By the mid-fourteenth century, professional associations of canon lawyers (legal advocates in Christian ecclesiastical courts, which dealt with cases involving marriage, inheritance, and other issues) had appeared in most of Western Europe, and a body of professional standards had been defined for them. One might expect that the professional associations would play a prominent role in enforcing these standards of conduct, as other guilds often did, and as modern professional associations do, but that seems not to have happened. Advocates’ professional organizations showed little fervour for disciplining their erring members. Some even attempted to hobble efforts at enforcement. The Florentine guild of lawyers, for example, forbade its members to play any role in disciplinary proceedings against other guild members. In the few recorded episodes of disciplinary enforcement, the initiative for disciplinary action apparently came from a dissatisfied client, not from fellow lawyers.
At first glance, there seem to be two possible explanations for the rarity of disciplinary proceedings. Medieval canon lawyers may have generally observed the standards of professional conduct scrupulously. Alternatively, it is possible that deviations from the established standards of behavior were not uncommon, but that canonical disciplinary mechanisms were so inefficient that most delinquents escaped detection and punishment.
Two considerations make it clear that the second of these explanations is more plausible. First, the English civil law courts, whose ethical standards were similar to those of ecclesiastical courts, show many more examples of disciplinary actions against legal practitioners than do the records of church courts. This discrepancy could well indicate that the disciplinary mechanisms of the civil courts functioned more efficiently than those of the church courts. The alternative inference, namely, that ecclesiastical advocates were less prone to ethical lapses than their counterparts in the civil courts, seems inherently weak, especially since there was some overlap of personnel between the civil bar and the ecclesiastical bar.
Second, church authorities themselves complained about the failure of advocates to measure up to ethical standards and deplored the shortcomings of the disciplinary system. Thus the Council of Basel declared that canon lawyers failed to adhere to the ethical prescriptions laid down in numerous papal constitutions and directed Cardinal Cesarian to address the problem. In England, where medieval church records are extraordinarily rich, similar complaints about the failure of the disciplinary system to reform unethical practices were very common.
Such criticisms seem to have had a paradoxical result, for they apparently reinforced the professional solidarity of lawyers at the expense of the enforcement of ethical standards. Thus the profession’s critics may actually have induced advocates to organize professional associations for self-defense. The critics’ attacks may also have persuaded lawyers to assign a higher priority to defending themselves against attacks by nonprofessionals than to disciplining wayward members within their own ranks.