The New York Bar: General View 1869

There is so little homogeneousness among the members of the New York bar, that to attempt the briefest sketch even of our leading lawyers would take more space than we can give to the subject. We will therefore only say, generally, that there are over three thousand lawyers in New York city who gain a livelihood by their professional labors, with incomes ranging from five hundred to fifty thousand dollars each. Of course the number who receive the latter amount is exceedingly limited, by far the larger majority of them justifying Daniel Webster's criticism, that "lawyers work hard, live well, and die poor." The average income of a first-class New York city lawyer, in good practice, ranges from ten to fifteen thousand dollars a year. Of these three thousand lawyers, perhaps half a dozen or more have a national reputation, while the rest are wholly unknown as lawyers outside of the city of New York.

In fact, New York lawyers do not know each other, except as they are brought into personal or professional contact. Some dozen or so of the best lawyers are more or less known to the whole profession from their prominence at the bar, or the accident of the peculiar line of practice which they pursue. Of the rest, perhaps a hundred are known to each other personally, by social relations or otherwise ; another hundred by their professional or business intercourse ; and the rest are as unknown to each other, even by reputation, as if they resided at the antipodes. There is not that general esprit de corps in the profession which is found in other places. There are several reasons for this apparently anomalous condition of things.

In the first place, New York is such a maelstrom that whatever lawyer comes here no matter what his previous career or legal reputation, or how great his talent soon has his individuality swallowed up in the general vortex, and is rarely brought to the surface unless by some exceptional circumstances. Then, again, there are so many different courts in the city that very good lawyers may even have an office in the same building, may each have a large practice, and hardly ever meet, from the fact that one lawyer brings his cases in the Supreme Court, another in the Superior Court, another in the Common Pleas, and so on, as the caprice of the lawyer or other reason may dictate. Moreover, many of our best lawyers content themselves with chamber practice, giving counsel, conveyancing, etc., and never appear in court.

In fact so much time is lost by waiting in court-rooms, that lawyers absolutely avoid the trial of cases as much as possible ; and thousands of cases are settled annually from this very cause, that might otherwise be litigated to the bitter end. It is a surprising fact that very few lawyers here practice in the Federal Courts. The Circuit Court of the United States for the Southern District of New York is almost a close corporation, there not being more than a dozen lawyers who practice there regularly, and it is a terra incognita to the New York bar generally. We do not believe there is any lawyer here who can make out a complete bill of costs in this court without the assistance of the clerk.

A similar condition of things exists with regard to the United States District Court, except that the number of regular practitioners may be increased a score or two. In this court, where is conducted he admiralty and maritime business of this great commercial city, it is a singular fact that no lawyer has had any nautical experience, there is no man whose early training qualifies him to try a nautical case with the best results. We know of but one man of the New York Bar (Mr. W. J. A. Fuller, referred to below as the Rubber Patent Lawyer) who has spent years of his life as a sailor; and he rarely, tries this class of cases, for which his training and experience eminently qualify him ; but when he does, he crushes his opponent like an egg-shell. We mention this circumstance merely to show that the practice of the law in this city is full of specialties, and that each lawyer adapts himself, not perhaps to that for which he is peculiarly qualified, but selects that branch of the profession which yields him the largest income.

Website: The History
Article Name: The New York Bar: General View 1869
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Sunshine and Shadow in New York By Matthew Hale Smith; J.B. Burr and Company 1869
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