The attorney, often styled the common attorney, was a familiar figure in the English common law courts – i.e. Court of Common Pleas, Court of Kings Bench and Court of Exchequer – as early as the thirteenth century. At that time he functioned as a person legally authorised to act for another and manage his case in a law suit. He differed from the barrister (or counsel) in that it was not his duty to plead on behalf of the client, though he might do some or all of the preparatory work prior to that point. By the fifteenth century another group below the barristers had also come into being: the solicitors. This new breed were not officials of the common law courts and confined their business to Chancery, Star Chamber and Court of Requests. The two classes of men, attorneys and solicitors, continued to be distinct (in theory at least) until the eighteenth century. In 1729, however, sworn attorneys were allowed to practise as solicitors and in 1750 sworn solicitors were granted the reciprocal advantage of practising as attorneys. Following the Judicature Acts of 1873 all distinctions between the two classes were swept away and all were styled solicitors. Interestingly in the USA, firstly a British colony and then a separate nation, the word attorney in its original meaning persist to this day: Americans hire their attorney, sometimes, no doubt, alongside their shrink.
Those attorneys who practised outside London were known as country attorneys. By the eighteenth century they offered society a wide range of business services, which meant they were much more than mere officers of the law courts as the first practitioners seem to have been. They extended their range of functions and so provided themselves with sufficient income in order to be resident within their own locality. This meant they no longer needed to attend the courts at Westminster and could employ a London agent to do this on their behalf, a process complete in most provincial areas by 1730.
By the late eighteenth century there was already in existence a large and respectable ‘middling group,’ of which attorneys and solicitors formed an important part. Many attorneys were well aware of the trust reposed in them by their clientele and prided themselves upon this fact. They were respected as individuals more than as a group, and this was dependent upon their talents as men of the law as well as the lifestyle their occupation conferred. Merit and the right contacts were crucial; the exigencies of training and establishing a practice ensured that only a relatively small number of those articled to attorneys made the grade of master attorney-at-law. As a result of this sifting process, a trend widened by the Regulatory Act of 1729, the ‘respectable’ enrolled profession was kept fairly small throughout the eighteenth century. It comprised men who were highly conscious of their status and the growing complexity of eighteenth-century society worked in their favour. Not only did attorneys extend their range of functions, but the law itself became more complex, pushing expertise beyond the range of the pettifogging amateur and unlicensed practitioner who had sullied the reputation of the gentleman attorney for much of the early modern period.
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