Megan M. O'Neill

2015 Temple Bar Scholar Report

In our month of immersion in “Legal London” as part of the Temple Bar Scholarship, we met a wide range of passionate, interesting, and genuinely friendly lawyers and judges who were willing not only to give up their time to meet with us but also to engage in frank and substantive discussions about law, society, and politics. We also were fortunate enough to attend the opening of the legal year at Westminster Abbey, shadow justices of the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, spend time in barristers’ chambers, and get to know each of the four inns of court. All of these fantastic experiences—wrapped up into one action-packed month—were unforgettable. However, a few moments stick out in my mind, moments which in one way or another encapsulate something unique or endearing about the English legal system and its key players.

First, I recall the dinners that we were invited to at Middle Temple throughout our stay in London. At these dinners—whether they were to celebrate newly minted benchers or to provide education on a particular topic—we enjoyed great conversations with students, Middle Temple staff, benchers, and other guests from around the world. While I have to admit that I was in awe of Middle Temple’s Harry Potter-esque dining hall (and with the facilities of all the inns of court, which are uniformly beautiful), I was even more impressed and touched by the hospitality and warmth of those around us, who welcomed us with open arms into the inn, answering our questions, asking us about our experiences, and seeking out ways to strengthen the relationship between American and English lawyers.

Another frequent occurrence that I look back upon fondly is scurrying around Legal London with barristers from the chambers to which I was assigned. Whether coming from chambers, court, or even a restaurant or coffee shop, we would invariably run into another barrister to whom “my” assigned barrister had some kind of connection. Throughout these impromptu conversations, I learned one of the most important things about practicing law in London: Legal London is quite small, in both a literal and a figurative sense. Barristers find themselves in a complex and dense web of relationships stemming from school, work experiences, membership in inns of court, and sometimes even sheer physical proximity. Moreover, a barrister may work with a particular barrister on one case and against her on the next, and barristers work with colleagues from other chambers almost as frequently as they collaborate with barristers from their own. The relationships that form from this set of circumstances seemed to create both a strong sense of community and an ethos of civility that might be harder to maintain in a larger and more dispersed set of lawyers, as in the United States.

Finally, while our week at the Supreme Court was an invaluable experience for many reasons, the aspect of the Court that resonated with me the most was the desire for the Court to be open to and engaging with the public. This openness took on several forms: the Court’s building itself is physically open to the public and easy to access; oral arguments are streamed live on the internet; and the justices wear suits rather than robes and wigs and sit at the same level as the litigants, creating a welcoming atmosphere for the citizens that come to watch cases. This emphasis on public access is deliberate, as the previous incarnation of the Supreme Court, which was lodged in the House of Lords, was by and large inaccessible to the average citizen. The Court’s efforts in this area seem to have been a success, as I witnessed firsthand by seeing members of the public line up for a chance to witness the Court in action.

These highlights are merely the tip of the iceberg; our month in London was full of interesting revelations about the practice of law in London, fruitful comparisons between the U.S. and English legal systems, and unique opportunities to go behind the scenes and see how barristers, judges, and other legal professionals function. I’d like to thank the American Inns of Court for providing me with this opportunity, all of our hosts for their hospitality and candor, and my fellow Scholars for making the Temple Bar Scholarship such an amazing experience.

Megan M. O'Neill is law clerk to Judge Diane P. Wood, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, Illinois. O'Neill is a magna cum laude graduate of the Georgetown University Walsh School of Foreign Service, where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She earned her master of arts degree in international relations with honors from the University of Chicago Committee on International Relations, where her thesis focused on accountability for foreign heads of state in domestic courts. O'Neill received her juris doctor with high honors from the University of Chicago Law School, where she served as articles editor of the University of Chicago Law Review. She was named Kirkland & Ellis Scholar, Salzburg Cutler Fellow, and Bradley Fellow; and received the Joseph Henry Beale Prize for outstanding work in first-year legal research and writing. O'Neill has worked as a summer associate at Covington & Burling in Washington, DC, and the Public International Law & Policy Group. She plans to join the U.S. Department of State Office of the Legal Adviser this fall.