5a9 Coif Comes to Cardozo 1000 Woodcut Print of a Judge
Coif Comes to Cardozo

 Michael Herz
Senior Associate Dean


There are well over 200 law schools in the United States. Of these, 181 are approved by the American Bar Association. In turn, 162 of those are members of the Association of American Law Schools. And of those, only 76 have chapters of the Order of the Coif, legal education's national honorary society.

The Cardozo School of Law opened its doors in 1976, was approved by the ABA in 1978, and was admitted to the AALS in 1983. And now, as of March 16, 1999, it has joined the much smaller group of law schools with a chapter of the Order of the Coif. Cardozo is the youngest law school in the country with a chapter. We join NYU, Cornell, Fordham, and Syracuse as the only law schoolsˇand there are 15ˇin New York State with Coif chapters.

Establishment of a chapter of the Order of the Coif is an important milestone for Cardozo. It confirms our position as not only an established but a superior law school and reminds us how far we have come in such a short period.

Order of the Coif

So what is the Order of the Coif, anyway?

The usual shorthand description is that Coif is the law school equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa. Its stated purpose is "to encourage excellence in legal education by fostering a spirit of careful study." The most visible aspect of having a Coif chapter is that the top 10 percent of the graduating class are elected to membership in the Order. They receive a certificate, a handbook, a handshake, and, not least, an important line on their resume.

The Order does more than just honor top students, however. It is also well known in legal academic circles because of its triennial book award. This is arguably the single most prestigious award given for legal scholarship. Recent winners have included Gerald Gunther for his biography of Judge Learned Hand, G. Edward White for his biography of Justice Holmes, Mary Ann Glendon, Ronald Dworkin, Guido Calabresi, John Hart Ely, and Jesse Choper. The Order also supports a national lecture series, allowing member schools the opportunity to bring outstanding scholars to their campuses.

As for the "coif" itself,[Note 1] that was a round piece of white cloth, a sort of a doily, that medieval English serjeants-at-law wore atop their wig. Five centuries ago, serjeants were the top dogs of English lawyers. Appointment as a serjeant was a significant honor and a great professional benefit, not least because judges were drawn exclusively from among serjeants. This exclusivity arrangement lasted until abolished by Parliament in 1837. Originally, serjeants-at-law wore a particular sort of hood; when lawyers started wearing wigs, the serjeants abandoned the hood and adopted the coif. The English "Order of the Coif" was the corporate society of the serjeants. To be a serjeant-at-law was to be a member of the Order of the Coif. Fortunately, modern-day members of the American Order are not obliged to don an actual coif, but in earlier centuries the coif was worn with pride. According to one contemporary account, during the ceremony creating a new serjeant, "[t]he white coif of the order was placed on the head of the serjeant-elect with the same solemnity as the helmet was formerly placed on the head of the knight."[Note 2]

The English Order of the Coif came to an end in the late 1800s after many centuries of decline. The contemporary American version began at Northwestern in 1907 and does not actually have any connection with the historical English order other than the name and, at an abstract level, an aspiration toward quality. Apparently it was the influence of John Henry Wigmore, author of the famous treatise on evidence, an enthusi ca1 astic Anglophile, and dean at Northwestern, that led to the adoption of "Order of the Coif" as the name for the new honorary society. The Order adopted its first constitution in 1912 and has grown steadily. But for a couple of conspicuous absences, the list of schools with Coif chapters is the honor roll of law schools. (Oddly, neither Columbia nor Harvard has a Coif chapter. It seems safe to say that they qualify; for reasons best known to themselves, they have not sought to join.)

Although Cardozo's charter is dated March 1999, under the Order's constitution a new chapter can reach back two years to elect members. This spring, there will be a ceremony at the Law School to initiate into the Order of the Coif those members of the classes of 1997 and 1998 who finished in the top 10 percent.

We should be justly proud that the officers and other chapters of the Order have recognized Cardozo's quality in granting it a chapter. In the words of the Order's former secretary-treasurer, "Creation of new chapters is a demanding procedure designed to ensure that member law schools offer a distinctly superior quality of education."[Note 3] The whole process took almost two years and included a lengthy application and an on-site inspection. The Order receives multiple applications each year; it generally creates one new chapter a year at most and does not necessarily grant even one.

Our success, to those who know Cardozo well, should not come as a surprise. But not everyone knows Cardozo well. One benefit of our successful application for a chapter is that both the process and the result will inform others in the legal academy of the school's quality. We were particularly gratified when the inspectors wrote in their site report:

Based upon a knowledge of its reputation, team members came to Cardozo with the expectation of visiting a very good law school. We left with the impression that the school is far better than we had anticipated, and that it exceeds its reputation by a wide margin.

This being an ever-more promotional world, law schools often send their magazine to many to whom they have no particular connection. As Associate Dean, I read or, to be precise, glance at alumni magazines from many other law schools. One caught my eye recently because the cover story was that it planned to apply for a chapter of the Order of the Coif. It is very nice to be in the position of having our cover story be that we have been granted a Coif chapter.


1 Although it looks French, the word is pronounced "koyf," not "quaff." As with a certain much-mispronounced street about half a mile south of Cardozo, those in the know sound like they are saying it wrong.

2 Frank R. Strong, Order of the Coif: English Antecedents and American Adaptation, 63 ABA J. 1725, 1726 (1977), quoting Alexander Pulling, The Order of the Coif.

3 Strong, supra note 2, at 1727. For those really interested in the history of the organization and its English namesake, this article is the best place to start. 0