The Order of the Coif is an honor society for high-achievers in the legal field. Membership is awarded to exceptionally talented legal students, practicing lawyers, judges, and instructors of law. As with other honor associations, it has a charter that dictates the standards of admission, along with a staff of officers to enforce the rules and run the order. Being invited to join this order is considered to be a mark of high distinction in the legal community.
Among law students, participating law schools typically nominate the top 10% of any graduating class for the Order of the Coif, although some students may be omitted from a nomination list due to concerns about their characters or fitness. Lawyers, judges, and instructors can be nominated for the order by their contemporaries. Schools that have active chapters include the University of Chicago, Duke University, the University of California, Berkeley, Yale, Stanford University, and Loyola Marymount University, among many others.
The organization traces its roots in the United States to 1902, when the University of Illinois founded Theta Kappa Nu to establish an honor society for law students. By 1908, Theta Kappa Nu had become the Order of the Coif, and a large number of schools had applied for their own charters. In order to be entered in the order, an inductee must have a Juris Doctorate (JD) degree.
The history of the society is actually much older. It began with a tradition in the medieval era, when distinguished lawyers were entitled to the right to wear the coif. Members of the medieval order were the only ones appointed to coveted legal positions, and in some cases, the only people admitted to practice to certain courts. The full privileges were not revoked until the 1800s, but they left behind an enduring legacy that associated distinction with membership.
The goal of the order is to recognize and promote legal distinction. When someone is inducted, he or she receives a certificate, a badge, a key, and sometimes some form of a coif as well, for formal events. For schools to be admitted, 80% of the existing members must agree, and the school must typically be given high rankings and praise generally. For schools, chapter membership can be quite a coup, as it suggests that they are among the most prominent law schools in the nation.