Lawyers first appeared before the Lieutenant-Governor's Court, which opened in 1816. Prominent 'law agents', as they were called, included ex-convicts Robert Lathrop Murray and William Adams Brodribb, John Pascoe Fawkner and some women, such as Mary Whiteman. George Cartwright was the first formally trained lawyer to migrate from England, in 1820, and he and Hugh Cokely Ross formed the first legal partnership in 1823. These trained lawyers found it hard to dislodge convict 'agents' in the Lieutenant-Governor's Court before it was replaced by the Supreme Court of Tasmania in 1824. That court's charter forbade anyone convicted of serious offences from becoming a legal practitioner, and departed from English practice by allowing 'fit and proper persons' to be admitted to practice interchangeably as 'Barristers, Advocates, Proctors, Attornies and Solicitors'.

In 1840 legislation placed the legal profession under the control of the Legislative Council and prevented unqualified people from practising; the Legal Practitioners Act (1845) gave the profession full statutory recognition. By 1850 legal firms had established roots in Hobart and Launceston, including Butler, McIntyre and Butler, and Roberts and Allport. Law firms trained articled clerks, often from established legal families, for the profession, but some wealthy locals trained in the Inns of Court in London. There was no requirement to wear court dress before the Supreme Court until the mid-1850s when it was decided to imitate English practice, and allegiance to English court forms remained strong. The first locally trained lawyer to be appointed a Supreme Court judge was William Robert Giblin in 1885.

Lawyers became an influential pressure group able to defend their interests, although they failed to defeat the introduction of the Torrens system of land title registration in 1862. Their power was enhanced when the Southern and Northern Law Societies were established in 1888. These aimed to represent the views of the profession in court and parliament, promote law reform, preserve the status of the profession, punish dishonourable conduct and practice, encourage the study of law and establish a law library. In 1941 the Law Societies secured government support for a Law Reform Committee to review and modernise Tasmanian law. In 1962 the Southern and Northern Law Societies were dissolved and the Law Society of Tasmania was created, and in 1963 the Tasmanian Bar Association was formed. Some law firms became large enough to allow lawyers to specialise, for example in court or commercial work.

Legal education was raised to a new level in 1893 with the establishment of a Law Faculty at the University of Tasmania. William Jethro Brown became the first Professor of Modern History and Law in 1896. For many decades the Law Faculty was underfunded and relied on practitioners for part-time teaching. In the late 1960s student numbers began to grow and the opening of a new building in 1973 proved a turning point. The faculty's reputation and staffing improved and from the mid-1980s Tasmanian law graduates, increasingly female and from more diverse backgrounds, became sought after by mainland law firms. Graduates had to take articles with a law firm for two years until 1972, when this was reduced by a six-month Legal Practice course, based on overseas models and taught at the Tasmanian College of Advanced Education. Its establishment reflected animosity between a section of the legal profession and the Law Faculty over the excessive intellectual content of the law degree, but in the 1990s practitioners, judges, and academics developed closer ties than ever before.

Further reading: R Baker, Tasmania now and again, Hobart, 1983; A Castles, An Australian legal history, Sydney, 1982; and 'Lawless harvests or God save the judges', unpublished manuscript; R Davis, 100 years, Hobart, 1993; S Petrow, 'Knocking down the house?', UT Law Review 11/2, 1992; and 'Lost Cause?', UT Law Review 13, 1994; J Piggott, Reflections of a common attorney, Hobart, 1996; J Wilson, Lawyers and the community, Launceston, 1996.

Stefan Petrow