License to Practice Law Old Style In A New Republic

Out of storage at Alameda County Law Library and into my hands came an interesting item.  It was one of a group of items that had been retrieved out of the back of a closet by a library staff member who was looking to re-decorate the walls in one of our for-rent conference rooms.  She thought the framed items she had come upon might have possibilities.  She wanted others to take a look to see if we thought any of the images were of particular interest.

Looking over her selections, one stood out.  There was no strong graphic image visible.  At first glance, it looked as if someone, in the past, had taken some effort to frame a dirty piece of paper after surrounding it with news clippings.   My attention was grabbed.  I watch Antiques Roadshow.  Could this be the next chief’s blanket that would set the library’s finances on the Roadshow to recovery?  Jumping on the Internet, I discovered some tidbits of information.  My wild imaginings were squashed but my interest held steady.   The item does tell an interesting tale.

 License to Practice Law in Post-Colonial Williamsburg

 What I first took to be a sad-looking piece of paper reads on one side :
 “I do hereby certify that I have received the fullest satisfaction of the ability and fitness of William Nelson junior esquire to practise [sic] as an attorney at law” [signed] Edmund Randolph,September 3, 1782″
The other side reads:
“Nelson  License  Sept 1782(?)”
Randolph was documenting that Nelson was now a competent attorney.  Nelson probably spent time in his legal office as an apprentice.  An apprenticeship was how a man became a lawyer at this time – there were no state bar exams.  The States were just getting themselves united at this point in history.  Legal apprenticeships in the early times of our country have been described by Lawrence Friedman as follows –

“[f]or a fee, the lawyer-to-be hung around an office, read Blackstone . . . and copied legal documents. If he was lucky, he benefited from watching the lawyer do his work, and do it well. If he was very lucky, the lawyer actually tried to teach him something.”  Apprenticeship “was useful to everybody: to the clerks, who picked up some knowledge of law . . . and to the lawyers, who (in the days before telephones, typewriters . . . ) badly needed copyists and legmen.” Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law (3d ed. 2005) at 238.  Quoted in Katcher, Susan, Legal Training in the US: A Brief History 24, No. 1 Wisconsin International Law Journal 335 [available online at]

The lawyer and his apprentice

Edmund Randolph220px-EdRand was the name of lawyer who lived in Virginia and was a compatriot of the more  famous participants in the American Revolution and creation of the new republic.  He handled George Washington’s personal legal matters and represented Aaron Burr during his trial for treason.  Washington appointed him as the first Attorney General of the United States in 1789 and then as Secretary of State in 1794.  The name, William Nelson, Jr., is harder to trace.  A Thomas Nelson Jr. (who was the son of a William Nelson) signed the Declaration of Independence.  William Nelson served as governor of Virginia (as did Randolph.)  Web resources do not show that he had a son of an appropriate age to be finishing up a legal apprenticeship during the 1780s. The Randolphs and Nelsons were Virginian families intertwined by marriage in those days. We must leave it to a family history expert to sort out any relationship.  The paper does document that this Randolph and that Nelson had a business relationship involving training to be a lawyer in the early days of our country.

Here are the images from the framed ACLL document:


“I do hereby certify that I have received the fullest satisfaction of the ability and fitness of William Nelson junior esquire to practise [sic] as an attorney at law” [signed] Edmund Randolph,September 3, 1782

Written on the reverse side –

“Nelson  License  Sept 1782(?)”

My quick Internet research shows that, if authenticated,  someone might be willing to pay the equivalent of  year’s subscription to Civil Procedure Before Trial.  Oh, well.  ACLL has no plans to sell this item but will retain it as a bit of history of the American legal profession.

Of course, the library continues to need to pay for subscriptions to Civil Procedure Before Trial.  Your contributions can help provide access to legal information resources, as well as, access to justice for the Alameda County community.

If you wish to help with our mission into the future, you can DONATE NOW.  Thank you from the bottom of our closet.

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