The US court system, along with some of its terminology, is a source of mystery and myth to a lot of people. One of the most pervasive urban legends about the law is the origins of the term “the bar.” 

You’ve probably heard of the bar exam and bar association, and you likely know they are related to a lawyer’s license to practice law. You may have wondered where these terms came from. Today, you can learn about their origins and what it means for an attorney to practice law.

Is “The Bar” an Acronym?

One of the most common myths about the term is that it is an acronym for “British Accredited Registry.” Some people who believe this myth say that all lawyers in the US who are members of the bar are actually registered British attorneys (or even secret agents of the British Crown).

The verdict? False.

The truth is that the term “bar” literally means just that — it refers to the railing that separates the working area of the court, including the tables for the prosecutor and the defense lawyers, the judge’s bench, the witness box, the jury seats, and the court reporter’s station. 

Beyond the bar is the spectators’ gallery, where anyone may come in and observe court proceedings.

Calling the railing a “bar” does, in fact, hearken back to our court system’s descent from English common law. In Britain, legal professionals are called “barristers,” and they’re called to the “bar” to advocate for their clients.

So a British nickname for a legal professional has become the name for an association of licensed attorneys in the US. Just as “the bench” has become synonymous with the judge in the courtroom because of where they sit, so also does the bar represent lawyers, referring to their location in the courtroom.

How Do Lawyers Become Part of the Bar?

To become part of their state’s bar association, lawyers must pass the bar exam for the state in which they want to practice law. 

Every state administers its own bar exam, and these exams cover both federal laws and laws unique to each state. Each exam has different thresholds for passing, but a lawyer cannot receive their license to practice until they’ve passed that test.

What Are the Requirements for a Law License?

Most states require lawyers to graduate from law school before taking the bar exam. A few states offer alternative paths for aspiring lawyers, such as the Law Clerk Program in Washington State. However, lawyers in most states study for the bar exam after finishing law school. 

For example, the Kentucky Bar Exam requires passing a two-day test of essay and multiple-choice questions on various legal matters. In addition, those who seek membership in the Kentucky Bar Association must pass the Character and Fitness Committee standards. 

These standards include avoiding dishonest or fraudulent conduct and exercising good judgment on their clients’ behalf.

When you’re vetting lawyers to represent you in a criminal defense case such as a DUI, it’s essential to look for ones who are licensed in Kentucky and in good standing with the Bar. If you have questions, you can contact the Kentucky Bar Association directly to ask about a lawyer’s standing with the association.

Lawyers are held to a high standard by their peers and legal licensing bodies. There are professional consequences when a lawyer violates the standards of the state bar association, including being liable for legal malpractice. Lawyers who don’t act in accordance with professional ethics can even be disbarred, losing their license.

To learn more, call our Louisville criminal defense law firm at (502) 371-7000 or visit our contact us page to send us an email.