Abstract: The Legal Routine of Nineteenth Century New York Commerce

Justin Simard


In nineteenth-century New York City, an elite commercial bar developed to serve the powerful businessmen who were reaping the rewards of New York’s rapid growth. Through their day­-to-­day work, most of it mundane and much of it out of court­­--lawyers facilitated the complex and anonymous financial transactions on which their clients’ fortunes depended. For real­-estate speculators, lawyers researched and examined complicated titles; for traders, they drafted agreements and settled disputes; for insurers, they prepared policies and fought over interpretation; for manufacturers, they established financing and organized partnerships; and for bankers, they secured loans and deposits. By reducing risk and building confidence lawyers encouraged commerce. The essential role of the legal profession in transaction meant that businessmen relied on the work of lawyers even when litigation was not on the horizon. As one nineteenth century guide to business put it, a smart businessmen ought to consult a lawyer “before concluding any important undertaking.” The important role of the legal profession in relatively mundane commercial transaction has been neglected by prior historians who focus on legal rules, rather than legal practice. Uncovering the importance of the routine work of New York’s elite commercial bar reveals a broader, more pervasive role for the profession in transaction. It also illustrates the extent to which the New York economy relied on the work of lawyers to maintain and stabilize property relations. In their routine work lawyers not only encouraged the wealthy to engage in commerce but also shaped the business environment in which they operated.