Is there a specific history behind the term "Legal Mind"? Meaning, the following phrase would be quite typical in describing a lawyer or closely related occupations:

That lawyer possesses a brilliant legal mind.

Compare that with terminology used for other professions:

It is evident from his writings that he was a brilliant scientist.

As far as I have known, this term 'mind' is unique in being used in relation law.

If this is so, why has it developed in this way?

  • 5
    It seems that Maria Montessori believed that every child is born with a mathematical mind. Then there is the artistic mind and so on. Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 21:24
  • @WeatherVane Indeed so. Ngram shows mathematical, artistic and linguistic minds to be much more commonly used than legal mind.
    – Anton
    Commented Oct 14, 2020 at 22:39

1 Answer 1


'Legal mind' in opposition to 'spiritual or gospel mind'

One early instance of "legal mind" appears in John Bunyan, The Holy War, Made by Shaddai upon Diabolus, for the Regaining the Metropolis of the World, Or, The Losing and Taking Again of the Town of Mansoul (1682):

Then the Grace-doubter was called, and his indictment read ; and he replied thereto, That though he was of the land of Doubting, his father was the off-spring of a Pharisee, and lived in good fashion among his neighbours, and that he taught him to believe, and believe it I do, and will, that Mansoul shall never be saved freely by grace.

Then said the Judge, Why, the law of the Prince is plain: 1. Negatively, Not of works. 2. Positively, By grace you are saved. And thy religion settleth in and upon the works of the flesh ; for the works of the law are the works of the flesh. Besides in saying aas thou hast done, thou has robbed God of his glory, and given it to a sinful man ; thou hast robbed Christ of the necessity of his undertaking, and the sufficiency thereof, and hast given both these to the works of the flesh. Thou hast despised the work of the Holy Ghost, and hast magnified the will of the flesh, and of the legal mind. Thou art a Diabolonian, the son of a Diabolonian ; and for thy Diabolonian principles thou must die.

Subsequent religious writers similarly treated "legal mind" as a counterpoint to the mind of spiritual faith and grace. For example, from Ralph Erskine, Gospel-Sonnets; or, Spiritual Songs (1720/1726):

It's in a Gospel-Way you're call'd to wait, / And strive to enter in at this strait Gate; / For many Souls unlearned and unstable / Shall seek to enter in, and shan't be able: / Because they do mistake the Way of Life, / And make a Legal, not a Gospel Strife. They think their Use of Means doth bind the Lord, / And to their own Destruction wrest his Word. / Some Scriptures, such as, Seek and ye shall find, / Are much abus'd by ev'ry legal Mind : / Which popishly do make their moral Pains / Most natively infer all saving Gains; / While to the Word no Gospel Sense they give, / Their seek and find's the same with, Do and live. / The Sense in which this seek and find they take, / Is to their ruin but a gross Mistake.

And from William Huntington, The History of Little Faith (by 1797):

And oftentimes such souls fall into the hands of ten blind guides, before they find out one that is a burning and a shining light : and , as they have not grace sufficient to counterbalance the legal mind, a mere impostor, or a legal tutor, under the influence of Lucifer, and by the sufferance of Jehova, generally gets hold of them; with whom they are mightily taken, being zealously affected by him. The empty and noisy harangue of such a Boanerges suiting the legal mind, it entangles them in the birth, in the ties or navelstring of nature, or natural affections; for this navel, in the wort sense, is a round goblet which wanteth not liquor, Cant. vii. 2; consequently, a legal spirit, and a confused mind, are sure of nutriment from that quarter.

'Legal mind' in opposition to 'lay or nonspecialist mind'

Nonpejorative instances "legal mind" appear (twice) in A Full and Faithful Report of the Proceedings in His Majesty's Court of Exchequer in Ireland (1805), in an argument made by William Johnson before the court on February 5, 1805:

My position is, that this act is confined to persons who having by actual presence committed an offence in a particular jurisdiction, avoid by removal after the offence committed, out of that jurisdiction, the ready process of the law issuing within it, whereby, in the words of the act, "their offences often remain unpunished."––I shall be content to depart from this Hall a proscribed driveller, if, upon this part of the case, I leave the smallest doubt upon any unprejudiced legal mind.


