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Passing the Bar: Origin Story

What does a law student and a recovering alcoholic have in common? They both must pass the bar.

Every attorney at some point in their lives has heard this joke; and while this whimsical play on words succeeds at either tickling the funny bone or causing an involuntary eye roll, it does also spark curiosity.

How did this phrase “pass the bar” come to be? What exactly does it mean?

To law students, it means passing the bar exam. For North Carolina, the bar exam spans over two days (near the end of July and February) and includes essay questions and performance test questions. Exam takers must pass a full day of exams about all North Carolina law and another day of exams covering multi-state topics.  By passing this robust examination of one’s legal education and understanding of the law, a law student meets the admission criteria regulated by the State Bar, and thus, becomes an attorney.

Passing the bar is what differentiates a lawyer from an attorney. A lawyer is merely someone who has acquired a law degree, but an attorney is a lawyer who has passed the bar. In North Carolina, a lawyer cannot take on clients or have a practice until they have achieved their attorney status.

While these understandings reflect what we know the term “pass the bar” to mean in our current times, if we were to search the etymology of the expression, we would travel back to the early 14th century to when it was first recorded. “The bar” was in reference to the physical railing that separated the gallery (audience seats) from the area containing the judge, barristers (attorneys), and the accused. “Passing the bar” literally meant having access to enter the space.

Why would such a physical division be needed to separate onlookers from the parties involved in the case? Because early courtrooms were often rowdy scenes with emotions running high–depending upon the case and the outcome. As such, the addition of bailiffs, the judge’s gavel, and rules of the court were created to make the space contain more order and decorum for the serious issues discussed and decided.

The physical division of the public seating area (sometimes called “the gallery”) from “the well” of the courtroom ensures that only the parties involved in the case will have access to the space. Much like you would not walk up on the platform at church or a school function uninvited, neither should you “pass the bar” without an invitation to do so by your attorney or the judge.

Next time you find yourself in a courtroom, notice the physical railing (the bar) separating the room. Notice who is allowed access to the space beyond that bar. Notice how it is handled when a person from the gallery attempts to step into that space.

Most of the time it is someone who steps forward with good intentions of communicating with the judge or attorney or to offer encouragement to their friend or family member. Because of this, they are not mindful of the physical boundary and its symbolic meaning, but that simple railing is part of our legal history and serves as a silent reminder of the respect we have for our judicial system and the ethical and professional standards required for all who pass the bar.



  • American Bar Association. (2015). About us. Retrieved from
  • Harper, D. (2015). Attorney. In Online etymological dictionary. Retrieved from
  • Harper, D. (2015). Bar. In Online etymological dictionary. Retrieved from
  • Morris, E. (1998). Come bear with me. In The word detective. Retrieved from
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