14 May 2008
What is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister? is a question that all of us Lawyers 2B are asked by friends outside the legal world. Next time you are asked dont go into dull details about differing duties and responsibilities to clients and rights of audience. Tell your friends that the main difference between the two types of lawyer is that to qualify, intending barristers must eat their way into the profession.
A wannabe barrister must dine at their Inn twelve times before they can be called to the bar. Why should this be? Is there some history of malnourishment at the bar that prompted our forefathers to decree that the Inns of Court must ensure that those seeking to become barristers are given some regular sustenance in case they should fade away? Surely not? Looking around my fellow students on the Bar Vocational Course (BVC) at The City Law School no one looks to be underfed. Indeed, looking at my own waistline, quite the opposite is true.
It is not entirely true to say that a would-be barrister must dine twelve times at their Inns of Court. They must actually complete twelve qualifying sessions, and it is these qualifying sessions that will generally take the form of dining. But how do these twelve qualifying sessions fit in with the road to becoming a practicing barrister? The steps that a graduate must follow to become a barrister are broadly as follows; first - pass the BVC; second - complete one years pupillage; third enter practice. Throughout this process is one constant: your Inn. Before you can enrol on the BVC you must join an Inn. It is your Inn that will call you to the bar, and you will remain a member of your Inn throughout your career.
The Inns are not merely social clubs for barristers, but also play an important supervisory and disciplinary role. In times past it was the Inns that trained barristers, and readied them for pupillage. Although these duties have now been delegated to institutions such as the City Law School, the four Inns of Court still supplement the training of their student members based around the twelve qualifying sessions. These dining evenings are unmissable; they provide the chance to network with fellow student members, but more importantly they offer a unique opportunity to spend an evening in a social setting with senior members of the Inn, who have generously taken the time to impart to student members some of their invaluable knowledge and experience.
I am a member of Middle Temple and on a cold damp early February evening two of my fellow BVC students and I walked through the huge oak double doors standing at the entrance to Middle Temple Hall. On our arrival we were greeted by a very friendly porter who took our tickets and asked us to get gowned up and go through to pre-dinner drinks in the Queens Room. We didnt have our own gowns: these are provided for students so we all disappeared into the cloakrooms and reappeared feeling very grand in our new attire.
Having enjoyed our pre-dinner sharpener in the Queens Room it was time to enter the Hall for the evenings dining to begin in earnest. Middle Temple Hall is a grand sight, not least when it is made ready to accommodate 250 or so for dinner. The first thing that struck me as I entered was the somewhat hypnotic sight of row upon row of glassware and cutlery gleaming in the candlelight. The hall is over 100 feet long so thats quite a lot of glasses, knives, forks and spoons. My initial thought was Thank goodness I dont have to do the washing up, but such dull notions immediately left my mind as I gazed upwards to the double hammer beam roof in all its Elizabethan glory, and I could not help but wonder at the number of barristers who must have dined here over the centuries.
My standing staring at the ceiling was causing a jam of hungry students behind me, so without further ado I found a seat. My colleagues and I were fortunate enough to sit in the company of a bencher. This set the scene for a great evening: our bencher was an eminent chancery QC who regaled us with fascinating tales of his life at the bar, and took great interest in how our studies were progressing, and the trials and tribulations of finding pupillage. Sadly, the evening ended all too quickly, and it was soon time to head back into the February gloom, having enjoyed excellent food, wine and company.
It would be wrong for any would-be barrister to view their twelve qualifying sessions as a burden: my experience so far has been nothing but positive. Yes there is some formality; we wear gowns; we toast the Queen, Domus, and absent members; and there are some traditions to be observed in respect of who sits where on some occasions, but the atmosphere is always welcoming and the conversation stimulating. But more than just an enjoyable and interesting evening, dining engenders the wonderful feeling of being a part of a tradition that stretches back through the centuries, but with its eyes fixed firmly on the future. So eat, drink and be... a barrister, youll enjoy it.
Tom Hogman is a Bar Vocational Course student at The City Law School.