No legal mind will confound the reasonings here on the principles of the criminal law of England with what takes place in transitory civil actions, which, if the parties come to reside in England, may be tried there, though the cause of action arose out of the realm. In such the obligation, upon which the action is founded, is of no place, and follows the person ; but, even in such case, the contract must be tried by the law of the place where it arose, if different from the law of England.

From a footnote to an 1811 translation of "Commercial Code of the French Empire (October 1811):

These terms [maritime loan, maritime money, and lending and borrowing at maritime risk] have the advantage of being derived entirely from our own language, and of being perfectly consonant to its analogy. They are, moreover, easily understood, and convey to the legal mind clear and precise ideas of the subjects which they are meant to describe. We do not therefore hesitate to make use of them in this translation.

From an address to the court by the Solicitor General in "Proceedings Against Edward Sheridan, M.D. and Thos. Kirwan, Merchant, for a Misdemeanor," (January 29, 1812) in Thomas Howell, A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors (1823):

From some passages in Mr. Burrowe's speech, I should be induced to suppose, that he did not so much dispute your lordships judgment, as he disclaims your jurisdiction, and that he considers your lordships to have arrogated the province if the jury, in the interpretation o this statute: I did not expect, that I should have heard it gravely asserted by his lips, that the jury were the proper tribunal for the interpretation of the statute law: I shall never until corrected by the highest authority, cease to consider, and to call this the most monstrous proposition that ever shocked a legal mind.

From a review of David Hoffman, A Course of Legal Study in The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review (November 1817):

We cannot but express our hope and belief, that the author of the volume before us will be remunerated for his care and diligence, by its speedily becoming the manual of the American law-students. The selection of works is judicious ; the order designated for their perusal natural and indicative of a legal mind, which has well considered its subject, and happily anticipated the difficulties of these studies ; the Course is of a proper extent, and interspersed with many remarks, rules, and explanations, adapted to remove the apprehensions or the doubts of students, and cheer them in the path of investigation.

From a letter by Peter Miercken to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, dated January 8, 1821, in Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (January 27, 1821):

To resort to capital punishment appears to us would be unwise, and highly injurious to the morals and security of society—Because experience has proved that capital punishments do not deter from the commission of, or lessen the number of crimes. Because, where they do exist, it is difficult to convict offenders and many escape altogether, and therefore in England, at this day, forgeries abound, because few convictions take place. Even in Pennsylvania, the cases are numerous of conviction for murder of second degree, which every legal mind would decide, should have been for murder of the first. Jurors are in general opposed to the shedding of blood, and will not, if thy can avoid it, find a man guilty of an offence where the penalty is death.

And from a review of Crofton Uniacke, A Letter to the Lord Chancellor on the Necessity and Practicability of Forming a Code of the Laws of England in The New-York Review (January 1826):

Any uniform system, however imperfect, would be preferable to the present chaos of state regulation—of insolvent laws, and attachment laws, and execution laws, constantly fluctuating with the changing policy of the different states, operating in the most unjust and partial manner upon foreign creditors, and confining the unfortunate debtor to the limits of the local jurisdiction within which he has obtained his discharge. We are, however, satisfied, that the American legal mind, availing itself of the lights of experience in other countries, is competent to frame a bankrupt code , which shall be superior to any other that has yet been devised, both in simplicity and efficacy.

The distinction in these instances is clearly between "the [or a] legal mind" and "the [or a] lay mind"—not between the legal mind and the spiritual mind.


English writers have mentioned the or a "legal mind" as a particular type of mind since at least the late 1600s. Several preachers and religious polemicists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries took a hostile view of the "legal mind," associating it with pharisee-like quibbling, hair-splitting, and sophistry in opposition to the pure mind of honest faith.

The notion of "legal mind" as an admirable professional trait for a lawyer or judge to possess became increasingly common in the early nineteenth century. The distinction in this case was between such a mind and the mind of someone unfamiliar with the intricacies of law and incapable of pursuing a controversy to a well-reasoned and judicious conclusion.

Different writers have taken different approaches to the subject of "legal mind"—some seeing the subject as involving a shared or unitary set of qualities and tendencies ("the legal mind"), and others stressing the plurality of possible characteristics that might define the subject in different incarnations ("a legal mind"). Either way, the implication of "[the/a] legal mind" is that a person who has this mind effectively analyzes, reasons, and argues like a lawyer—whether for good or for ill.

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