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Inns of Court
Author: Robert Hohenberger
Rarely does a day go by when we don't hear another horror story reported in the news about an unethical attorney. No wonder lawyers are the butt of so many jokes. Some of them are actually funny and I laugh at them, too, even though I am one of "them".
The sad thing is that in so many of the stories and jokes you hear, there is at least a grain of truth - sometimes a whole mountain of disturbing truths. The good thing is that most attorneys do not fit the scumbag stereotype the newscasters and comedians often portray them as being.
To counter this perception, a number of lawyers have taken it upon themselves to promote ethics, professionalism, and scholarship in the legal profession. To this end, the late former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger and four other American attorneys went to London in the 1980's to learn the English legal system hands-on. They brought the concept of the English Inns of Court across the Atlantic. Chief Justice Burger's vision of a system of judges and experienced lawyers mentoring and guiding less experienced members of the profession developed into the American Inns of Court.
Much of our system of law comes from the English, including the concept of "the rule of law". What this means is that we are governed by laws, which are the rules of the land. The first settlers at Jamestown brought with them what is known as the common law of England, which was the basis of the first American laws.
Back in medieval days, Henry III banned law schools in London. At the same time, the Catholic Church banned religious leaders from teaching law. In response to these restrictions, lawyers created hostels or "inns" where students could live and learn with experienced barristers. These ultimately evolved into the famous English Inns of Court.
Today, the Inns no longer train England's barristers and solicitors. Instead, they are a place of fellowship, dedicated to the pursuit of civility and professionalism among members of the legal system. The Inns are not social clubs, a lecture series, an apprenticeship system, a fraternity, or an expanded law school program. Although the American Inns of Court may be some of all of these things, its main goals are to promote civility, professionalism, and ethics among members of the legal system.
Today, there are over 350 active Inns in the United States with over 85,000 members nationwide. High on the list of priorities of the American Inns is the mentoring of newer lawyers by more experienced attorneys in an amicable setting. This is similar to the way the original Inns of Court nurtured new members of the legal profession in medieval England.
Membership is composed of four levels:
1. Masters of the Bench - Judges, experienced lawyers, and law professors;
2. Barristers - Lawyers with some experience, but who do not meet the minimum requirements for Masters designation;
3. Associates - New lawyers who do not meet the minimum requirements for the Barrister level; and
4. Pupils - Third year law students.
The membership in each Inn is ideally kept in the range of a hundred. This is large enough to have a good variety of experiences and viewpoints, but small enough for the members to become a convivial mentoring group.
Most Inns specialize in a particular type of law. For example, I was one of the founders of the Arthur L. Moller - David B. Foltz, Jr. Inn in Houston which specializes in bankruptcy law. I also belong to the Burta Rhoads Raborn Family Law Inn of Court, another area where I am Board Certified by the State of Texas. There is a third Inn of Court in Houston, the Garland R. Walker Inn, which encompasses all other areas of the law.
I feel strongly that every experienced attorney has the obligation to help those who are starting in the profession. My goal is not to just pass on my expertise and knowledge in this field of bankruptcy law, but to also pass on my sense of ethics and fairness. I feel that the rule of law needs to be administered justly. That involves not just the judges and courts, but also the attorneys that represent the disputing parties. My involvement in the Bankruptcy Inn and Family Law Inn is one way to advance these beliefs.