History

In England of the medieval period, serjeants-at-law wore, as a required mark of their station, a close-fitting hood covering all but the face. As a consequence of this special headdress, they were known also as serjeants of the coif and their corporate society as the Order of the Coif. When wigs came into fashion, the symbol became a circular piece of white lawn fastened to the top of the wig. What gave significance to the Order was the fact that for centuries only its members were appointed judges of the Court of Common Pleas or, later, of King’s Bench.

Members of Coif were drawn from the four greater Inns of Court. According to a 1537 account given by Sir John Fortesque in his De Laudibus Legum Angliae:

The chief justice of the common bench is accustomed, with the counsel and assent of all the justices, to choose, as often as seems to him opportune, seven or eight of the persons of more mature age who have become more proficient in the aforesaid study of the law, and who seem to the justices of the best disposition; and he usually sends their names in writing to the chancellor of England, who thereupon by writ of the king of each of those chosen commands that he shall be before the king at a day assigned by him, to take upon himself the estate and degree of serjeant-at-law.
(Translation by Chrimes, 1949, p. 21.)

Serjeant Alexander Pulling’s volume, The Order of the Coif, written toward the close of the nineteenth century, stresses the ceremonial aspects of the creation of a serjeant-at-law at the height of the order’s importance.

The white coif of the order was placed on the head of the serjeant-elect with the same solemnity as the helmet was formerly placed on the head of the knight, and the lord chancellor, lord keeper, or lord chief -justice to whom the royal power was intrusted, addressed the newly made sergeants in a very elaborate address, setting forth the antiquity, honor, dignity, rights, and duties of the serjeants-at-law.

In describing the various proceedings attendant upon the creation of new sergeants, Pulling relied heavily upon the accounts given by Dugdale in Origines Juridiciales, first published in 1666 with additions in a second edition of 1671. In turn Dugdale borrowed from Fortesque to the point of “transcribing” from De Laudibus what had been there written, adding some notes on the “making” of serjeants-at-law and thereafter subjoining “what I have met with from good authorities, touching the manner thereof in
succeeding times; and lastly exhibiting some notable instances touching the magnificence of their Feasts.”
(Cap. XLI). The result is endless detail in Caps. XLII through Llll concerning the form and order of the call to serjeantry; the items of food and their value required for seven days of feasting at the expense of the new sergeants; the gifts of cloth and rings required of them, with itemization of the yardage in the case of cloth and weight in gold of the rings; the robing of participants in the several ceremonies involved, with detail on the responsibilities of attending stewards; and every other aspect of any pertinency. (Reprint
of 1879, p. 240).

With the break from the Inns of Court’, the sergeants repaired to the sergeants’ inns, where they quartered in association with the judges. If later they were elevated to the bench, they continued to be members of the Order. Once sergeants of the coif, they remained so, subject only to discharge by the crown. The only change in status was the disassociation from the former brethren in the Inns of Court. Members of the Order served in various capacities in the administration of English justice. One of these appears to have been that of functioning as judges at nisi prius. The more- distinguished serjeants were called by the crown to fulfill duties as attorney general and solicitor general.

Although at any one time, according to Pulling, there were few members of the Order, the total over the several centuries during which the institution flourished was great. Pulling’s table of “Serjeants of the Coif, With Date of their Creation” requires twelve pages of print in the forepart of his volume. Included in the total are a not inconsiderable number whose names will be remembered as long as English cases and English legal history are studied: Bacon, Blackburn, Blackstone, Campbell, Cavendish, Coke, Coleridge, Fortesque, Glanville,
and Littleton, to identify the best known.

The origins of the Order of the Coif are largely lost in the mists of antiquity. Pulling lists as the earliest serjeant of the coif one Geofrey Ridel, 1117, and names several others “created” before 1200. Chaucer makes reference to “a Serjeant of the lawe, war and wys” in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales. And Pulling states that the Order antedated the greater Inns of Court, the obscure history of which may be traceable back to the time of Chaucer.

The heyday of the English order was the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Its strength continued into the eighteenth century, and yet that period was marked by rumblings of dissatisfaction with the exclusivity that constituted its foundation. The issue came to a head in 1839 when a crown warrant directed to Common Pleas commanded it to permit “gentlemen of the bar generally” to practice before it. Feeling bound to obey the mandate, their lordships “‘ordered it to be recorded, and proceeded to call upon the other gentlemen of the bar to move.” (In the Matter of the Serjeants at Law [1839] 6 Bing.) [N. C.] 187.

Five sergeants protested that only Parliament possessed the authority to revoke the ancient privileges of the Order. Taking the matter under advisement, at the next Term the Judges heard argument between Serjeant Wilde and a barrister by the name of Newton who was not of the degree of the Coif. In the Matter of the Serjeants at Law, [1840] 6 Bing. [N. C.] 232. The Judges’ decision in support of the Coif claim came the next day. Id. at 235. But victory for the Order of the Coif was short-lived. By the Supreme Court of Judicature Act of 1837, it was enacted “that no person appointed a judge of either of the said courts shall henceforth be required to take, or to have taken, the degree of serjeant-at-law.” The two courts to which reference was made were not Common Pleas and Queen’s Bench as such but the Court of Appeal and the High Court of Justice, which by the statute were made the two divisions of the Supreme Court of Judicature in England. Integrated into the
High Court of Justice were both Common Pleas and Queen’s Bench.

