The “bar” in bar exam or bar association is not an acronym. The origin of the term bar derives from the physical layout of a courtroom. A wood rail separates court observers from the judge, jury, lawyers, and parties in a courtroom. This wooden bar has come to symbolize the law.

The bar also refers to the organizations responsible for admitting and regulating lawyers. This explains why lawyers “pass the bar” when they become licensed and get “disbarred” when they lose their law licenses.

Here is some background on the origin of the bar and how it admits and regulates lawyers.

English Origins of the Bar

The use of the term bar began in England before migrating to the United States. American courtrooms take their layout from English courtrooms, including the wooden bar.

The English use the bar to refer metaphorically to events and people in court. The phrase “at the bar” refers to the presentation of a case to the court. Even barrister, the English word for a litigator, comes from the bar.

American Use of the Term Bar

American lawyers use the bar differently than the way the English use it. Americans use it to refer to the legal community. For example, the Dallas Bar Association is a voluntary professional organization.

Lawyers must get admitted to the state bar wherever they practice law. The practice of law can include:

  • Giving legal advice and counsel
  • Representing clients in court and before adjudicative panels
  • Drafting legal documents like pleadings, contracts, and regulatory filings
  • Negotiating legal terms on behalf of clients

People who perform these or other tasks that require the skill and judgment of a lawyer must gain admission to the bar. If they do not, they have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law. Unauthorized practice of law constitutes a crime in Texas, punishable by up to a year in jail.

The requirements to get a Texas law license include:

  • Be at least 18 years old
  • Graduate from an accredited law school
  • Possess the moral character and fitness to practice law
  • Pass the Texas bar examination

The biggest obstacles to admission to the bar are the character and fitness requirements and the bar examination. Applicants must not have anything in their backgrounds that might reflect poorly on their ability to represent clients. A criminal conviction, a record of professional or academic discipline, or a history of substance abuse can preclude admission to the bar.

The bar examination ensures all lawyers have a base of legal knowledge. The bar exam tests an applicant’s understanding of:

  • Property
  • Contracts
  • Torts (the basis of personal injury cases, such as car accidents and slip and falls)
  • Criminal law and procedure
  • U.S. and Texas Constitutions
  • Wills and trusts
  • Commercial transactions
  • Business organizations
  • Legal ethics

The Texas bar examination has a pass rate of just over 68%.

Regulation of the Bar

Lawyers must follow the rules set out by the Texas Supreme Court and enforced by the State Bar of Texas. The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct lay out the ethical rules for lawyers in Texas. They cover everything from how lawyers can advertise to protecting confidential client information.

If a lawyer violates the rules, the State Bar of Texas can investigate the violation. After a hearing, the Texas bar can recommend suspension or disbarment to the Texas Supreme Court.

If the supreme court suspends a lawyer, the lawyer must stop practicing law until the suspension expires. If the court disbars a lawyer, the lawyer cannot practice law unless the lawyer gets readmitted to the bar.

Ensuring Ethics and Quality

While some bad apples always appear, the process for admitting and regulating lawyers screens out many of those unqualified to practice law. This ensures clients can trust their lawyers as they represent them and advocate for the clients’ interests.

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