Evolution of the Board

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, by per curiam Order dated May 26, 1902, established a State Board of Law Examiners to provide for a uniform and standard system of bar admissions in this Commonwealth.

This Order was a direct result of the January 1901 Memorial of the Pennsylvania Bar Association 1  , presented to both the Supreme and Superior Courts. The Memorial requested Court approval to create a State Board of Law Examiners, thus eliminating the inequitable system of county admissions. The Bar Association felt that the county system was politically influenced and geographically discriminatory.

In the late 1800s, an attorney admitted to practice in Pennsylvania would find himself 2  permitted to practice only in the specific county in which he was admitted. This prevented him from being able to represent a client or present a case in a neighboring county without first meeting that county's requirements for admission. At that time, there were 54 different examining jurisdictions in Pennsylvania, each with its own county level Board of Examiners. Each jurisdiction had different standards for admission, including testing inconsistencies and limited character and fitness requirements. This created the perception that Pennsylvania attorneys lacked the legal and moral qualifications to practice in adjoining states. Pennsylvania stood almost alone, and entirely alone among the important state jurisdictions, in adhering to the system of original county admissions and in basing admissions to the appellate courts upon law school diplomas or perfunctory proof of practice in a lower court.

The initial discussion regarding the formation of a State Board of Law Examiners is attributed to the December 1896 meeting of Pennsylvania judges held in Philadelphia. The judges believed there was a need for standardization in the bar admissions process, which would include formal legal education or training 3  , uniform examination dates and questions, and consistency of moral character requirements. However, in some of the most populous judicial districts, the judges showed limited interest in standardizing bar admission and examination procedures, and any hope of securing effective changes in the rules seemed illusive.

Several of the judges argued that the creation of a unified state system for bar admissions was not intended to encroach upon the prerogative of the lower courts to determine the qualifications of members of their own bars. As a compromise, judicial districts were encouraged, but not mandated, to accept a certificate of admission to practice in the Supreme and Superior Courts as conclusive evidence of the acquisition by the candidate of legal knowledge sufficient to practice law.

Diversity in bar admission requirements was the primary reason the Pennsylvania Bar Association began discussing the need for standardization and uniformity in the bar admissions process in the late 1800s. Some members felt that the standards for becoming a lawyer in Pennsylvania had become substandard and were allowing for the admission of a number of lawyers who did not possess the minimum competence necessary to practice law. Numerous attorneys argued that a statewide system for bar admissions should be created, which would allow lawyers admitted to the bar to practice throughout the Commonwealth and eliminate the requirement to be licensed in individual counties.

In an effort to further advance the idea of uniformity, the Bar Association formed the Committee on Legal Education. The task before this Committee was a difficult one to create a uniform set of rules and requirements for bar admission in Pennsylvania and persuade the 54 examining jurisdictions to accept these rules, thus raising the standards for admission.

The issue of uniformity was discussed and debated by the Bar Association for several years. It was even pointed out by one member that if the standards currently being proposed had been in effect years earlier, men such as Abraham Lincoln and Jeremiah Black would never have become lawyers. He even went so far as to say that "the first and most important inquiry always, when a man applies for admission to the bar, and always must be, is he a gentleman?" 4   This lawyer from Franklin County, along with several others, considered a legal education to be secondary to a good moral character.

In 1901, after extensive debate, the Bar Association recommended to the Supreme Court the creation of a State Board of Law Examiners and the elimination of county-level bar admissions. The Supreme Court endorsed the recommendation and issued the Order appointing the first members of the newly established Board.

In the early 1900s, the State Board of Law Examiners consisted of five attorneys from various geographical locations throughout the Commonwealth, appointed by the Justices of the Supreme Court. Board members were originally appointed to serve for a term of no more than five years. The Court mandated that the original Board, appointed in 1902, would have one member withdraw at the end of each year; such withdrawals were to be made in the order of seniority of admission to the bar. Today's Board members are still appointed by the Justices; although there are now seven members, and each member is eligible to serve two, three-year terms. They meet once a month to review and recommend changes to bar admission rules, evaluate proposed essay examination questions, set policy and handle all other bar admission obligations as charged by the Court. Additionally, the Board conducts formal hearings for applicants receiving an initial denial of their bar application for failure to meet character and fitness standards. The Board staff consists of the Executive Director, Counsel to the Board, Executive Assistant, and several administrative support staff. There are seven part-time examiners who are responsible for writing and grading the essay examination questions. Each of the examiners are assisted by two graders. The examiners and graders are all licensed, practicing attorneys throughout the Commonwealth.

The mission of the Supreme Court and the Board has remained virtually unchanged since 1902. The Court maintains the inherent and exclusive power to regulate the admission to the bar and the practice of law by promulgating bar admission policies and procedures. Pursuant to these rules, the Board of Law Examiners is empowered to recommend the admission of persons to the bar and the practice of law. The Board continues to be responsible for recommending rules pertaining to admission to the bar and the practice of law and to exercise the powers and perform the duties vested in and imposed upon it by law. The responsibilities of the Board are not taken lightly. Licensing procedures have always been, and continue to be designed to protect the public and the integrity of the legal system, so that the high standards of the bar of this Commonwealth will be maintained and the public assured of lawyers in whom it can place its confidence.

1. The Pennsylvania Bar Association was formed in 1895.

2. All references to licensed and unlicensed attorneys in historic Board records and documents were made in the male gender. To remain historically accurate, the male gender is used to refer to all attorneys. Records indicate that the first female was admitted by the State Board of Law Examiners in 1904. Additionally, between 1904-1913, there were 12 females admitted. Prior to 1902, several females were admitted to practice law under the county level Board of Examiners.

3. It was assumed that an applicant learned the law, in effect, "on the job," if time was spent working in the office of a licensed attorney.

4. Excerpts from Reports of the Annual Meetings of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, 1896-1902, Committee on Legal Education.