Thomas G. Sprankling

2017 Temple Bar Scholar Report

London in the fall is a vision of orange-leaved trees and ancient stone buildings enjoying their last few days of sunshine until spring.  During my month as a Temple Bar scholar, I tried to walk to my placement nearly every day.  A reasonably common sight was construction, often work that sought to preserve a building’s historic facade while modernizing the interior.  In this way, century-old buildings gain a second youth and new tenants enjoy broadband internet and better internal heating.

It struck me during one of these walks that what my fellow scholars and I have witnessed during our October in London is a legal system in the midst of a similar renovation.  That rebuilding will leave intact the nation’s finest traditions while permitting it to excel in the 21st century.

To an American, the United Kingdom in general and its legal system in particular are impossibly ancient (or, if you like, storied).  The current Inns of Court, for example, have been training would-be barristers in the law since the 14th century.  By contrast, my home state of California was founded a mere 167 years ago and my home town of Davis is just this year celebrating its 100th anniversary.  One advantage to this reasonably brief lifespan is a society used to near-constant change.  In the legal world, we have moved (relatively) quickly from a nation of solo practitioners who learned by apprenticeship to a country dominated by large law firms and a little over a dozen law schools known as the T-14.  20 years ago, my practice area--appellate law--did not really exist.  Now it does.

This state of affairs seems entirely normal to me.  I am sure that whatever becomes of the U.S. legal model in 30 years--whether it transforms into 2 gargantuan law firms or 2000 legal start-ups--will seem entirely normal to my children and others of their generation.

The United Kingdom, on the other hand, seems to be facing the prospect of seismic legal change in a matter of years after centuries of stability.  The ramifications of Brexit were at the top of mind for nearly every attorney to whom we spoke.  But other, somewhat more subtle, changes are also at work.  The U.K. Supreme Court’s first female president was sworn in while we were in London, as was the Court’s second female member.  And there was talk that the Inns of Court might drastically alter the structure of their traditional training programs.  (For the untutored American, this would be an important change as every current barrister in the U.K. went through one of the four inns.  This system leads to a stronger sense of camaraderie among members of the bar than perhaps exists in the U.S.--at least, in those places that do not have their own chapter of the U.S. Inns of court.)

Moreover, the lines dividing barristers and solicitors seem to be blurring.  Some solicitors, for example, now have the ability to appear in court.  And barristers chambers are becoming a little more like solicitors’ firms and a little less like a loose cohort of independent practitioners who happen to have pooled their resources.  One minor but telling change that came up during discussions with many barristers was the proliferation of name plates on office doors.  Several of the barristers I spoke with viewed this as too impersonal.  Indeed, at least in one set of chambers, members of chambers staff have put up name plates only to have the barristers themselves take them down.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the Temple Bar Scholarship was how the attorneys I met with seemed enthusiastic about meeting these changes and challenges head on.  Many spoke passionately about continuing to increase diversity among the bench and bar to ensure that the legal system looks more like the demographics of Great Britain.  Others gave us a detailed insight into how they intend to address the implications of artificial intelligence and other forms of rapid technological change.  And nearly everyone at the U.K. Supreme Court--staff and Justices alike--was dedicated to maintaining and expanding its reputation for innovation (including, for example, live streaming all court sessions on its website).

I can’t end this report without expressing my deep gratitude towards the dozens of members of legal London who generously gave up their time to speak with me and my fellow Scholars.  These ranged from the President of the U.K. Supreme Court and the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales--both of whom met with us the day after they were sworn into office--to the barristers in Fountain Court and 20 Essex Street Chambers who allowed me to shadow them.  In particular, the Justices and staff for the U.K. Supreme Court were exceptionally gracious in granting us front row seats to watch (and access to discuss with them) one of the biggest cases of the year.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to meet with, and learn from, all of you, and one that I will never forget.  Thank you.  

Thomas G. Sprankling is a clerk for Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the Supreme Court of the United States. Sprankling earned his B.A. with distinction in history and politics from Pomona College, where he served as editor-in-chief of the college’s political magazine. He was a Pomona College Scholar and earned the George S. Burgess Prize in Constitutional Law. At Columbia Law School, where he earned his J.D., Sprankling was a James Kent Scholar and received the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Prize and the Charles Bathgate Beck Prize. He served as executive articles editor of the Columbia Law Review. Sprankling worked for three years as an associate at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, LLP; and served as a law clerk for the Honorable Alex Kozinski on the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. He looks forward to learning more about how the solicitor/barrister arrangement of the English legal system works in practice.