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Throughout history, societies have established systems of law to govern people. One of the earliest known codes of law is the Code of Hammurabi developed about 1800 b.c. by the Babylonians. Roughly 400 years later, Moses was given, and then introduced, the Ten Commandments, which have become the foundation of Judeo-Christian ethics and the basis of our current legal system.
The ancient Greeks and Romans set up the first schools of law for young boys to learn the many skills involved in pleading a case. To be an eloquent speaker was a great advantage. The Greeks especially focused their training on thinking logically, another important part of debating and proving matters of the law.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Napoleon organized and refined European law into what became known as the Napoleonic Code. The Napoleonic Code is based more on common sense than on specific legal theories.
In America’s early days, the settlers lived under the English Common law that they brought with them to the New World. This common law began under Henry II in England and set up standard punishments for certain crimes. This common law was later modified by the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution. In areas of the United States that were originally controlled by the Spanish, such as California and Texas, traces of Spanish law still exist. Similarly, because Louisiana was controlled by the French, it still operates a legal system based more on French laws than on the English legal system. But in all cases, the laws of other countries and other times were adapted by legislatures to fit the changing needs and customs of American society. Our legal system today is called statutory because lawmakers enact statutes to govern us.
The legal profession and its history have depended to a large extent on educators in law schools around the country. One of the first law schools in the United States was Harvard Law School, part of Harvard University. How lawyers were taught was changed dramatically when Christopher Columbus Langdell became dean of Harvard Law School in 1870. At the time Langdell took over as dean, most law school educational programs consisted of a single year of lectures and reading similar to what students could obtain through apprenticeships with attorneys. Langdell believed that it was important for legal students to receive a deeper and broader education, so he expanded Harvard’s program to two years in 1871, and three years in 1876, which is the current length of most law programs today.
One of the other major defining moments of the law industry occurred at about the same time, in 1870, with the formation of the first bar association. Bar associations serve to self-police the legal industry and ensure that all lawyers are behaving ethically and according to the highest standards of legal practice. The Association of the Bar of the City of New York formed to address growing public concern over corruption among lawyers and judges in New York City. Soon afterwards, other bar associations formed across the country.