Devon R. Slovensky
2017 Pegasus Scholar Report
On a crisp fall evening, I turned away from the commotion of Fleet Street and slipped through the Tudor gate into the grounds of the Inner Temple Inn of Court. Just south of the ancient Temple Church, past a gated garden and through an iron gateway, I arrived into the Middle Temple. The Inns are said to retain monastic privileges, and you feel the weight of history as you walk through. Young men and women in black suits and dresses line up outside a 16th century brick Elizabethan hall. Excited and nervous, they whisper amongst each other. Once the doors open, the students make their way up or down a winding staircase to the cloakrooms, eagerly trading their bags and cell phones for Ede and Ravenscroft robes which they don over their formalwear. Here and there, more mature gentlemen leisurely walk in and quietly disappear back into a room at the end of the hall. After a brief talk and a few drinks, the students reconvene in the candlelit main hall. The door is shut behind them. Moments later, a decisive knock against the solid oak doors sounds. The door opens, everyone rises, and the Masters of the Bench, led by their sergeant-at-arms, process down the hall to take their elevated seats at the head table. First grace is said, and we sit again.
This evening is a qualifying session at Middle Temple for future barristers. To qualify for call to the bar, one must dine at twelve of these events in addition to completing a one-year bar training course. The sessions are but one of the requirements standing between the prospective barristers and a tenancy- the prized placement in a barrister’s chambers where one will begin the practice of law. Of one hundred students who complete the professionalism course required to attempt to become a barrister, only about ten will attain a tenancy. While a student is unlikely to earn a tenancy directly through any connections he makes at a qualifying event, he certainly could lose one if he disgraces himself in front of one of the Benchers.
First grace marks the beginning of the dinner and a time during which no one may enter or leave the hall. After talking to the group to my left for a while, which I discover is my mess (roughly equivalent to a pupillage team), I turn to my right to introduce myself to the gentleman beside me. I am quickly corrected that members of different messes traditionally do not intermingle, even when seated directly beside each other. Thankfully, it does not appear any of the Benchers took note of my transgression, and I do not anticipate it having any lasting impact on my career. As my mess consists of Director of Middle Temple, my co-scholar, and four former U.S. Supreme Court clerks, enjoying a seemingly unending supply of wine, we exchange stories of our placements in different legal chambers throughout the week and discuss the cases heard at the UK Supreme Court. Port comes out with the cheese course, and when the bottle disappears, Christa Richmond, the director, explains that the knowing way to request its return is to make an oblique reference to the Bishop of Norwich, a former Bencher known for his penchant for fortified wine. I learn that the single exception to the faux paus of speaking cross-mess is reserved for requesting the passing of the port. A second grace is said, the Benchers rise and process out of the hall, and after two and half hours, the students are free to leave or to continue to drink port and discuss the law with their colleagues.
Despite these rigid traditions, the legal system in the United Kingdom is undergoing a period of great change and modernization. The four Inns are investing heavily in modernizing their libraries, pursuing distance-learning capabilities, and recruiting more diverse students while making legal education more financially accessible to modest means students. The Bar Council and Law Society are under great pressure to enhance the accessibility of the legal system to the general public, both having lost the ability to directly self-regulate in the past decade. Alternative business structures now allow non-lawyers to invest in law firms- an arrangement that remains ethically prohibited in the United States. The roles of solicitors and barristers are becoming blurred, as solicitors earn rights of audience before limited tribunals, and occasionally a barrister leaves his chambers to join a solicitors’ firm.
In 2009, the House of Lords was divested of its judicial function, and the Law Lords moved across the street to sit as justices of the newly founded Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. In this new court building, the justices do not wear wigs or robes when sitting in proceedings. They sit at the same height as the barristers arguing before them. A Twitter handle announces important new decisions as they are handed down. Visitors to the court receive a printed description of the cases before the court laid out in layman’s terms. Interested citizens stream delayed video of proceedings from the Court’s website. In the Royal Courts of Justice, signs direct litigants in person (pro se litigants) to free non-legal assistance bureaus. The Old Bailee’s courtrooms are inundated with display panels, including individual screens for each juror. Meanwhile, smaller claims courts are experimenting with online dispute resolution where litigants submit their claims and evidence to a judge without stepping into a courtroom.
Notwithstanding the separation of hundreds of years and thousands of miles, similar modern trends affect both the British and American legal systems. Increasingly few criminal or civil cases in either system are advancing to a final trial on the merits. By some estimates, as few as one percent of cases reach final adjudication in a courtroom in either system. The proportion of self-represented litigants is also increasing, particularly in family courts. Bar associations on both sides of the pond are experiencing pressure to facilitate increased access to the legal system. As we experience the same pressures to modernize, while simultaneously holding on to the traditions that bind us, we are well-served to observe the experiences of our learned friends across the Atlantic.
I am incredibly grateful and honored to have participated in the Pegasus program this year, and I believe it will shape the rest of my life. In particular, I thank Chief Justice Stewart, General Dunn, Cindy Dennis, Lisa Sharp, and Christa Richmond for their contributions to this scholarship. I also thank Edward Henry of QEB Hollis Whiteman and Estelle Dehon of Cornerstone barristers for taking me under their wing during my placements.
Devon Slovensky is a staff attorney with Blue Ridge Legal Services in Roanoke, Virginia. In just over three years, she has advised or represented in more than 600 landlord/tenant, domestic, estate planning, and consumer/bankruptcy matters, benefiting more than 1,500 community members. Slovensky earned her undergraduate degree in economics and government from the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols scholar; and her J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. During law school, she interned at the National Center for Adoption Law & Policy in Columbus, Ohio, where she conducted an in-depth review and analysis of each state’s laws regarding the reinstatement of full parental rights after prior termination by court order. After graduating from Mason, she worked as a legal researcher for Judge Leslie Alden.
Slovensky is immediate past president and a statewide board member of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association. She is a member of the Ted Dalton American Inn of Court, the Roanoke Bar Association, and the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association. She has gained additional professional training from the National Trial Advocacy College at the University of Virginia and the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. She cycled across the country in 2008 as part of Bike and Build, which constructed affordable housing in communities across the country.