Friday, August 14, 2015

New Acquisition: Revolutionary Period Reference Letter

This acquisition, dated 1783, is a letter of reference for membership to the bar. In it, Peter W. Yates, Esq., endorses Anthony Hoffman’s good moral character and affirms that Hoffman clerked in his office for a period of one year. Yates was a prominent attorney in Albany and later a member of the New York State Assembly and a delegate to the Continental Congress.

The letter supports Hoffman’s application for admission to the bar. The standards for legal education and admission to the bar differed from those in place today. Law courses were uncommon at colleges until after the Revolution, when American legal education began to develop in earnest. Before the founding of independent law schools, chairs of law began to be established at several colleges, the first one at William and Mary College in 1779. The first school of law, Litchfield Law School, was not established until 1784, the year after this letter was written. Law books were difficult to come by, so the primary method of study came through an apprenticeship with a member of the Bar who would have superior texts and experience.

At the time Yates wrote his reference, neither the New York State Bar Association nor the ABA had been established, though there had been a New York Bar Association established in New York City that existed from 1747 until around 1770. We are not certain of what experience Hoffman would have had in terms of his legal education or in his process of admission to the bar. As of 1767, the New York Supreme Court controlled admission to the bar and decided that either a bachelor’s degree coupled with a 3-year clerkship or a 5-year clerkship without a degree would be required for applicants. After the adoption of the New York State Constitution in 1777, courts were given power to control qualification of the attorneys appearing before them. Hoffman likely would have been working with similar standards.

The bar exam itself was also markedly different. The first bar exam administered in the United States was in Delaware in 1763. It was an oral examination in front of a judge. The first written bar exam did not come until 1855, in Massachusetts. Would Hoffman’s experience have been an informal interview with a judge? A rigorous oral examination on all points of the common law?

Interestingly, Yates’s endorsement of Hoffman’s character is quite comparable to the affidavit as to an applicant’s good moral character still required in New York today, and similar to other states’ moral character requirements.


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