How to survive: 12 dinners
15 March 2007
Its time for the salute to the Queen, says barrister Matthew Nicklin of 5 Raymond Buildings, who was sitting to my right. I take hold of my glass of Eventide Shiraz Wellington 2004 and make a move to stand.
No, we dont stand when we salute the Queen, explains Nicklin as he grabs my arm to stop me from getting up.
Slightly confused, I sit back down and ask the reason for this.
The tradition goes back centuries when one king came to a dining at the Inn. By the end of the meal he was too drunk to stand, so everyone had to stay seated for the toast to the monarch. Weve been sitting ever since, while all the other Inns still have to stand, Nicklin says with a grin on his face.
The salute to the Queen was at the end of my dining experience at Lincolns Inn. The toast followed a mouthwatering and indulgent five-course meal, which included grilled salmon on anchovy toast, succulent roast lamb followed by a gooseberry cr? brl? To complement the food, every dish was matched with a suitable wine, such as a Chateau de Davenay Montagny Cru 2002.
But the evening did not start there. At 6.30pm I arrived and climbed the staircase to Lincolns Inns library to be greeted by a drinks reception in one of the mid-19th-century dark, wooden-panelled benchers rooms.
As I supped a glass of white wine, the smartly dressed barristers, benchers senior members of the inn and bar students who were congregating would firstly disappear off into a corner room and reappear wearing a black robe similar to those seen worn by lawyers in courtroom dramas such as Judge John Deed.
Joanna Robinson, the deputy under treasurer of education at Lincolns Inn, on seeing my baffled look, explains: The gowns are worn by members of the Inn.
I smile and enquire of Robinson how the dining experience fits into the whole scheme of becoming a barrister.
She explains that, once a student has completed a law degree, or converted from another degree by way of CPE or GDL, a person who wants to become a barrister has to undertake the BVC, which takes a year if done full time or two years part time.
While studying for the BVC, these students have to complete 12 qualifying sessions before they can be called to the bar and become a practising barrister.
Most students do these sessions by attending 12 dinings, but they can also go on a training weekend where they learn from qualified barristers, explains Robinson. These weekends count as three sessions. They can also get involved in mooting, which is a legal debate, where one moot counts as one session.
While waiting for dinner, the students are in the throng of conversation with the barristers and benchers, who, when a student wants to be called to the bar, will be required to vouch for said students abilities as a barrister.
At around 7pm dinner is announced and more than 200 people pile into the main dining room, which boasts high ceilings, murals and stained-glass windows.
Barristers, benchers and students sit together at long Harry Potter-style tables.
As I sit down next to Nicklin I notice that the chairs, plates, mats and even napkins have different letters and numbers on them. For the first time (but not the last) I turn to Nicklin to ask him to explain.
With an award-winning smile, Nicklin who is described as feisty, absolutely outstanding and a real scrapper by colleagues explains that the letters are the initials of the master who was in charge of the inn when the item in question was bought and the numbers are the year.
So in essence RTCs legacy to the Inn is this napkin and plate, Nicklin jokes.
Before we sit down to enjoy the first of our five courses we stand as grace is said in Latin.
Once seated I introduce myself to my dinner companions. To my left is Gareth Tilley, a student from the Inns of Court Law School, whose classmate Sebastian Oram is sitting opposite me.
Dharishinie Mani, who is studying her BVC at the London arm of the College of Law, and Laura Vickers, who is attending Nottingham Law School for her bar exams, were also within talking distance. So I bent their ears.
I ask what made them decide to join Lincolns Inn instead of, say, Inner Temple, Grays or Middle Temple.
Going round each of my newly acquainted friends it became clear that there were two main reasons: Its the most famous Inn and the only one Id really heard of. And: It has the largest scholarship money pot.
Tilley, who had managed to scoop one of the scholarships, later explains to me that the dining I had joined them at was not an ordinary dining. The dinner was called Domus, where the qualified barristers eat and mingle with the students.
On an ordinary dining night students would sit separately from the barristers. The bar members are also seated away from the benchers.
On these nights, I am told, the food for the students is different from that given to the barristers and benchers, whose meals are apparently much tastier.
Students can get invited on to the bar tables to sample the higher-quality cuisine, but these select few tend to be students who are very active within the Inn, such as those who have joined the debating society.
There are also guest nights, when students are allowed to bring family or friends to the Inn to sample the dining experience.
The downside of qualifying sessions for cash-strapped students, however, is that they have to pay for the pleasure. On average across all the inns a dining is around 35.
Vickers, who had travelled down from Nottingham especially for the dining, told me that Lincolns Inn, like the other three, now has qualifying dinners across the country and not just in London.
The Inn occasionally hires out a hall in the regions, explains Vickers. This way people such as me, who cant always get down to the actual Inn, have more opportunities to dine and get to know the judges and barristers who are in our actual area.
Mani is looking for pupillage (where a newly qualified barrister spends a year as the pupil of a barrister who has more than seven years call) and says that dinings have been a great way of networking with experienced lawyers and learning what they are looking for from the students they take on.
You get to hear the horror stories from barristers who have interviewed students wanting to take pupillage at their chambers, and of course you know never to repeat the mistakes they made, says Mani.
Four courses and several glasses of wine later and the dining hall is starting to feel a little stuffy. But alas, it is time for coffee and dessert.
Dessert is one course too far for me, I tell Nicklin.
Dont worry, its actually only fruit, to clean the palate and aid your digestion, he explains.
I passed on the fruit, but the coffee was very much required. A number of bottles of Dows Crusted 2000 port were also making the rounds. Already feeling
light-headed, I also declined the port.
While the diners glugged down their coffee and port, the Latin grace was said again, followed by the toast to the Queen, which called a close to the dinner at around 10pm.
But there are still a few bottles of port left, so most of the diners stay on to polish them off. During the meal smoking is not allowed, but the moment the Queen is toasted out come the cigars and cigarettes.
Nicklin sniggers: For those who smoke at the Inn, the after-dinner cigarettes are savoured more as soon as summer comes along. During the winter, with the smoking ban, theyre going to have to go out in the cold for a quick puff.
As I drain the last dregs of my coffee I ask: Matthew, what happens now? I presume its home time?
Well, it doesnt have to be, says Nicklin. For the social beasts at the Inn the bar in the members common room is open till late, but most students tend to go to one of the local pubs, such as the Seven Stars, to carry on the festivities.
For me the five courses and copious amounts of wine are already putting me to sleep, so I graciously decline the offer and head home to my bed. -