The legal profession is often referred to as “the bar.” While this can be the source of many jokes, many do not know the actual origin of this name for the profession. The term dates back to medieval times, when courtrooms were built with a physical barrier that separated the judge, lawyers, and criminals or parties to the case from the public or others in the courtroom. Modern courtrooms in Europe and the United States generally continue with this tradition, placing a partition or railing between the seating area where the public and press can observe the legal proceedings and the area where the lawyers present the case to the judge and jury.
The phrase “passing the bar” is used to describe a future lawyer’s successful completion of all of the requirements to practice law, and specifically, the exam that lawyers must take to establish their qualification to practice. But it quite literally means that the lawyer has earned the right to occupy that space in the courtroom and is able to move past the physical barrier that sets lawyers apart from spectators in the courtroom.
In a similar vein, you may hear the judicial profession referred to as “the bench.” The origin of that phrase is also literal and describes the location of the judge in the courtroom while cases are being heard.
The next time you are in a courtroom, look around and you will be able to see and know the origin of these descriptions of the legal profession!