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Serjeant at Law

In English LEGAL HISTORY, an elite order of attorneys who had the exclusive privilege of arguing before the Court of Common Pleas and also supplied the judges for both Common Pleas and the Court of the King's Bench.

For six centuries starting in the 1300s, the serjeants at law ranked above all other attorneys in the kingdom. Only twelve hundred men were ever promoted to the dignity of serjeant, the last dying in 1921. Although the serjeants have never had an exact counterpart in the United States, the order has had a lasting impact on U.S. law: it has been cited as a reason for regarding U.S. attorneys as officers of the court and specifically for requiring court-appointed attorneys to subsidize the LEGAL REPRESENTATION of clients who cannot afford private attorneys.

The serjeants at law originated in the Court of Common Pleas, one of the four superior courts at Westminster, in the fourteenth century. They had an antecedent in the thirteenth-century legal practitioners known as countors, a term from the French meaning storytellers. Countors helped formulate the plaintiff's counts, or causes of action, and the preparatory work called counting. In the fourteenth century their role evolved and became a profession. The countors became servientes ad legem, or serjeants at law.

The serjeants were an exalted order. Paid by the Crown and admitted to practice before a single court, they belonged to a closed society that had significant power. Only serjeants could argue in the Court of Common Pleas, and their ranks provided the only candidates for judges of the Common Pleas and the King's Bench. By the fifteenth century, regard for the serjeants was so high that no practitioner in the legal profession was considered their equal.

Serjeants came from the elite of the legal profession. The chief justice of the Common Pleas prepared a list of seven or eight of the best lawyers who had at least sixteen years' experience, and the chancellor selected the new inductees. At their induction, an elaborate ceremony, they swore to serve the king's people. The serjeants' costume also distinguished them from other English attorneys. They wore a long, loose garment called a tabard, a hood, and a close-fitting white headdress called a coif. Eventually, from this costume, the serjeants became known as the ORDER OF THE COIF. The influence of the serjeants declined in the eighteenth century, and by the nineteenth century, their MONOPOLY on the Court of Common Pleas had ended. After the reorganization of the English justice system with the JUDICATURE ACTS of 1875, no more serjeants were created.

In U.S. law, the legacy of the serjeants derives from their role as officers of the court. The position was similar to holding public office and, as such, carried duties: the serjeants could be commanded to serve indigent clients. In the twentieth century, U.S. federal courts turned to this tradition for justification in viewing attorneys as officers of the court who also could be appointed to serve the needy. A significant example is the opinion in United States v. Dillon, 346 F.2d 633 (9th Cir. 1965), where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals required a court-appointed attorney to subsidize the costs of vacating the conviction of an indigent client. In citing "an ancient and established tradition" for this practice, the court looked in part to the English tradition of the serjeants at law.

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