As a result, Serjeants of the Coif lost their cherished privilege, and with that the Order lost its significance. With this parliamentary action it became possible, without a shadow of constitutional doubt, that, as the lord chancellor observed in response to a question put him in the parliamentary session of 1877, “there was nothing to prevent the crown from creating new serjeants if it were thought expedient to confer the honor and there are members of the bar who desire that rank.” Pulling cites this episode with the concession that “shorn of its old advantages, there is a positive discouragement to those who would otherwise desire to take this rank.” Not surprisingly, it is recorded that the last meeting of the English order was held April 27, 1877.

Just two years into the present century there was established at the College of Law of the University of Illinois an honor society for recognition of high academic attainment. Typical of campus resort to Greek letters for professional as well as social fraternities, the new society adopted the name of Theta Kappa Nu. Nebraska, Missouri, and Wisconsin soon affiliated.

At Northwestern University School of Law in 1907 a similar feeling of need for recognition of outstanding student scholarship led to the organization of a society designated as The Order of the Coif. With the Anglophile John Henry Wigmore as dean, it was plausible to surmise that the suggestion for a suitable name came from him. This conjecture is substantiated by William R. Roalfe, who was for eighteen years law librarian of Northwestern, in his biography of Dean Wigmore.

In 1910 Northwestern accepted a charter in Theta Kappa Nu, and the next year Iowa and Michigan were chartered. Differing practices among the growing number of Chapters led to a national convention in 1911. It was there determined to recommend a merger of the two organizations under the name of The Order of the Coif This recommendation and one for a revised Constitution were ratified by the constituent Chapters, to become effective in 1912. Provision was made for the chartering of other Chapters in law schools that demonstrated the quality of legal education constitutionally specified for admission. Four additional charters were granted in 1912, including Pennsylvania in the East and Stanford in the West’, with three more in 1915. Yale was chartered in 1919.

Dating the American Order of the Coif back to 1902 made the year 1977 its seventy-fifth anniversary. Taking 1877 as marking the end of the Order in England, 1977 also marked the centennial of revival of Coif across the Atlantic.

There are now seventy five Chapters of Coif in American law schools, additional ones having been established in every decade following the period of World War I. Chapters are federated in a national organization under a national Constitution that specifies the conditions for admission of additional Chapters, stipulates the standards governing election of students, faculty members, and honorary members, establishes a national executive committee, and provides for recognition and awards by national and individual Chapters. Creation of new Chapters is a demanding procedure designed to ensure that member law schools offer a distinctly superior quality of education.

Coif members drawn largely from law teaching serve three-year terms on the National Executive Committee, others for indefinite terms as officers of the local Chapters. Student eligibility for membership is basically restricted to those in the top 10 per cent of a graduating class who have taken at least 75 per cent of their law studies in graded courses. Individual Chapters may impose additional qualifications. Faculty membership in a Coif school qualifies for election. Election to honorary membership by a Coif Chapter is reserved to those who enjoy high distinction for scholarly attainments.

Distinctive recognition of legal scholarship is given through Coif’s Triennial Book Award, which is conferred on the author or authors of outstanding publications evidencing creative talent of the highest order. Determination of those honored in this way is made after exhaustive review of legal and legally-related writing by a carefully selected committee. The first award was made at the annual meeting of the Association of
American Law Schools in 1964.

The Constitution of 1912 underwent several amendments over the years but remained in force until recently. A thoroughly revised instrument became effective February 25, 1976. One of the new provisions authorizes the National Executive Committee to elect to honorary membership in each triennium not more than five members of the legal profession who have attained national recognition for their contributions to the legal
system. The first elections of national honorary members were announced at the 1976 annual meeting of the Association of American Law Schools.

The insignia of the American Order are the Certificate of membership, the Badge of membership, and the Key. All types of membership certificates and keys exhibit in relief the figure of a serjeant with wig as headdress, topped by a coif of circular form made of linen. All are of a distinctive design long identified with Coif. The Badge of membership, worn with academic regalia, is directly patterned after the coif itself as it was affixed
to the wig.

All initiates receive a pocket-sized handbook printed in the colors of The Order. Reprinted annually, the handbook contains the list of Chapters, the names of past and present officers and other members of the successive National Executive Committees, the Coif Constitution, and a capsulized history of The Order.

Another symbolic tie with the English Order is an approved ritual for use in the induction of new members. The best features of several different versions of ritual have been incorporated into a form available to Chapters. Included in the approved ritual is an oath analogous in spirit to that taken by the English sergeants, as reported by Pulling.

A directory published in 1991 lists alphabetically and by Chapter all those elected to Coif on one or another of the described bases from the Illinois group of 1902 through the present. Elections, primarily of graduating law students, recently have run more than fifteen hundred a year. The total membership over seventy-five years exceeds twenty-five thousand, who have given much strength to the profession as attorneys, judges,
or teachers.

There is thus an affinity between the American organization and the English that makes entirely appropriate the use of the name of the ancient and distinctive Order of the Coif.

*With minor alteration, this History is reprinted with permission from Frank R. Strong, Order of the Coif, English Antecedents and American Adaptation, 63 Amer. Bar Assoc. J. 1725 (December 1977).