Dining your way to the Bar

To some the traditions of the Bar, such as dining in hall, are sacrosanct. To others, they are simply a barrier. Now, as the profession’s regulator consults over proposals on the future role of the Inns of Court in preparing entrants for life at the Bar, the eating of dinners in an ancient hall as a precondition of practice is coming under the spotlight. The ICLR’s Paul Magrath examines the tradition and asks what future it might still have.

It’s a tradition that goes back centuries, but in recent years the requirement to eat a certain number of dinners in hall in order to qualify as a barrister has grown less and less significant. The question is, should they be abandoned altogether as a qualifying step?

This is one of the questions the Bar Standards Board (BSB) is asking in its current consultation on barrister training and qualification. It is part of a wider examination of the role of the Inns of Court in controlling access to, and supporting practice at, the Bar.

Under current rules a barrister can only be called to the Bar by one of the Inns, and before they can be called, they must complete 12 “qualifying sessions”. Dining in hall is currently categorised as one form of a qualifying session, the others being guest lecture events, advocacy workshops, and debate nights. But calling them “dining sessions” suggests something rather more educationally structured than is actually the case.

Dinners are formal: you need to wear a business suit or office attire and on top of that a gown (usually loaned by the Inn, unless you have your own already). You sit in a “mess” of four, but on long tables and sometimes benches. Each of the Inns of Court has its own dining hall, a splendid old building reminiscent of ancient colleges or livery companies (or, for contemporary readers, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter tales).

Traditions vary, but in Middle Temple, for example, you are not supposed to talk to anyone outside your own mess during the meal. You can’t leave hall for a smoke or comfort break until after the meal: the signal for permission to do so comes after the royal toast. In Gray’s Inn you can be publicly challenged, and have to perform some penalty, such as standing up and singing a silly song, if you make a mistake in the rules. So, it’s all a bit like being at a boarding school, which is exactly where a lot of barristers used to come from in the old days when these traditions were considered a jolly good thing. The fact is, many of today’s pupils don’t have that experience, and find the whole business either ridiculous or scary, or possibly both.

Commenting on Twitter, Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister at 1 Crown Office Row Chambers, said “I’m not a fan of dining. I think it can be intimidating and weird for people who aren’t Oxbridge or public schooled.”

Scott Stemp, a barrister specialising in planning and regulatory law at No5 Chambers, agreed: “I had a completely ‘non-privileged’ background & found dining an intimidating, weird and exclusionary experience. I hated every second of being made to dine in alien circs, with unexplained rules & with people who reinforced to me how much I did not ‘belong’…”

Others who engaged in the thread, including many who did not have the benefit or burden of a boarding school education, thought dining was fun, and a good way to make friends and learn about life at the Bar. Felicity McMahon, media law barrister at 5RB chambers, said: “I don’t agree, I’m not Oxbridge or public school & I LOVED it. Was new & I felt privileged, let into a special club (which I was) …” Emily Wilsdon, a barrister at Temple Garden Chambers, agreed: “BSB oversimplifies social mobility issues. If non-Oxbridge & no barrister fam/friends, dinner is one way Inns offer opp to make contacts!”

These benefits were not universally appreciated, however. Victoria Butler-Cole, a barrister at 39 Essex Chambers, tweeted: “I just didn’t see the value of it – only met middle aged white male barristers talking about themselves I’m afraid.” And for some, the barrier was so great, it put them off the Bar altogether. Leanne Smith, senior lecturer, Cardiff University law school, recalled: “At uni I found the idea baffling and horrifying. It was so alien that I concluded it wasn’t intended for the likes of me. Did a PhD instead!”

Dining in hall goes back to the origins of the Inns of Court in the 14th century, as places where lawyers lived and studied communally within easy reach of the courts at Westminster. Much of the teaching was done in moots, but the halls were also used for revels and plays (Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was first performed at Middle Temple Hall in 1602). Gradually the practice of dining in hall during the law terms became more formalised, and eventually it also became part of the requirements for qualification.

Although it could be seen as a chore, it was also an opportunity to mix with and learn from other barristers. Yet it undoubtedly also promoted a somewhat club-like and therefore “exclusive” atmosphere which now seems at odds with the idea of an open and diverse profession.

It seems a shame to sweep the dinners away altogether, but one of the options put forward in the BSB consultation would be to remove the requirement to join an Inn, leaving it optional, at least at the student stage before qualifying; in which case the dinners, if they continued, would also be optional. Of course, it is not just students who dine: the formal feasts are a central feature in the life of the Inns, enjoyed by many older members and, perhaps especially, the Benchers – those senior members, elected to govern the Inns, who sit at the top table in hall.

As well as their social function, the Inns also provide valuable ongoing support and continuing education for barristers, as well as managing the buildings in which many of them rent their chambers. So people should think carefully when responding to the consultation, even if they do away with the compulsory dinners, about the many good things worth preserving in the Inns’ educational role.

Paul Magrath (who was called to the Bar in Middle Temple after eating more dinners than he cares to remember) is head of product development and online content at the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting for England and Wales (ICLR). He tweets as @Maggotlaw