Legal Examinations in the 19th Century

Picture of 12 articling students posing for a picture in the Ottawa area. Picture was taken around 1891 by Pittaway & Jarvis.

COVID-19 has changed many aspects of professional life for those in the legal world, especially licensing candidates who planned to take their licensing examinations this year. The Law Society of Ontario announced early in the pandemic that in-person examinations would be cancelled. They have moved forward with a plan for online examinations, which are ongoing until the end of December.

In light of the many recent changes to licensing exams, we decided to have a look to see how prospective lawyers were examined in the 19th century and how it compares to what licensing candidates need to know now in order to pass the bar.

Licensing candidates today are tested on a number of different competencies, including knowledge of certain areas of law, ethical responsibilities, client relationships, and the litigation process to name a few. These competencies are assessed in three different ways: knowledge/comprehension, application of knowledge, and critical thinking. The exam itself is all multiple choice – some questions are linked to cases and fact scenarios, while others are independent.

This is very different from how students were tested in the past. When the Law Society was newly formed in the late 1700/early 1800s, men who wanted to practice law needed no formal training. Instead, those who wanted to practice law were expected to be men of some learning in the non-legal disciplines. Additionally during this time period, barristers from England, Scotland and Ireland, or any of the British North American colonies were allowed to practice in the province without going through another legal examination.

This changed around 1825, when the Law Society decided to make an effort at more a formal examination. At this time, gentlemen who wished to practice law in Upper Canada were “…expected to exhibit a general knowledge of English, Grecian and Roman history, a becoming acquaintance with some of the selected prose works of the ancients, such as Salust or Circero … it is also expected that the student will show the Society that he has some reasonable portion of mathematical instruction”.[1]

The format of the examination was also quite different from the examinations today. A first-hand account from a man named Patrick McGregor in 1834 mentions that part of his examination consisted of translating a speech from Circero and then having to read his translation out loud in front of the examiners.

We know that law students were eventually examined on specific law topics. In our rare book collection, we have a book titled “Osgoode Hall Examination Questions…”[2] from 1862. This book, written by two students-at-law, was specifically aimed at the law student who was curious about the examination process. A book about legal examinations published 158 years ago also provides fascinating information on how far the legal profession has progressed. For example, this student guide tells us that you had to be 16 years of age to be a student-at-law and at least 21 years of age to be called to the Bar.

From a brief glance at this book, it is evident that law students in the 1860s were expected to memorize certain legal texts that they then would be examined on. Some of the textbooks include: Blackstone’s Commentaries, Justinian’s Institutes, Coote on Mortgages, and Russell on Crimes.

While they were expected to know important law texts from that time period, they were still expected to know Classical literature as well. Some of the texts this 1862 book refers to includes works by Homer, Lucian, Horace, and Euclid. The examination had to be done with an examiner for matriculation and in the presence of a Committee of Benchers. From what we can glean from reading this text, it seems as though the format of the examinations during this time period were mostly short-answer, relating to specific books, and were both written and oral. It appears that value was placed not in critical thinking or application of knowledge, but on what one could remember or memorize from certain leading texts of the day.

Even though today’s licensing candidates aren’t required to know Latin to take the bar examination, the testing can be stressful even without the added complication of the change to an online format. The staff at the Great Library wishes all those taking the examinations this summer and fall good luck!


[1] Bucknall, Brian D., Thomas C.H. Baldwin and J. David Lakin, “Pedants, practitioners and prophets: legal education at Osgoode Hall to 1957” (1968) Osgoode Hall Law Journal 139 at 144.

[2] Full title: Osgoode Hall Examination Questions; given at the examinations for call with and without honours, and for certificates of fitness, with concise answers: and the student’s guide, a collection of directions and forms for the use of the students-at-law and articled clerks. By Calvin Browne and Edward Marion Chadwick, Students-at-Law.

Sources:

Bucknall, Brian D., Thomas C.H. Baldwin and J. David Lakin, “Pedants, practitioners and prophets: legal education at Osgoode Hall to 1957” (1968) Osgoode Hall Law Journal 139.

Law Society of Ontario, Becoming Licensed: https://lso.ca/becoming-licensed/lawyer-licensing-process/licensing-examinations/guide-to-licensing-examinations

Browne, Calvin and Edward Marion Chadwick, Osgoode Hall Examination Questions; given at the examinations for call with and without honours, and for certificates of fitness, with concise answers: and the student’s guide, a collection of directions and forms for the use of the students-at-law and articled clerks, (Toronto: Rollo & Adam, Law Booksellers and Publishers, 1862).

 

*Picture used is a photograph of articling students in the Ottawa area from ca. 1891. Downloaded from Law Society of Ontario Archives Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lsuc_archives/3576177259/in/album-72157623999234114/