As any aspiring barrister will know, it is necessary to complete 12 qualifying sessions before you can be called to the Bar. Although there are many kinds of qualifying sessions that can now be undertaken, this piece will focus mainly on formal dining and residential weekends. The historical significance of dining is that such sessions were arranged to enable future members of the junior bar to start networking and learning from those already in the profession. Some say this is now just an antiquated notion, and that quite often all that student barristers manage to achieve is meeting other student barristers rather than enjoying the opportunity to network or brush shoulders with those higher in the ranks of this profession. This is something I strongly refute. I consider the tradition of dining at your Inn of Court one of the best aspects of being a student barrister and something that everyone should take advantage of and enjoy to the fullest.
I am a student member of the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn and have thus far completed six dining sessions as an out-of-London student. Hopefully through this article I will be able to give those who have not yet joined an Inn of Court, or who have yet to attend any sessions, an insight in to what they are really like and what you can get out of them, especially as information on what goes on in these hallowed halls is surprisingly scarce.
The Inns of Court do their utmost to provide a dining experience for out-of-London students that is as good as that provided for those in London. All of the Inns take in to account the extra expenditure required by out-of-London students with regards to travel, and with the increasing popularity of these regional institutions, the Inns have increasingly adapted their practices to take account of them.
It is now possible to complete up to three dining sessions in a weekend, or possibly even a day, which is especially helpful to keep travelling costs down. Not all sessions necessarily include ‘dining’ which has led to these 12 sessions being renamed ‘qualifying sessions’ in more recent years.
Each institution providing the BPTC will also have student representatives for each Inn, and the out-of-London representatives are able to organise some qualifying sessions to take place at their centres rather than at the Inns in London. These regional sessions will usually take the form of an advocacy workshop or perhaps even a Ball of some kind. Again, this enables regional students to complete a number of sessions with ease.
With regards to the cost of sessions, all student tickets are heavily subsidised to around £20, although costs vary depending on the Inn and the nature of the event. For out-of-London students, their compulsory Introductory Weekend is provided free of charge, which means you can accumulate three dining sessions at little or no cost. Even London students receive their Introductory Day at their Inn at a lower cost – for Lincoln’s Inn it was only £5 for a dining session. The best deal out there seems to be provided by Middle Temple, which provides most normal dining sessions for out-of-London students for free; black tie events and the like still have to be paid for, but tickets for other nights are free.
Most students’ first experience of their Inn, and their first dining sessions, will be their Introductory Day or Evening (if they are studying at an institution in London) or an Introductory Weekend (for the out-of-London students).
Each Inn has a distinctly different approach to their Introductory Weekends. In particular, often the first dining session will be on the Friday evening, and then Saturday is a full day which will count as two sessions. At Lincoln’s Inn the Saturday events consists of talks from judges and barristers, most notably this year we were treated to a talk from Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe – a Supreme Court Judge. At Middle Temple they were treated to an African Music and Dance Workshop which included practitioners getting on the dance floor. Inner Temple students took part in drama workshops provided by The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Lincoln’s Inn was a more formal affair, with suits being worn throughout the weekend, while at Inner Temple informality was necessary for the drama workshops.
There is notorious rivalry between the Inns as to which provides the best ‘dining’ experience, but judging by the reviews from other students no Inn has disappointed yet. At Lincoln’s Inn, a four-course meal was provided, and at other Inns it was three courses.
The Inns also appear to have a reputation for the amount of alcohol served throughout these dinners. Often, there is a new bottle of wine for each course – you are provided with both red and white wine and usually port to finish. If you do not wish to be served alcohol, be sure to turn over one of the many glasses you will have at your place so the servers know. The best advice I have been given is to drink slowly at the start of the evening as you will be trying to make a good impression – especially if you are seated next to a judge, as I was. Towards the latter part of the evening however the atmosphere is often more relaxed and fun. Remember that Benchers are seasoned professionals when in it comes to dining, so at no point attempt to match one drink for drink. You will lose.
A word of caution for students, once you are seated for dinner you are usually not able to leave until the end of the dining session. This will generally be made clear beforehand. At Inner Temple and Middle Temple I have been told of doors being locked in order to prevent late-comers, and to prevent people leaving in the middle of a session. At Middle Temple you are able to leave for comfort breaks after the second grace, and at Inner Temple you can leave when the doors are opened again (after coffee is served). At Lincoln’s Inn, when sitting with a Judge and a QC, a student asked if she could be excused from the table during the main course and was met with the Judge’s response, ‘I am not saying you cannot leave, but I am not saying you can either. That choice is yours.’
Different types of dining sessions go by different names and may entail different dress codes or different levels of formality. For most dining sessions the dress code will be a dark suit and dark shoes, with gowns provided by the Inns to be worn over that. There are black tie events throughout the terms too.
The key difference, however, is between normal dining sessions and what are called ‘Domus’ dinners. The former involves all the Benchers of the Inns sitting at their own table at the head of the Hall, whereas the latter enables students and Benchers to sit together.
If I could give one piece of advice, it would be to favour Domus dinners for your sessions as the benefits are numerous. There are the obvious networking advantages, especially if placed next to a barrister or judge, as regular interaction with such people can only make you feel more at ease in their presence. The knowledge that these practitioners have accumulated throughout their years in law will be immense, and more astounding is the fact that it is not all legal knowledge. Lord Walker was well versed in many scientific developments, including DNA, due to the cases he had heard as a judge in the Supreme Court.
These weekends usually amount to three qualifying sessions so are great for out-of-London students, and I would highly recommend them as the experience is invaluable. Due to the popularity of these weekends, students are required to sign up and are then picked at random to attend. You are then whisked off to a house in the country along with a number of practitioners to enjoy a weekend of talks and advocacy workshops. You are given the chance to make applications to real judges and get feedback from them on not just your advocacy skills but also on your CV and pupillage applications. Students should note there is preparation to be done before you attend the weekend, mainly for the advocacy exercises.
With Lincoln’s Inn I attended Cumberland Lodge, which is in Great Windsor Park. The title of the weekend was ‘Law at Home’ – to emphasise the fact that this was to be a more informal atmosphere than a normal dining session in hall at Lincoln’s Inn itself. The days consisted of talks from the self-employed bar and the employed bar, and on pupillage and the future of the bar. We were then divided in to groups of six and with three practitioners as our mentors we made civil applications and criminal pleas in mitigation. In these groups we also handed in our CVs and pupillage applications, so that the practitioners could give us ideas and feedback on how to improve them. This was especially helpful as many of these practitioners sit on pupillage committees at their chambers.
These weekends enable you to get to know your Benchers better and also enable you to make some useful contacts. The main thing that students should bear in mind is that many barristers, once they have qualified, have little or no contact with their Inn, so those who make time to come to these qualifying sessions really do want to help as much as they possibly can. More than one has offered to look over my CV again at some future date and answer any questions I may have. These people are one of the best resources you have.
In conclusion then, at no other point in your legal career are you going to be able to have grand meals in even grander surroundings for only £20. At no other time will you be whisked away to a country house to learn skills from those at the top of their profession. Most importantly, in no other profession would you get an experience like the one offered to you by the Bar. All of these things make dining and qualifying sessions a truly unique experience, and one that no other profession can boast. For that reason I say take full advantage of this time. It may seem like a chore sometimes, but it is an aspect that really does set this profession apart.