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Records of lawyers in the Sunflower State

Reader Margel Walker Soderberg wants to know more about the father and grandfather who both practiced law in Kansas.

Kansas“You have helped with questions of law but what about records for lawyers,” she wrote. “Both my father and grandfather were attorneys … (and) both practiced law in Kansas among other places. My grandfather was a federal attorney who worked for Internal Revenue in D.C., St. Louis, and Chicago. Surely lawyers generate records for themselves also.”

They absolutely do generate records for themselves, Margel, and though you may need to jump through a few hoops to get them, you should be able to access quite a bit of information about their legal careers.

First off, your Kansas records and, to begin with, a bit of legal history:

In the nineteenth century, all that was required of someone desiring admittance to the bar was to “read the law” under the direction of a practicing lawyer for a period of a few months, then take a brief and unchallenging oral examination in front of a panel of admitted lawyers. Since Kansas’ earliest days of statehood, all that was required for bar admittance, was that the candidate had to have “requisite learning and good moral character.” Such lax requirements allowed for many under qualified candidates to gain bar admittance. Ultimately, lawyers who later became judges were so uninformed about the law that decisions from different judges resulted in a common-law legal code that was terribly inconsistent and uncoordinated.

By 1897, the (Kansas Bar Association) began advocating … that candidates should be required to study law for at least three years in either a law office, or the Law Department of Kansas University. It further recommended that bar exams be held biennially, under the direction of the Supreme Court, and be held publicly in the Supreme Court Chambers. These recommendations became law in 1903, with modifications.

Soon after the passage of that bill into law, the Supreme Court established a board whose purpose was to devise and administer the bar exam for those desiring admittance. The first written exam was conducted in 1904. This was the first time a truly rigorous test was administered, in order to ensure that only well-qualified candidates would be admitted to the bar. Even so, the requirements kept escalating as the years went by. In 1936, when the examining board required that bar exam candidates to first complete three years of college prior to examination. Kansas was a forerunner in establishing this requirement. At that time, no other State in the Union made such requirements of aspiring lawyers. By 1942, candidates were expected to have earned an undergraduate degree as well as an LL.B. or J.D. degree. Law office study, a mainstay of legal education for many years, was completely abolished in 1968.1

And here, you’re very fortunate since both the archival records of the Kansas Board of Law Examiners — the board set up to test those who wanted to practice law in the Sunflower State — and the records of the Kansas Bar Association are held by the Kansas State Archives unit of the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka.

An overview of the archival records of the Board of Law Examiners is on the Kansas State Historical Society website and the description says: “The records of the Kansas Board of Law Examiners held by the Kansas State Archives mostly consist of applications to be admitted to the bar, from the first half of the twentieth century. Other records include correspondence, complaints, meeting minutes, financial records, and other such administrative records related to running the Board and performing its duties.”2

And the website also has an overview of the archival records of the Kansas Bar Association, and series 6 of the Bar Association’s records includes information on membership, address changes, deceased members’ cards, members’ information files and membership & dues correspondence. Most of these records are from 1952-1988.3

Between those two — the early records of the Law Examiners and the later records of the Bar Association — anyone looking for information on Kansas lawyers of the 20th century has a pretty good shot at finding gold. They’re not online, so you’ll need to make a research request of the Historical Society staff, hire a local researcher or make a road trip.

Now your grandfather poses an additional challenge but may have additional rewards because because he spent part of his legal career working for the federal government. Records of civilian employees of the federal government fall into two categories: archival (those whose government service ended before 1952) and non-archival (for those whose government service ended in 1952 or thereafter).

For archival records, the National Archives at St. Louis holds the Official Personnel Folders (OPF) — “primarily administrative records used by the government to make accurate employment decisions throughout a Federal employee’s career”4 — that can be requested by mail, or in person, or through a researcher hired to do the work at the archives. Directions on ordering the files are on the Archives.gov website.

For non-archival records, a request has to be made under the federal Freedom of Information Act, and only certain information can be released — more if the person is deceased, less if the person is still living unless the person authorizes the disclosures. Information about how to make the request and what to include is also on the Archives.gov website.

Good luck in finding out more about your lawyer forebears, Margel! Let us know what you discover.


SOURCES

  1. Biography,” Kansas Bar Association Records, 1883-1989 (bulk 1952-1989), Manuscript Collection No. 740, Kansas State Historical Society (http://www.kshs.org : accessed 26 Feb 2014), citing Robert Richmond, Requisite Learning and Good Moral Character: A History of the Kansas Bench and Bar (Topeka, Kansas: Kansas Bar Association, 1982), 1-25.
  2. Records of the Kansas Board of Law Examiners,” Kansas State Historical Society (http://www.kshs.org : accessed 26 Feb 2014).
  3. Kansas Bar Association Records, 1883-1989 (bulk 1952-1989), Manuscript Collection No. 740,” Kansas State Historical Society (http://www.kshs.org : accessed 26 Feb 2014).
  4. What is an Official Personnel Folder (OPF)?,” National Archives at St. Louis, Archives.gov (http://www.archives.gov/st-louis : accessed 26 Feb 2014).
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