Introduction to John A. Matzko's 'The Best Men of the Bar'

The Best Men of the Bar, Forthcoming

24 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2019

See all articles by Kellen Funk

Kellen Funk

Columbia University - Law School

Date Written: May 24, 2019


John A. Matzko's The Best Men of the Bar began as a dissertation defended in 1984. Despite the central importance of the ABA to the turn-of-the-century class stratification of the bar, the accreditation of legal education, the emergence of the “canons” of legal ethics, and the settlement of the codification controversy with model laws and restatements, no institutional history of the ABA appeared in the intervening years. Literatures have arisen devoted to the entrance of women and African Americans to legal practice in the late nineteenth century, while the internal dynamics of the elite (mostly male and white) bar during the New Deal has received sustained attention. But as of yet, the elite of the bar to which women, minorities, and New Deal progressives were reacting has been relatively neglected.

Indeed,The Best Men of the Bar presciently offered a number of arguments that today puts the work right at home in contemporary historiography of America’s legal profession, particularly in its focus on the control of legal education and the interconnections between codification and access to the profession. The central argument of the book is one that both anticipates recent literature yet also extends it by disrupting our conventional attempts to describe the elite bar of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era in the United States. While recent studies have challenged the notion of a monolithic classical legal “orthodoxy,” Best Men of the Bar clarifies the story by dividing the ABA’s early history into two periods: one that drew on and was shaped by the age of reform, and a later period of reaction and retrenchment. This introduction surveys the major historiographical debates about the turn-of-the-century American legal profession to illustrate the power of this argument. One of the recurring themes of the works surveyed within is the slightly embarrassed admission that the Gilded Age bar in many ways countered the trend towards conservatism that developed later in the Progressive Era.

Keywords: bar associations, legal profession, legal ethics

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

Funk, Kellen, Introduction to John A. Matzko's 'The Best Men of the Bar' (May 24, 2019). The Best Men of the Bar, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Kellen Funk (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

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New York, NY 10009

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