In England of the medieval period, serjeants-at-law wore, as a required mark of their station, a close-fitting
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
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
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
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
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  6 Bing.) [N. C.] 187.
Five sergeants protested that only
Parliament possessed the authority to revoke the ancient privileges of
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,  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.
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
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
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
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 recognitions 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,
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,
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,
Antecedents and American Adaptation, 63 Amer. Bar Assoc. J. 1725 (December 1977).