by Warren St. John, Inn President

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Inn History

The English Inns of Court
By Morad Fakhimi, Pupil in Eldon B. Mahon Inn of Court, 2006.

For more than six centuries, the four English Inns of Court have constituted a 'judicial university' having the power to call their eligible members to the Bar and confer the degree of Barrister-at-Law.1 The Societies are, to order them according to custom, those of Lincoln's Inn, the Inner Temple, the Middle Temple, and Gray's Inn. The records of Lincoln's Inn's go back to 1422, almost 80 years earlier than any of the other Inns. The records of the Middle Temple and Inner Temple date to 1501 and 1505 respectively, and the records of Gray's Inn go back to 1569.

The buildings housing the Inns are considerably older than the records of the Inns, and see their origins in the settling of estates by various entities, starting in 1118. In that year, a branch of the Order of the Knights of the Temple of Solomon, the 'Templars', settled a riverside estate south of Fleet Street in Holborn. Shortly thereafter, Henry Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, settled an estate north of Fleet Street which extended to High Holborn; and by the early years of the fourteenth century, the Barons Grey de Wilton had established themselves as the neighboring estate on the other side of the Earl of Lincoln.2

We do not known precisely when lawyers and students of the law first began to occupy the buildings on these various estates. We do know that, as late as the thirteenth century, the study of law remained under clerical control. A number of events then gave rise to the growth of a 'colony' for the housing and education of lawyers in the village of Holborn.3 Those events included the issuance of a Papal Bull forbidding the clergy in England from teaching the common law, and the enforcement of a certain clause in the Magna Carta leading to the establishment of the Court of Common Pleas in Westminster Hall.

At the beginning of the fourteenth century, the number of small hostels for lawyers in the vicinity grew. Following the abolition of the Templars in 1312, and their subsequent persecution, the successors to their estate, the Knights of the Hospital of St. John, leased it to a group of lawyers who subsequently divided themselves into the Societies of the Inner Temple and Middle Temple.4 At roughly the same time, two other groups of lawyers settled in the respective manor houses of the Earls of Lincoln and Greys de Wilton, adopting the names of their landlords as the names of their Societies.5

These Societies, in time, evolved from simple hostels into entities that would provide everything necessary for practice at the Bar, including the basics of education, chambers to live and work in, a hall for communal dining, a chapel, and a library. The membership of the Inns now consists of students, barristers and benchers. Call to the Bar is made by the Treasurer, after which a student becomes a barrister. The highest rank is that of Master of the Bench, or Bencher. Benchers constitute the governing entity of the Inn. The Benchers periodically meet as a body; in the Inner Temple and Middle Temple these meetings are called  'Parliaments', while the Lincoln's Inn refers to the meetings as 'Councils', and Gray's Inn designates them as 'Pensions'.6 Each Inn has a number of Officers, Treasurer being chief among them.

There have been other Inns, established for the use of Judges and Serjeants; two of these 'Serjeant's Inns' remain, one in Chancery Lane, the other in Fleet Street.7 By 1316, the Order of the Coif, the rank of Serjeant-at-Law, had been created. Consisting of the most outstanding members of the profession, the ranks of the Serjeants-at-Law would exclusively produce the judges of England from the middle of the sixteenth century till 1873.8 The Serjeants also enjoyed a monopoly over practice in the Court of Common Pleas till 1847. After the abolition of the order in the late nineteenth century, Judges would remain as Benchers of their respective Inns of Court, and would no longer have to retire to one of the Serjeant's Inns on elevation to the Bench. It was customary for Serjeants to address each other as 'brother', hence the custom of Judges of a Bench referring to each-other as the 'Brethren'.

There were also, for a period, a number of Inns of Chancery, each under the control of an Inn of Court, and forming a preliminary institution from whose ranks the better students would be admitted to the parent Inn of Court. The Inns of Court would send their distinguished Barristers to serve as 'Readers', or lecturers, at these inferior inns. At first, mainly due to the tremendous cost borne by the Reader in providing food and drink for all who would attend the Readings, the system of Readers faded away; and eventually, the Inns of Chancery themselves were abolished altogether.

