Our Legal Heritage: A Lawyer’s Story

Our Legal Heritage: A Lawyer’s Story

The bland reference in many books to ‘lawyers’ may understate seriously the exact nature of the work done in practice. Individual histories of firms and individuals provide an insight as to the formation of firms, their longevity and the work of the solicitors and their staff. Several different publications, referred to chronologically below, are in the SSC Society library.

There have been several histories of firms or societies of solicitors. Dr J.B. Barclay produced The SSC Story, 1784-1984: Two hundred Years of Service in The College of Justice (1984). The work in hardback and with many colour photographs was a statement of some authority from survival, albeit that it only relates to a part of the history of the legal profession, the solicitors often as Edinburgh agents who instructed counsel. Yet, it is a serious work by a historian and is based on primary sources and thereby emphasises the great and continuing benefit to lawyers of having a practical working library close to the principal courts.

Privately printed, is the brief history by David M Burns WS, Dundas & Wilson CS: The First Two Hundred Years (1987). In 70 pages the history of the firm is recorded and with very extensive biographies of the partners. Perhaps the importance of the work is to illustrate how the solicitor branch of the legal profession found its way into so many other financial businesses in Edinburgh. Several examples are available but one will suffice: R.W. Dundas WS, who died in 1928, was in business as a solicitor, and he was (p. 46) “a director of the Royal Bank of Scotland, of which he was latterly chairman: Drummond’s branch of the same bank (London); the Scottish Provident Institution; the British Investment Trust; and the Realisation and Debenture Corporation. He was also a director for a considerable period of the North British and Mercantile Insurance company …”

Some legal histories are modest: the SSC Library has a copy of a small pamphlet entitled Cochrane & Blair Paterson SSC: A Scottish Family Firm (1992). The firm no longer exists having been subsumed into a larger Edinburgh firm, but there are meaningful details about work within the profession generally. Office hours in 1880 were said to be long. In an example provided for a Leith firm, the week-day hours were ‘from 9.30 to 5.30 and 9.30 to 2pm on Saturday” but “an absence of about 10 minutes during the day must suffice for luncheon”, and “evening work was by no means unknown”, (p. 3).

Somewhere between a brief pamphlet and an extensive published book is the comprehensive paper of about 200 pages by Ian L.S. Balfour, The History of Balfour and Manson LLP: the first 125 years (c. 2012). The details of the manner in which such an established firm came to be established is not unique but there is little doubt that the subsequent history is related in detail and with pride by the writer who was with the firm for many years, as were others too. The detail of the formation of the company is a fascinating example of what could be done.

A comprehensive study is that by Stuart Guild, Guild & Guild WS: The First Hundred Years, 1900-2000: A History (2019). With many interesting photographs, the development of the firm is explained and the offices as work places are identified in detail. The details can be remarkable: several photographs show that a business could be carried on efficiently with wooden floors and without the necessity of carpets, (pp. 31 and 52). The study narrates the biographies of many solicitors, often from the same family, and the staff associated with the business. While the details on occasion seem superfluous, they can show how the daily business of solicitors in practice changed. In particular, any one of suitable age qualified as a solicitor or intending to do so from the late 1900s to the early 1960s had to consider when or how to meet the requirements of compulsory military service.

More recently, Ewan McCall produced Solicitors to Scotland: Seduction, Sedition and Subterfuge in the Lost History of a Law Firm (Birlinn, 2022), reviewed last year in Scottish Legal News. The attractively produced publication has a high level of historical background and shows another aspect of the development of the solicitor branch. This note refers only to a few histories of firms and individuals although there must be across Scotland many others that would be worth learning about and considering for the details of how the business of being a lawyer was carried out in the past.

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