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    Inside the Bar

    Societal and professional patterns revealed over time - such as the reason for forming the organized bar in Wisconsin - have continued meaning today, and can influence our future.

    George Brown

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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 76, No. 8, August 2003

    Looking Backward

    Societal and professional patterns revealed over time - such as the reason for forming the organized bar in Wisconsin - have continued meaning today, and can influence our future.

    by org gbrown wisbar George C. Brown,
    State Bar executive director

    George BrownThe State Bar Association of Wisconsin was formed on Jan. 9, 1878. Why? Why then? What were the reasons for and the causes of the formation of an organized state bar association at that time? The stated purposes as enunciated by then Chief Justice Ryan give us clues: to weed the profession of unworthy members, to limit access into the profession, and to influence legislation affecting the law and justice system.

    Historian Robert Wiebe of Northwestern University shows in his 1967 book, The Search for Order, 1877-1920, that Wisconsin was not alone in this effort. Wiebe's thesis is that during this period, the United States moved from an agrarian culture based in small insular communities that were relatively isolated from one another to an increasingly impersonal industrialized society where traditional, community-based values no longer mattered. In this post-Reconstruction era, people were searching, consciously and unconsciously, for new values and new societal organizing devices.

    A new middle class also was developing at this time. Wiebe believes that this "class" could be divided into two broad categories: professionals of various sorts and specialists in business, labor, and agriculture. By the early nineteenth century, the professionals - including lawyers, doctors, and teachers - all had been fairly well protected by rigid requirements for admission to the professions. For lawyers, educational and apprenticeship requirements excluded many from the profession. During the second quarter of the nineteenth century, as Wiebe states, "equalitarianism and decentralization had broken this monopoly, as it was called, so that by mid-century almost anyone could, and a great variety did, enter what had once been a profession." In the law, this "deprofessionalization" was accomplished when "democratized, decentralized admission to the bar demolished practically all standards" and "training passed from colleges to a convenient law office." As a result, only bankers were held in lower regard by the public.

    Wisconsin was a perfect example of this "deprofessionalization." Many of Wisconsin's earliest lawyers attended Eastern colleges before moving to the Wisconsin Territory, and therefore the territorial legislature required a three-month residence and two year's legal study in a law school or a practitioner's law office as a prerequisite to practice law in Wisconsin. Only a year after Wisconsin became a state in 1848, the state legislature struck the study rule and required courts to admit every resident-applicant of good moral character. By 1878, as Justice Ryan stated in his bar association founding speech, "the rule of admission is uniformly lax. The door is not ajar, but wide open."