In the United States, a country lawyer, or county-seat lawyer, is an attorney who has completed little or no formal legal training and has become a member of a county bar or a state bar after "reading law"; traditionally, these lawyers practiced general law in a rural setting, or on the frontier such as Andrew Jackson.
The opportunity to become a lawyer without graduating law school, called "reading law", is still available in seven U.S. states (California, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wyoming) through various apprenticeship programs.
The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.
Unlike their U.S. counterparts, early lawyers of Canada did get some legal training, but not within a higher institution like a school. Following English tradition, early Canadian lawyers trained by "learning law" through another lawyer. To practice fully, these legal students (articled clerk) are required to pass a bar exam and be admitted to the bar.
Learning law was also used in Ontario to train lawyers until 1949. People training to become lawyers need not attend school, but they were asked to apprentice or article with a practicing lawyer. Changes in the late 1940s ended the practice.
Now the true test of the country lawyer is not the size or importance of the community in which he does his work, but rather the sort of work which he does and the sort of people for whom he does it. [...] If a lawyer performs every sort of legal service for every sort of client – the poor and the lowly as well as the rich and the well born – he is, within my definition at least, a country lawyer, and no arbitrary distinction based on density of population or the like can make him anything else.
Robert H. Jackson offered his own description in his 1950 essay "The County-Seat Lawyer":
He 'read law' in the Commentaries of Blackstone and Kent and not by the case system. He resolved problems by what he called “first principles.” He did not specialize, nor did he pick and choose clients. He rarely declined service to worthy ones because of inability to pay. [...] He never quit. He could think of motions for every purpose under the sun, and he made them all. [...] The law to him was like a religion, and its practice was more than a means of support; it was a mission. He was not always popular in his community, but he was respected. [...] He “lived well, worked hard, and died poor.” Often his name was in a generation or two forgotten. It was from this brotherhood that America has drawn its statesmen and its judges.
In chronological order:
- Andrew Jackson (1767–1845), frontier lawyer (1787–1796), 7th U.S. President (1829–1837)
- Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), prairie lawyer, 16th U.S. President (1861–1865),
- Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), leading member of the American Civil Liberties Union
- Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933), country lawyer (1897–1916), Massachusetts State Legislator (1907-1908), Mayor of Northampton, Massachusetts (1910-1911), Massachusetts State Senator (1912-1915), President of the Massachusetts State Senate (1914-1915), Lt. Governor of Massachusetts (1916-1919), Governor of Massachusetts (1919-1921), U.S. Vice-President (1921-1923), 30th U.S. President (1923–1929)
- Robert H. Jackson (1892–1954), last U.S. Supreme Court justice (1941–1954) not to have graduated from law school, chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials (1945–1946).
- Sam Ervin (1896–1985), civil liberties advocate and Democratic U.S. Senator (1954–1974), and leading member of Congressional committees involved in discrediting McCarthy in 1954 and Nixon in 1974. (Ervin eventually graduated from Harvard Law School three years after being admitted to the bar, but still self-identified as "a simple country lawyer".)
- Strom Thurmond (1902–2003), Edgefield (South Carolina) Town and County Attorney (1930–1938), Circuit Judge, Governor of South Carolina (1947–1951), United States Senator (1956–2003), Presidential Candidate (1948).
- John A. Macdonald (1815–1891), 1st Prime Minister of Canada (1867–1873)
- John Sparrow David Thompson (1845–1894), 4th Prime Minister of Canada (1892–1894)
- Robert Borden (1854–1937), 9th Prime Minister of Canada (1911–1920)
The "simple country lawyer" from the southern US has become a recognizable archetype in the media: one finds the (almost exclusively male) character in, for example, Anatomy of a Murder, My Cousin Vinnie, A Time to Kill, Matlock, and Futurama. The lawyer exaggerates his (non-rhotic) southern accent somewhat to bond with the jury and is always ready to admit – usually as part of a charming speech – that he is not as well-educated as his opponent, the big city attorney. His dress is appropriate, but never flashy – usually he wears a white linen suit and a dark tie. He is courteous, modest, and polite, and sometimes re-words difficult testimony in a way that the “plain folks” of the jury will understand. This behavior can have the dual effect of endearing himself to his peers and distancing overly intellectual witnesses called by the opposition.
Despite these characteristics, however, the “simple country lawyer” is almost always a shrewd litigator who knows the law very well.
The character of District Attorney Jim Garrison uses elements of the simple country lawyer in the courtroom in JFK. Charles Laughton played a variation on the character – though it was that of a US Senator – in the film Advise and Consent.
- Commonly spelled "county-seat lawyer", hyphenating "county seat" as a compound modifier. Also the spelling in the classic quote from Jackson 1950.
- From the first of twelve Lowell Lectures delivered by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. on November 23, 1880, which were the basis for The Common Law.
- Windolph, Francis Lyman (1938). The Country Lawyer: Essays in Democracy, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1938; Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press (Ayer Co. Pub.), 1970 (ISBN 0-8369-1638-7, p. 1–2).
- Jackson, Robert H. (1950). "The County-Seat Lawyer", originally appeared at 36 ABA Journal 487, reprinted at the Robert H. Jackson Center, roberthjackson.org.