Lawyers and the Bar: No drinking here |

Lawyers and the Bar: No drinking here

Rohn RobbinsVail, CO, Colorado

Although the image of the hard-drinking trial lawyer is hard-wired in Hollywood and pulp fiction, drink is, emphatically, not why lawyers are members of the bar. I, for one, drink only coffee. And the occasional Dr Pepper. To be sure, some lawyers favor more hearty spirits, but that still does not account for lawyers and the bar.I am reminded of an incident, years ago, when I was still a baby lawyer, flushed with self-importance. I was in a grocery store in San Diego where I practiced then. I was in the checkout line, and I presented my American Bar Association Visa card the scales of justice prominently balanced to the dark-haired beauty for payment. The cashier looked at me, flashed a winning smile, and asked me sweetly, Where do you tend bar? That was my first awareness of peoples potential confusion; did the public at large really think we defenders of American jurisprudence were such Days of Wine and Roses lushes that, at the very least, the goddess of blind justice balanced a martini glass upon the scales of law? That Themis, the goddess who balances the scales was, in fact, Dionysus, the god of wine, in drag?Lets set the record straight, then. What the bar means, simply is the court. In its strictest sense, what it means is the court sitting at full strength, a proceeding involving all the judges. Thus, a trial at bar is one before the full court as distinguished from a trial before a single judge.In another sense, the bar means the collective of all the attorneys and counselors at law all the members of the legal profession. The bar is thus distinguished from the bench, which is made up of all the judges and the judiciary.The bar may also mean a particular place within the courtroom, a place occupied by the accused in a criminal proceeding. This does not imply that the lawyers and the accused are in cahoots, knocking back drinks in some dingy pub. Historically, the bar is where the prisoner stands at trial.Of course all of this colloquialism derives from Mother England. In England, the bar is a partition or railing bisecting the courtroom, the intent of which is to separate the general public from the space occupied by the judges, counsel, jury and others.To be admitted to the bar, then, one need not drink heavily. Instead, admission to the bar is the act by which one becomes licensed to practice before the courts of a particular state or jurisdiction after satisfying requirements such as appropriate schooling in the law, a period of residency and passing the bar exam.On the subject of the bar, why does the bench refer to the judiciary? The term originates from the seat (or bench) where the judges sat, and it came, eventually, to denote the body of the judiciary itself. Perhaps, in these days of moderately more opulent judicial surroundings, the bench should be renamed the executive desk chair, but so doing, I suppose, lacks a certain resonance and panache to say nothing about raining on the parade of tradition.In essence, then, the bar is the rail in front of which the lawyers practice law and which separates the working end of the courtroom from the spectators gallery. The bench is where the judges sit to hear the case. Both bar and bench have come to denote the separate and distinct groups of people occupying the sites within the courtroom. And drink has not a whit to do with any aspect of the august and oft austere proceedings that occur within the courts of law.Francis Bacon noted in Apothegms No. 97 that there were four things in commendation of old age old wood was best to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to trust and old authors to read. And while the commendations may be true, in a court of law, old habits and old traditions still persist. The bar perseveres as a harkening of times long past and binds practitioners to a rugged thread that runs to modern times.Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. He is a member of the Colorado State Bar Association Legal Ethics Committee and is a former adjunct professor of law. Robbins lectures for Continuing Legal Education for attorneys in the areas of real estate, business law and legal ethics. He may be heard Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of Community Focus. He may be reached at 926-4461 or by e-mail at

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