The Power of the Law by Edwin Blashfield, frontispiece of the original edition of The Story of Law.
The modern Delaware Bar exam has a reputation as one of the toughest in the nation. But today’s bar candidates can at least be thankful they no longer have to read The Story of Law by John Maxcy Zane. From 1931 to around 1970, those wishing to be admitted to the bar had to first register as a law student and were required to read and pass an oral examination on The Story of Law, a survey of the history of Western law originally published in 1927. The Delaware State Bar Association’s official history claims it was “for many members of the Bar, … a horrible experience they have never forgotten.” In 1963 13% of candidates failed their examination on Zane.
In a 1987 article in The Delaware Lawyer, attorney William Prickett (whose father, William Prickett, Sr., was a member of the Delaware Board of Bar Examiners) called The Story of Law “that truly awful book.” He recalled his father’s explanation for the Board’s continued use of the book: first, the members of the Board were already familiar with Zane and didn’t want to spend the time to learn a new book well enough to conduct the exam, and second, many aspects of legal practice are tedious, so reading and understanding Zane was a good test of a lawyer’s ability to learn tedious and dull material.
The Story of Law does have its admirers. A review in the Pennsylvania Law Review called it “… a source of delight from cover to cover.” It was republished in a second edition by the Liberty Fund in 1998 with a new introduction and illustrations. The introduction to the new edition describes it as “… a learned and highly readable account of the shaping of Western law from the Neolithic age to the dawn of the twentieth century.”
If you would like to judge Zane for yourself, you can read the new edition online at the Liberty Fund website. Widener Law Library has a copy of the new edition available for borrowing. The first edition is in our special collections and can’t be borrowed but you can view it on HeinOnline.
Kinnane, Charles H., The Story of Law by John M. Zane, 78 U. Pa. L. Rev. 89.
Murphy, Earl Finbar, The Philosophy of Law in Historical Perspective by Carl Joachim Friedrich; The Story of the Law and the Men Who Made It-From the Earliest Times to the Present by René A. Wormser; Legal History, Law and Social Change by Frederick G. Kempin, 8 Am. J. Legal Hist. 89.
Prickett, William, Flunking the Bar, 6 Del. Law. 34 (Summer 1987)
Siebold, Dennis J. Admission to the Bar in The Delaware Bar in the Twentieth Century (Delaware State Bar Association, 1994)
Zane, John Maxcy, The Story of Law (Liberty Fund, 2nd ed. 1998)