Lawyers in the Anglo-Saxon tradition and much of Europe wear gowns when appearing in certain courts, and more often than not, also when they appear in parliament. It has often been suggested that this tradition is the result of the fact that law, being one of the traditional three professions of law, divinity and medicine, was a profession usually followed after certain academic instruction had been recieved at university. In the result, so the argument goes, the lawyer was entitled to wear an academic gown. In most jurisdictions, the lawyer’s gown does not look like the academic gown, the latter often having sleeves that do not cover the entire arm, while the lawyer’s gown more often than not has sleeves that extend the full length of the arm. In any event, it was (and in some countries still is) possible to become an attorney with no university instruction, but based only on an extended period of clerkship together with examinations in the practice of law.
The tradition of the lawyer’s gown is much older, however, than the mediaeval university tradition, and harks back to the later Roman empire, where since the reign of the emperor Diocletian (284 CE – 305 CE) the Roman court wore military dress as symbol of the beleaguered state of the empire. All the court officials (except the eunuchs, apparently, who ran the administration) wore military dress, a remnant of which can still be seen when parliaments are convened, the opening ceremonies usually including much military pomp and circumstance.
The privilege of practicing law in the Roman empire was one that belonged only to free born citizens. No slave or freedman could practice law (while it was common for medical practitioners to be slaves). The result was that in order to assert their independence from the state and the state administration, lawyers refused to wear military uniform when attending at the law courts or the imperial court, but rather wore the traditional Roman toga, the dress of the free Roman citizen.
A lawyer today therefore dons his or her gown as symbol of the fact that he or she practices the profession without any obligation to the state, other than to uphold the law, but more: with the particular obligation to speak out when laws no longer serve the good of the people. Cicero stated salus populi suprema est lex (the good of the people is the supreme law), and this is what the lawyer’s gown even today symbolises: It is the obligation of the lawyer to serve good law free of any interference by the state.