Michael Skocpol

2019 Temple Bar Scholar Report

Tell an American you’ve spent four weeks in London getting acquainted with the English legal system, and odds are they will ask about wigs.  Do lawyers there really wear them in court? Did you get to wear one?  (I report back: Yes, though with less frequency than they once did; and no, it would have seemed quite rude to ask.)  One might think this fascination with headgear misses the forest for a few curly, powdered trees. But the traditional regalia that some barristers and judges sometimes wear to court did neatly exemplify what I found most striking about legal London: it displays its formidable history with evident pride, even as it has adapted to the modern era.

As Temple Bar Scholars, we enjoyed the opportunity to see legal London’s most venerable landmarks, attend “briefings” with distinguished jurists and practitioners, shadow barristers from top commercial chambers, and, as a memorable capstone, spend a week behind the scenes at the U.K. Supreme Court.  Thanks to hosts who were unfailingly generous with their time and perspectives, plus the many opportunities we had to observe court proceedings at both the trial and appellate levels, it was a unique opportunity to get a sense of legal practice in the United Kingdom. 

It was impossible not to feel that history was alive in legal London.  The physical infrastructure of the Bar in London dates back to medieval times, centered around four “Inns of Court” that have been hubs of professional education and networking for English barristers for a very long time.  (Imagine knowing that Shakespeare debuted one of his plays in the same hall where you’re having a meal!)  The lovingly preserved historic grounds and buildings of each of the Inns are a striking reminder how many generations of lawyers have honed the legal craft there.  Barristers still ply their trade out of “chambers” that ring the Inns--centuries-old warrens of offices where barristers (who are all formally self-employed) pool resources and collaborate.  Nearby, Temple Church traces its history all the way back to a role in the creation of the Magna Carta. And serious criminal matters are still tried at “Old Bailey,” the modern incarnation of which dates back to 1902, but versions of which have been in continuous operation since the 15th Century.  We also had the special privilege of attending ceremonies to usher in a new “legal year” at Westminster Abbey, where history and tradition were thick in the air as hundreds of judges and legal luminaries gathered in full regalia, as well as observing proceedings in the House of Lords. As curious as they might seem from the vantage of the United States, I can safely say that powdered wigs and silk gowns do not feel out of place beneath the soaring rafters of Westminster Abbey or in the wood-paneled courtrooms of the Royal Courts of Justice. 

At the same time, there was nothing static about any of this history.  The role of the Inns in barristers’ education, for example, has morphed over time and continues to evolve.  At Lincoln’s Inn, after lunching in an centuries-old ornate dining hall with a throwback feel, we then went downstairs to tour a state-of-the-art underground legal training center full of classrooms and lecture halls so recently completed that the smell of fresh paint still lingered in the air.  Right around the corner from the cathedral-like main Royal Courts of Justice building, a newer courthouse houses the commercial court, offering sleek modern courtrooms flush with rows upon rows of computer monitors. And perhaps nowhere we saw better embodies the spirit of updated and repurposed history than the UK Supreme Court--itself less than two decades old, though it inherited most of its functions from a predecessor institution steeped in history, the longstanding “Law Lords” of the House of Lords in Parliament.  The Supreme Court operates out of an old county courthouse that was thoughtfully redesigned and modernized. (For what it’s worth, wigs are rare there--the Justices wear them only on ceremonial occasions, not to argument, and the advocates can, and generally do, forgo them.)

Matching the physical landscape, we found a legal culture that deploys tradition and history judiciously but to great effect.  Due to Great Britain’s imperial past, its law played an outsized role in the development of modern commerce, finance, and trade.  (That history remains alive most immediately in the Supreme Court’s alter ego, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, through which the Supreme Court justices continue to serve as a court of final review for many Commonwealth legal systems around the world; we saw a property dispute from Trinidad and Tobago argued there.) Barristers and Judges in the U.K. seem conscious of that history, which contributes to London’s status as a popular international dispute resolution center and makes it a place where far more than just British parties may choose to litigate.  (It was striking to see how many matters in the London commercial court we encountered while there involved, for example, Ukrainian or Russian business interests.) Several people commented on how scrupulous English courts are about fidelity to precedent and incrementalism, knowing that the stability and predictability of the common law is part of what draws foreign parties to contract under English law and resolve disputes in English courts. The English bench and bar seem aware that they have inherited a reputation burnished over generations, and those we met took seriously their role as stewards of that legacy.

Perhaps relatedly, the courts seemed to be steeped in a culture of collegiality and collaboration.  Among the appellate judges we met, strident dissent seemed to be disfavored more so than in many American courts.  Oral arguments were an order of magnitude longer than in the U.S.--measured in hours or days, where in the U.S. argument time for a comparable proceeding might be parceled out in minutes.  One result of that is that judges and advocates have time to pore over passages of case law together, ensuring that everyone is (quite literally) on the same page throughout the proceedings.  Also noteworthy was the value placed on judges’ specialized expertise. At both the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals level, for example, we were told that panel assignments are made with an eye toward matching judges’ expertise to the subject matter of particular cases.  This stood in contrast to our lower federal courts, where case assignment processes are studiously random. And our time at the U.K. Supreme Court similarly revealed it to have a culture of collegiality. Unusually from an American perspective, the 12 Justices sit in panels (usually of 5, but sometimes of 7, 9, or very rarely 11 in the most momentous cases), and how smoothly that system seems to operate bespeaks the trust and confidence the Justices must have in their colleagues.

Michael Skocpol recently finished a three-year stint of clerking at all levels of the U.S. federal courts, having served as a law clerk for Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court of the United States, Judge Cornelia T.L. Pillard of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Judge Gary S. Feinerman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. He was prompted in part to go to law school by his experience serving on a criminal jury in Massachusetts and being an investigator for the public defender service of the District of Columbia. He earned his law degree at Stanford Law School and an undergraduate degree magna cum laude in political science from Brown University. He has also been a legal intern at the ACLU of Southern California and a summer associate at Relman Dane and Colfax PLLC, a civil rights law firm in Washington, DC.