The Inns of Court as "finishing schools for gentlemen"
Until the 18th century, the majority of students were the sons of country gentry who attended the Inns of Court as "finishing schools" rather than as intending barristers. The Inns provided a form of general education, including the art of dance, as well as legal training and also enabled students to cultivate advantageous contacts.

Common law
For those destined for the legal profession, the Inns trained students in the common law, employed in the royal law courts, including the Courts of Common Pleas and the King's Bench, rather than the canon/civil law in use in the church courts and Court of Admiralty. Canon, and subsequently civil, law was studied at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and at Doctors Commons in the City of London. Common law was not taught at English universities until 1828, when the first common law professor was employed at University College London.

During the four legal terms of Michaelmas, Hilary, Easter and Trinity, when the Central Law Courts at Westminster were in operation, bar students attended the courts to learn about court procedure and the art of advocacy. In addition, they would attempt to obtain a placement in a set of barristers' chambers to observe the profession in practice. This form of pupillage was informal and is not recorded in the records.

Learning vacations
Trainee barristers were expected to keep the two learning vacations, at Easter and in the summer, by attending lectures, known as readings, on individual legal statues. Christmas and New Year revels and other forms of entertainment, at which one of the students acted as the Lord of Misrule, occupied the third vacation.

Throughout the year, students took part in vocational exercises known as moots, at which the hall was laid out to resemble a law court. At first the students watched the proceedings from within the 'bar' of the 'court', and were known as 'inner barristers' (a term which fell out of use). When qualified to argue points of law, they moved outside the 'bar' and became outer (or utter) barristers. In due course they might be selected to deliver a lecture (or reading) one of the legal statutes at their Inn of Court or associated Inn of Chancery (see glossary). They were subsequently entitled to sit on the bench at moots and became known as Masters of the Bench (or Benchers).

Qualification as a barrister
From the 16th century, the status of ' outer' barrister conferred by the Inns of Court, became publicly recognised in the central law courts. It was, and continues to be, the Inns of Court that called qualified students to the bar, the first stage of entitling them to practice as barristers, and disbarred them for misconduct or at their own request (see glossary). To qualify for call to the bar, students were required to keep a fixed number of terms and, after 1872, to pass the bar examination.

Keeping terms
Before the 17th century, the Inns of Court were residential law schools and students were expected to be physically present in the Inn during term-time and the learning vacations. To keep terms, they were required to pay commons (payments for accommodation, meals and subscription) and other dues, for example preacher's duties. They also needed to attend a number of dinners in hall to foster a sense of community and to learn from their elders. The requirement to be present at dinners continued after the majority of students no longer resided in the Inns and, as a result, the number of dinners that the students must attend to keep term had to be defined.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, when learning exercises had almost entirely ceased, all students were to be in commons (attending dinner and other compulsory occasions held within the Inn) for a total of four years (16 terms) before they could be called to the bar.

In 1762 the Inns of Court, by mutual agreement, reduced the number of terms to be kept and in 1798 specified the number of required dinners per term as three. In the 18th century, when the Inns offered very little formal education, it was a commonly held view that gentleman could "eat their way to the bar". In the 19th century, as a result of external pressure, notably from a Royal Commission on Legal Education, and of co-operation between the four Inns of Court, lectures and other learning exercises were revived, with the individual Inns appointing salaried lecturers to teach aspects of law to their students.

Bar examination
The bar examination was not introduced until 1852 and was not made compulsory until 1872. It was administered by the Council of Legal Education, founded in 1852 to take over the provision of lectures and learning exercises from the Inns of Court.

University education
Until the early 19th century, the only form of law taught at the English universities was canon/civil law that was in use in the church courts and Court of Admiralty. University College London (UCL) appointed the first professor of English (common) law, Andrew Amos, in 1828. In 1839, the first English law degrees were awarded at UCL. From 1850, Oxford University offered a BA course in English law and history, whilst Cambridge University established a Law Tripos in 1858.

The possession of a university degree was not considered necessary for entry to the Inns of Court although, by the 19th century, an increasing number of applicants were studying law at university or had previously graduated. Attendance at university reduced the deposit payable on entry to an Inn of Court. From 1861 to 1909 non-graduates were required to pass preliminary examinations set by the Inn to which they were applying and, in the 20th century, the bar became exclusively a graduate profession.

Inns of Chancery
From the Middle Ages, the Inns of Chancery, or 'lesser inns', offered training in the writing and employment of writs and other procedures in use in the common law courts as well as hospitality. Originally they instructed both intending barristers, who went on to join one of the Inns of Court, and trainee attorneys or solicitors. The Inns of Chancery became attached to one of the four Inns of Court as follows:

  • Clement's Inn, Clifford's Inn and Lyon's Inn - Inner Temple
  • Strand Inn (abolished in the 16th century) and New Inn - Middle Temple
  • Thavies' Inn and Furnivall's Inn - Lincoln's Inn
  • Barnard's Inn and Staple Inn - Gray's Inn

    The last Inn of Chancery (Clifford's Inn) was abolished in 1903.

    Attorneys and solicitors
    Since the Middle Ages there has been a division of labour between those who pleaded and argued cases in court (serjeants and barristers) and those who prepared cases and managed them through court on behalf of clients. These professionals, who also served as court officials, became known as attorneys. Attorneys had to have their names enrolled on the official list of the courts in which they wished to act. To qualify for enrolment, they were supposed to have served an apprenticeship with an authorized practitioner, but this was not always the case in practice. Moreover such apprenticeships were informal and were not officially recorded.

    Attorneys could join one of the Inns of Chancery, which provided rudimentary education in the writ system employed in the royal courts, but membership of one of these Inns never became compulsory and did not offer licence to practice.

    In the 16th century a new class of lawyer emerged, the solicitor, whose role fell somewhere between those of barristers and attorneys. By the 17th century, the solicitors' profession had become clearly separated from that of barristers. It became similar to the profession of attorney, preparing cases and acting directly on behalf of clients. In 1729 both became subject to tighter regulation and practitioners were expected to join a new professional association, 'the Society of Gentlemen Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity'. The Society's regulatory role was subsequently assumed by the Law Society (incorporated in 1826). By the 19th century, the term attorney had fallen into disrepute and was abolished.

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