The Inns of Court boast a long list of distinguished members, a brief sampling of which follows:

Notable members of Lincoln's Inn include: Sir Thomas More; Lord Ellesmere; Sir Matthew Hale; Lord Mansfield; Lord Chancellors Brougham, Campbell, Erskine, Fortescue, and Lyndhurst; John Donne; William Penn; William Pitt; and President Dwight Eisenhower and Dean Acheson of the United States.

Notable Inner Templars include: Geoffrey Chaucer; Sir Edward Coke; Sir Thomas Lyttleton; Lord Nottingham; John Selden; Lord Chancellor Thurlow; James Boswell; Lord Ellenborough; and Mahatma Gandhi.

Notable Middle Templars include: Charles Dickens; William Makepeace Thackeray; Sir Francis Drake; Sir John Hawkins; Sir Walter Raleigh; Edmund Burke; Sir William Blackstone; Lord Chancellors Clarendon, Somers, Hardwicke, Eldon, Finlay, Sankey, Jowitt; Lords Chief Justices Cockburn, Coleridge, and Reading. Additionally, we find the following Middle Templars among the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence: John Dickinson, Edward Rutledge, Thomas Hayward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Thomas M. Kean, and Arthur Middleton. William Howard Taft, who served as both President of the United States and as the Chief Justice of its Supreme Court, was also a Middle Templar.

Notable members of Grey's Inn include: Sir William Cecil, Lord Burleigh; Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper; Sir Francis Bacon, Baron Verulam; Archbishops Whitgift and Laud; Lord Chancellor Birkenhead; Sir Winston Churchill, Prime Minister; and Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States.

See 3 Reports pref. *35-40; 1 William Blackstone, Commentaries *23.
2 W.J. Loftie, The Inns of Court and Chancery 2-5, 8.
3 Dunbar Plunket Barton, The Story of Our Inns of Court 4-5.
4 Id. at 6.
5 Id.
6 Id. at 11.
7 Hyacinthe Ringrose, The Inns of Court 125.
8 1 William S. Holdsworth, A History of English Law 197 (7th Ed. Rev. 1956).


Overview of the American Inns of Court

American Inns of Court are patterned after the English Inns of Court. The American Inns of Court is the fastest growing legal organization in the country. Today, there are more than 300 American Inns of Court in 49 states and the District of Columbia. New Inns are being organized continually. More than 20,000 judges, lawyers, law professors and law students are currently members of an American Inn of Court, including 40 percent of all federal judges and over 1500 state judges.

In 1977, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and other American lawyers and judges spent two weeks in England as part of the Anglo-American Exchange. They were particularly impressed by the collegial approach of the English Inns of Court and by the way the Inns passed on to new lawyers the decorum, civility and professional standards necessary for a properly functioning bar. Following his return, Chief Justice Burger authorized a pilot program that could be adapted to the realities of law practice in the United States.

Chief Justice Burger, former Solicitor General Rex Lee and Senior United States District Judge A. Sherman Christensen founded the first American Inn of Court in 1980. The Inn was affiliated with the J. Reuben Clark School of Law at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. The number of Inns increased slowly at first, but the growth of the movement began to accelerate in 1985 with the creation of the American Inns of Court Foundation.

American Inns of Court are designed to improve the skills, professionalism and legal ethics of the bench and bar. They help lawyers become more effective advocates with a keener ethical awareness by providing them the opportunity to learn side-by-side with the most experienced judges and lawyers in their community. The objectives of each Inn are as follows:

  1. To establish a society of judges, lawyers, legal educators, law students and others to promote excellence in legal advocacy in accordance with the Professional Creed of the American Inns of Court;
  2. To foster greater understanding of, and an appreciation for, the adversary system of dispute resolution in American law, with particular emphasis on ethics, civility, professionalism, and legal skills;
  3. To provide significant educational experiences that will improve and enhance the abilities of lawyers as counselors and advocates and the abilities of judges as adjudicators and judicial administrators;
  4. To promote interaction and collegiality among all legal professionals in order to minimize misapprehensions, misconceptions and failures of communication that obstruct the effective practice of law;
  5. To facilitate the development of law students, recent law school graduates and less experienced lawyers as skilled participants in the American court system;
  6. To preserve and transmit ethical values from one generation of legal professionals to the next; and
  7. To build upon the genius and strengths of the common law and the English Inns of Court and to renew and inspire joy and zest in legal advocacy as a service worthy of constant effort and learning.