Yesterday, Alex Aldridge did a piece for Guardian Law on the age of old institution of dining at the Inns of Court. Anyone likely to be reading this blog will probably already be aware that in order for a student barrister to be ‘called to the Bar’ by his or her Inn of Court, he or she is required by the Inn to participate in a specified number of social/collegiate activities, which were typically in the form of dinners. No more need be said about their history here.
Alex’s piece caused something of a storm yesterday (one person commented that it was “sloppy ‘journalism’ of the worst kind.”) The title of the article, to be fair, did not help matters: ‘Barristers’ dinners — a bit of fun or one upper-class indulgence too many?’ Upper-class indulgence. Hmm.
Now, for the sake of factual accuracy, it is no longer the case that students are required to attend twelve dinners, at least at my Inn, the Inner Temple (but I’m sure the same goes for Gray’s, Middle and Lincoln’s). Rather, we were required, in order to be eligible for Call, to accumulate twelve ‘qualifying sessions’. These qualifying sessions came in the form of lectures, workshops, residential weekends (which were worth three qualifying sessions, I think) and, of course, dinners at the Inn. You’re free to mix and match so long as by Call Night you’ve got your twelve sessions.
I was particularly nervous about the dinners. There were three reasons for this. First, the difficulty I have with multi-tasking whilst eating. I’ve always found it difficult to (a) be interesting to others; (b) look interested in others; and (c) actually get some food off the plate and into my mouth in concert with each other. The second reason for my apprehension was my rebellious bloody bladder. Taking a trip to the loo over dinner is a ‘no no’. The moment I’m put in a position where I can’t go, as if by magic, I need to go. Finally, I was nervous about who I was going to meet. I’d never done dining of this kind before. I’d never really spent much time with barristers before, least still judges. And, if I’m honest, I was a bit intimidated of my fellow students who had attended universities I regarded as being better than my own – I had a chip on my shoulder, I guess.
My nerves head straight to my stomach. Come the time for my first ever dinner at the Inn, I would have initially felt better being left to my own devices with my head down one of the Inn’s extremely well-maintained bogs (dining in reverse, as it were). Judging by some of the faces I saw milling around outside by the cloisters, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. I think the Inn’s are well aware of this. Having got in, hung up my coat and put on a gown far too big for me I was already feeling better. The gown had the magical effect of making me look just like everyone else in the room. We were then taken through the hall and into a series of grand adjoining rooms for drinks, another part of the Inn’s method of helping everyone ‘break the ice’. I went for the red. In fact, I think I went for it thrice. To my own regret, I didn’t really take the opportunity to mingle on that occasion. I spent most of the time trying my best to avoid eye-contact, until I was approached by a benevolent looking old gent who introduced himself to me with a beaming smile and outstretched hand as, “Master X”. So much for no shaking hands at the Bar. It turned out he was an insolvency practitioner. I’m embarrassed to recall my reply, “I bet you’re doing alright for yourself at the moment” (the credit crunch had just kicked in).
Of the dinners, Alex Aldridge says
… there’s enough pageantry for a royal wedding: opening and closing processions of gown-clad “benchers” (senior barristers who are members of the inn), a toast to “the Queen, the church and this honourable society” and lots of bowing…
The dining nights did feel, especially towards the beginning, like rather grand affairs – but I wouldn’t go quite so far as Alex has: I certainly don’t recall there being any opening and closing processions. If there were, I missed them and for that I blame the wine. There were great long tables with wine and bottled water interspersed at regular intervals. There was a carvery-type service area where we lined up to pick our food (Inner’s food is tip-top and I’m a very fussy eater). There was the chap who guarded the exit to catch those with rebellious bladders like me. But once the grub was up the whole affair was surprisingly relaxed. You got to chat and have a drink (if you so chose) over dinner with your mates from the BVC, with people from different bar schools and the benchers (who were actually quite a good laugh). It never felt elitist. It never felt decadent.
But of course there were a few ‘hooray Henry’s’. Good luck to them. Towards the end of the BVC I brought my girlfriend along to one of the ‘private guest’ nights where dinner is brought to the table. We got sat next to a couple of chaps who were reminiscing about their ‘japes’ when they were ‘up’ at Oxford or Cambridge. When dinner was served one of them said, “why on earth is this chicken so small?” without a hint of irony. To be fair, I struggled to eat the poisson without picking it up and eating it off the bone. Oh, how we laughed!
Mr Aldridge closed his piece in this way:
In the meantime, the legal profession’s version of Disneyland continues to serve its dinners to anyone who can afford to buy a place at bar school.
This is where Mr Aldridge may have crossed a line (which, one commenter charged as ‘unforgivable’). It is true that going to bar school is an extremely expensive affair. Its value for money is also questionable. But, the Inns (those institutions Aldridge likens to Disneyland) do massive amounts of work to see to it that those students who have the ability but lack the means to train can have their crack of the whip. Without the assistance of my Inn, bar school would have been out of the question. All of the Inns offer generous assistance in this respect. To see how many students benefitted from the Inn’s assistance the year I joined up see this. That assistance is on offer post-BVC – Inner, for example, offer scholarships during the pupillage stage. And it’s not just about money. There’s plenty of educational support on offer if you choose to take advantage of it.
And on the whole Oxbridge issue see this at page 13. The make-up of the Bar is shifting. It is no longer the case, if indeed it ever was, that you have to come from a wealthy background and go to Oxbridge to practise as a barrister (though, of course it helps). The drivers of this change are the Inns. Their assistance opens the doors for far more people.
There are enough misery merchants pedalling doom and gloom about the Bar. Those thinking about entering the profession deserve an accurate and fair picture of it. That includes coverage of the Inns of Court. On this occasion, Alex’s article doesn’t meet that standard.
My tip for wannabe-barristers is this: visit the Inns, do mini-pupillages and get yourself to court every now and then. Build-up your own view of the legal world. And if you decide a career at the Bar is the boy for you, go easy on the fizzy pop before dining.
An anonymous commenter has rightly drawn attention to the world-class Inns of Court libraries. He or she is also absolutely right to point out that their work is relatively unsung and forms a massive part of the day-to-day good the Inns of Court do, for students, academics and practitioners alike. As a law reporter, I’m a frequent user of all four libraries (although, I tend to use Inner as I’m familiar with the layout). The library staff are indeed, ‘all knowing’ and are indispensable when it comes to tracking down obscure citations and reports. Their hard work should be acknowledged, and I post this addendum accordingly.
As to their being ‘all forgiving’, I cannot say one way or the other.