Non-lawyers often ask what the “bar” stands for. The bar derives from the setup of a courtroom. A rail separates observers from the lawyers, parties, jurors, and judge. When law school graduates become eligible to practice law, the court allows them to cross the rail from the gallery into the courtroom.
But the bar refers to much more than the physical rail in a courtroom. The bar can refer to a community of lawyers. It can also refer to the organization that regulates and polices lawyer behavior.
Here is some information about the various uses of the word “bar” in the legal industry.
The Bar in America
The bar does not originate in the U.S. The word originated in England and came over with English colonists. In England, the word “barrister” has “bar” at its root and refers to a lawyer who represents clients in court. But its use in the U.S. has broadened to cover all lawyers, including those who do not appear in court.
Membership in the Bar
Any lawyer who wants to represent clients must be admitted to practice by the Supreme Court of their state.
Practicing lawyers fall into three broad categories:
Transactional lawyers spend most of their time putting together business deals for clients. Many lawyers who practice real estate law, contract law, and estate law never set foot inside a courtroom during their careers.
Regulatory lawyers represent clients before government agencies, boards, and administrations. Regulatory lawyers handle matters like zoning disputes, securities filings, and pharmaceutical drug approvals.
Litigators go to court to resolve disputes. A litigator advocates on behalf of clients to get monetary, injunctive, or declaratory relief.
In Texas, all practicing lawyers must join the State Bar of Texas. Bar admission has two components.
When someone wants to gain admission to the bar, they fill out an application. The Texas Board of Law Examiners reviews this application to determine whether the person meets all of the requirements for admission to the bar.
Some of the requirements to practice law in Texas include:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Graduate from an accredited law school
- Have good moral character and fitness
The board verifies the character and fitness requirements by conducting a background check. A criminal record, history of professional discipline, or previous mental illness can preclude an applicant from gaining admission to the bar.
To join the State Bar of Texas, an applicant must pass the bar examination. The examination takes two and a half days to complete. Th bar exam is typically administered in February and July.
It tests a range of legal subjects, including:
- Criminal law
- Criminal procedure
- Civil procedure
- Will and estates
- Torts (the basis of personal injury law)
- Commercial law
- Constitutional law
Applicants must answer multiple-choice and essay questions. They must also take a separate legal ethics examination. In July 2021, the pass rate was 68%.
Lawyers may also be members of other bar associations. A bar association is a simply a professional organzation made up of lawyers. In addition to the State Bar, a lawyer may be a member of the American Bar Association, or they may be a member of the bar association in the county where they practice law. Bar associations provide professional opportunities for lawyers, such as offering continuing legal education programs.
Lawyer Discipline by the Bar
Once admitted to the bar, lawyers must adhere to the regulations that govern the legal profession. The Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct sets out all of the ethical rules that Texas lawyers must follow.
When a lawyer violates the rules, the State Bar of Texas can discipline the lawyer. The bar investigates and conducts a hearing. If the lawyer violated the rules, the bar can recommend that the Supreme Court of Texas censure, suspend, or disbar the lawyer.
A suspended lawyer must cease practicing law until the suspension ends. A disbarred lawyer must cease practicing law altogether unless the bar readmits the lawyer.
The Role of the Bar
Most lawyers never face discipline. They follow the rules and competently represent their clients with the highest standard of ethics.
In this respect, the bar serves three purposes: First, the bar screens applicants to make sure lawyers are qualified to practice law. Second, the screening process minimizes the odds that a lawyer will violate the rules. And when a violation occurs, the bar disciplines the lawyer. All of these roles protect clients and ensure trust in the legal profession.