The lack of security of tenures for judges may have in part been a reason for the emphasis on the status of serjeants. Serjeants enjoyed immunity from suit in any court other than Common Pleas. Judges and serjeants always addressed each other as "Brother" in King's Bench and Common Pleas, and in Exchequer after 1579.
Serjeants (except King's Serjeants) were created by Writ of Summons under the Great Seal of the Realm and wore a special and distinctive dress, the chief feature of which was the coif, a white lawn or silk skull cap, afterwards represented by a round piece of black silk at the top of the wig.
The serjeants usually numbered fewer than ten in practice, with six to eight new serjeants being created in one batch every ten years or so. These were chosen from double readers in the Inns of Court. Only one hundred were created 1450–1550, of whom sixty became judges. In the nineteenth century there were seldom more than forty serjeants in existence at one time, including judges, and frequently fewer.
Upon being appointed serjeants, these lawyers ceased to be apprentices, and withdrew from their Inn of Court. They were then made members of one of the two Serjeants' Inns, at Chancery Lane (dating from 1416), and Fleet Street (1443). (The name of the Fleet Street Serjeants' Inn survives: it is now effectively part of the precincts of the Inner Temple, which has recently acquired most of the buildings from its former commercial occupiers). They remained members of Serjeants' Inn even after being appointed to the bench. Serjeants were regarded as the common-law equivalent to the civilian Doctors of Law.
Both the common serjeants and the King's Serjeants were selected from the utter barristers, of about twenty years standing. The common serjeants were created (a word reserved for degrees of dignity) by Writ of Summons under the Great Seal. The King's Serjeants were appointed by patent under the Great Seal, and received a writ of summons to Parliament. The Warrant required the appointee to take the degree by a particular day. Upon appointment they gave an inscribed ring to each prince, duke, or archbishop present, and to the Lord Chancellor, and Lord Treasurer of England, if present. They were created by the judges after issue of a writ of subpoena, and a royal Writ from 1383.
Down to 1845 the order enjoyed a very valuable monopoly of practice. The serjeants had the right of exclusive audience as leading counsel in the Court of Common Pleas. The Serjeants were admitted to the Admiralty Court in 1859, and, like barristers, could practice in the Ecclesiastical courts after 1858. However, the position of Serjeants was already under threat in the seventeenth century from the King's Counsel.
For at least 600 years the judges of the superior courts of common law were always serjeants.
The Serjeants had their own Inns of Court known as Serjeants' Inn, which was formerly in two divisions, one in Fleet Street and one in Chancery Lane. In 1758 the members of the former joined the latter.
In Ireland, the interests of the English King in the Lordship of Ireland were represented by the office of Serjeant. Gradually as English influence extended further across the country and the Crown had more need of their services in ever busier courts, the number of serjeants increased from one to three, the most senior amongst them being known as the Prime Serjeant until 1805 and First Serjeant thereafter. From the appointment of Roger Owen c.1260 to the extinction of the office with the death of Serjeant A.M. Sullivan in 1959 around 183 individuals assumed the title. Apart from being very prominent at the Irish Bar, many serjeants were active and gifted parliamentarians and - especially before the Act of Union in 1801 - were often appointed by the government not so much to advise on legal matters as to help guide difficult or controversial legislation through a fractious House of Commons.
A Serjeant enjoyed a social precedence after knights bachelor and before companions of the Bath and other orders. In this they differed from King's Counsel who had simply professional, as distinguished from social, rank. Socially the serjeant had precedence, professionally the King's Counsel, unless indeed, as was often the case, a patent of precedence was granted to the former. They had precedence over utter Barristers, but only serjeants with patents of precedence took precedence over King's Counsel after the seventeenth century. The King's Serjeants preceded all the Bar until 1623. After the two senior King's Serjeants (now called the King's Prime and Second Serjeants) had precedence of the Attorney General for England and Wales and Solicitor General for England and Wales until 1814.
After 1805, all Irish serjeants ranked after the Law Officers of the Crown. Before 1805, the Prime Serjeant had enjoyed a nominal precedence over the Attorney- and Solicitor-General, one which had long since eroded in practice, as was reflected in their official salaries.
Just under half of the serjeants-at-law were also King's Serjeants—some three or four at a time, appointed by patent with a small salary, equivalent to a general retainer on behalf of the Crown. They were the leaders of the Bar, and the prototype of the Queen's Counsel. King's Serjeants, who appeared in the 1270s, were appointed until the mid-nineteenth century.
There was also a King's Ancient Sergeant, the eldest of the King's Serjeants, the last of whom was a James Manning, who died in 1866. There was also a King's Premier Serjeant, appointed by warrant.
Until 1814 the two senior King's Serjeants had precedence of even the Attorney-General and Solicitor-General. It was the custom for serjeants on their appointment to give gold rings with mottoes to their colleagues.
Apparently introduced at the time of the Conquest, the serjeants developed from the narratores. In 1275 there was a serjeant-counter, and by 1310 that office had evolved into serjeants-at-law. Later, the sheriffs were usually serjeants-at-law. From the early fourteenth century the Crown conferred the degree of serjeant-at-law upon a few outstanding barristers, on the advice of the Lord Chancellor, who acted on the advice of the Chief Justice of Common Pleas. By the time of King Richard II the serjeants were a rank.
The word is a corruption of serviens ad legem, as distinguished from apprenticius ad legem, or utter barrister, who probably originally obtained his knowledge of law by serving a kind of apprenticeship to a serjeant. When the order of serjeants was instituted is unknown, but it certainly dates from a very remote period. The authority of serjeant counters or countors (i.e. pleaders, those who frame counts in pleading) is treated in the Mirror of Justices, and they are named in 3 Edw. I. c. 29.
They may possibly have been the representatives of the conteurs mentioned in the customary law of Normandy. The position of the serjeant had become assured when Chaucer wrote. One of the characters in The Canterbury Tales is "A serjeant of the law, wary and wise, That often had y-been at the parvis."
In 1834 a royal mandate of William IV attempted to abolish the serjeants' privilege in the Court of Common Pleas, but in 1840 the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council declared the mandate informal and invalid. The monopoly was finally abolished in 1845 by Act of Parliament.
By the Judicature Act 1873 no person appointed a judge of the High Court of Justice or the Court of Appeal was required to take or have taken the degree of serjeant-at-law. The serjeants had lost their remaining monopoly in the common law courts in 1846, and the last non-judicial serjeant was created in 1868. The order was dissolved after 1877, after the sale of their Inn in Chancery Lane, with the proceeds divided among the existing serjeants. The last English serjeant, Nathaniel Lindley, Baron Lindley, who was also the last appointed, died in 1921, the last practising serjeant in 1899. The order is now extinct, though the dignity was never formally abolished.
The Irish Bar retained serjeants slightly longer than the English, the last serjeant being appointed in 1922. The last died in 1959, having been appointed in 1920.
In the United States, an honor society for law school graduates called the Order of the Coif was formed in the early 20th century, taking its name from the head-covering worn by serjeants-at-law. To this day, the Order of the Coif uses a drawing of a serjeant-at-law wearing a coif as its seal, and in keeping with the elite standing of the former serjeants-at-law, election to the Order is reserved for top-ranked graduates of high-rated law schools.