The second best part about the Temple Bar Scholarship was the all-access pass to Legal London. An audience with the Lord Chief Justice? Yes, please. Accompanying the country's top barristers to court? Fascinating stuff! A backstage tour of Parliament led by half the U.K. Supreme Court? Sign me up. The scholars-five wide-eyed lawyers fresh off U.S. judicial clerkships-weren't sure why we rated such hospitality. But we knew enough not to question our good fortune.
What could possibly top this extraordinary introduction? For me, the best part came when the English legal landscape ceased to be alien territory-when a foreign jurisdiction turned familiar. Once I could navigate Fleet Street's alleys and courtyards, distinguish Chancery from the Privy Council, and exchange knowing nods with Middle Temple librarians-then I ceased to feel like an outsider. The events were just as exciting, only more meaningful now that I had the lay of the land.
Perhaps British lawyers experience a similar transition when called to the bar. Because if they're like me, what stands out most about Legal London is not the history (though vast), the lexicon ("My learned Lord Justice…"), or even the wigs (less said the better). It is the geography.
London's barristers work, eat, and gather in remarkably close proximity. Almost all of their offices, courthouses, dining halls, and libraries are found within one square mile abutting the Thames. One can hardly post a letter or catch a train without passing half your colleagues' chambers. If the faces and spaces of this small plot felt familiar to me after just a few weeks, imagine the intimacy over the course of a career. This nearness, I submit, contributes directly to the profession's stability, collegiality, and independence.
Reminders abound of the generations who have pursued the same calling in the same spot. Portraits, coats of arms, and other museum pieces hang from every nook and cranny of the four Inns of Court-institutions charged for centuries with barristers' professional training and supervision. Today's leading advocates, just like the ancient heroes of English law, rely on the Inns for food and office space. What better reminder of the durability of the common law than knowing Thomas More or Edward Coke once walked the same path? Artists would labor in vain to better memorialize the continuity of the profession.
Stronger even than these bonds across time, however, are those that barristers form in the here and now. They pass one another walking to and from court; they commute together; they break bread in magnificent dining halls; they swap war stories in the quads that link their chambers. Some even keep flats on site!
All this facetime may seem the dusty relic of a less connected era. To the contrary, it is a precious commodity in our fragmented age of telecommuting, niche legal services, and social media. Reputational bonding is the natural result of repeated interactions in the same location. Shared physical space causes barristers to look one another in the eye. Overlapping personal networks place a premium on credibility. And the possibility that today's adversary is tomorrow's lunchmate, or this month's cause next month's scourge, creates a healthy disincentive to bluster or advance specious arguments in court. Which of course benefits the profession and the law more generally: advocates and judges who know one another and share background expectations of civility and professionalism are more likely to produce sensible outcomes and stable legal rules. That, in turn, contributes to the Burkean conservatism that has long characterized English law. Even today we see the traditions of stability and independence attract to London's courtrooms exotic litigants from far-flung locales such as Russia, the Caribbean, Russia, the Middle East, and don't forget Russia.
Far be it from me to play the rosy-eyed optimist; I'm a litigator, after all, trained to critique. Certainly there are aspects of the barristers' community that need improvement. Collegiality can drift into clubbiness. Clubbiness can stand in the way of diversity. And the diversity of means and background associated with modern multicultural London is lacking in the haunts of Legal London. As impressive as the Inns' coats of arms may be, perhaps they send a mixed signal to those who would enter this august profession from a more common station in life.
But on balance the togetherness of the English bench and bar is a force for good. In the United States-where distance, federalism, and even ideology separate advocates-we could learn a great deal from our former colonial masters about the value of reputation, sober dialogue, and physical proximity. American lawyers-so often sequestered with their briefs and computers-crave human interaction; this is why courthouses and law school lobbies are always so loud. And it is one reason why I'm eager to join one of the American Inns of Court, which aim to fill this void by bringing lawyers together in the spirit of mentorship and collegiality. As for my friends from the English Inns, thanks for helping this outsider find his bearings in Legal London. When I return, I'll know right where to find you.
Benjamin J. Beaton received his J.D. from Columbia University School of Law, where he received highest honors and was an articles editor for the Columbia Law Review. He earned his B.A. in government, summa cum laude, from Centre College where he was Phi Beta Kappa and a class valedictorian. Following law school, Mr. Beaton worked as a legal fellow for the International Justice Mission organization in Kampala, Uganda specializing in succession-related property grabbing cases for three months. He served as a judicial clerk for Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States.