard of lawyers. I would say I was first introduced to them when I was a grade schooler watching Perry Mason. Episode after episode, Mason would get clients charged with murder off the hook, to the dismay of prosecutor Hamilton Burger. This resonated with me big time.

In grade school I was the class comedian, and for my efforts my teacher, Mr. Webster, used to inflict cruel and unusual punishments on me. He would make me write out 20 times, “I shall not joke in class.” Sometimes he gave me a detention. Watching Perry Mason made me realize there is a profession out there the individual represents the innocents and secures justice. I thought to myself, I’ll show Mr. Webster—and other Mr. Websters, including prosecutor Hamilton Burger. That’s it: I’m becoming a lawyer.

From the looks of it, our profession, historically speaking, certainly has time gaps. I have no clue how the world functioned without lawyers for millennia. No doubt, there may be other references to lawyers here and there, but I am simply saying it as I see it.

I do know I am proud of our noble profession. I don’t really care what the Physician, Wife of Bath or that Monk thought about us.

Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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