By the mid-sixteenth century there were two branches of the legal profession - barristers, and attorneys and solicitors. Traditionally solicitors dealt with landed estates and attorneys advised parties in lawsuits. Gradually, these two roles combined and the name 'solicitors' was adopted.
Although there were many eminent solicitors, there were also 'pettifoggers and vipers' disgracing the profession.
Formation of the Law Society
In 1823, several prominent attorneys met to call for the formation of 'The London Law Institution' to raise the reputation of the profession by setting standards and ensuring good practice. This would be housed near the Inns of Court. By 1825 the term 'London' was dropped from the title to reflect the Institution's national aspirations.
The Society was founded on 2 June 1825, when a committee of management was appointed. The Society acquired its first royal charter in 1831, and opened a new building in Chancery Lane, in 1832. A new Charter in 1845 defined the Society as an independent, private body servicing the affairs of the profession like other professional, literary and scientific bodies.
The organisation became known colloquially as the Law Society although its first formal title was 'The Society of Attorneys, Solicitors, Proctors and others not being Barristers, practising in the Courts of Law and Equity of the United Kingdom'. In 1903 the Society changed its official name to 'The Law Society'.
Women were first admitted as solicitors in 1922 and today account for over half the admissions to the profession.
Over the years, the ruling Council of elected office holders and members has grown in size. Seats have been created to reflect the composition and interests of the members. Originally 25, today there are 105 Council members.
In 1834, the Society first initiated proceedings against dishonest practitioners. By 1907, the Society possessed a statutory disciplinary committee, and was empowered to investigate solicitors' accounts and to issue annual practising certificates.
In 1983, the Society established the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors to deal with complaints about solicitors. But after a split between our regulatory and representative functions, the Solicitors Regulation Authority is responsible for regulating solicitors.
There is also an independent Legal Ombudsman set up by the Office for Legal Complaints under the Legal Services Act 2007.
Admission and continuing professional development
Lectures have been delivered in the Law Society's Hall since 1835. Better legal education was essential to improve the status of the profession. The Solicitors Act of 1860 enabled the Society to create a three-tier examination system. In 1903, the Society established its own school of law, which later became the independent College of Law. By 1922, a compulsory academic year was required for clerks.
Today, the Society maintains its validating and monitoring role for undergraduate and postgraduate education, training contracts and compulsory continuing professional development.
The Society's representational role was a strong one from the beginning. The scrutiny of legislation and lobbying with the aid of solicitor MPs enabled the Society to develop a special relationship with government on law reform and the formulation of legal policy. The Law Society was determined to ensure that the Royal Courts of Justice were built close to the London headquarters.
The opening of the Brussels office in 1991 marked a significant response to the importance of the European Union.
The Society continues to work towards influencing law.
In the prospectus of 1823, the Society promised a Library and a dining club.
Communications were much improved by the publication of the Law Society's Gazette from 1903.
By 1959 advice to members on costs, professional practice and office management was offered. The Strategic Research Unit was founded in 1988 publishing analytical and factual information about the profession. Six regional offices, plus an office in Wales, provide services and support locally to solicitors. Offices are planned for the remaining regions in England.
- Allibone, Finch and Quiney, Lynn, The Law Society's Hall - An Architectural History 1823-1995, Law Society Publishing, 1994.
- Brand, Paul, The Origins of the English Legal Profession, Blackwell, 1992.
- Brooks, CW, Pettyfoggers and Vipers of the Commonwealth: the “Lower Branch” of the Legal Profession in Early Modern England, 1986.
- Kirk, Harry, Portrait of a profession: a history of the solicitors' profession 1100 to the present day. Oyez, 1976.
- Sugarman, David, A Brief history of the Law Society, Law Society, 1994.
- Sugarman, David, Bourgeois collectivism, professional power and the boundaries of the state: the private and public life of the Law Society 1825-1914. International Journal of the Legal Profession 1996 (3) pp.81-135.