The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn
The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn

I frequently get questions about the nature of legal education in the 18th century and the differences between Britain and the American colonies in that regard.  Moreover, given my work on transatlantic cultural influences in the late colonial period, and their relation to political thought and behavior, I’ve been keenly interested in any sources that shed light on the actual experience of those who attended the Inns of Court in London, which educated so many colonial political leaders, from Daniel Dulany to John Dickinson to Peyton Randolph to Arthur Lee (all of whom attended Middle Temple).  Consequently, whenever I’m in London, I regularly pester the uniformly kind librarians, archivists, and clerks at the various Inns for whatever they might have come across since the last time I bothered them.  Not that long ago, while sitting in the library of my London academic home–the splendid Institute for Historical Research–I was sent a real find: The Student’s Guide Through Lincoln’s Inn by Thomas Lane, published in 1805.  It was chock full of all sorts of factual gems and insights that, at the very least, give us a glimpse into what it was like to study law in Georgian England. Keeping in mind that most–although certainly not all–American law students were simultaneously enrolled at one of the universities (mainly Cambridge), and that the City itself provided perhaps the best education, these notes of mine, taken from The Student’s Guide, I think enrich our understanding of just what these students were getting up in the late 1700s.

All the principal Inns of Court are uniform in their regulations of calling to the bar.

Admission payment must be made.

Gentleman to be admitted need not be present but a bond must be entered into by himself and a member of the Inn, or two housekeepers, who are required to certify that they know him to be a fit and proper person to become a member.

In addition to the bond a deposit must be made before a student commences his terms for the English bar, to be returned on his call to the bar or his leaving the society unless the person can produce a certificate showing he spent 2 years at Oxford, Cambridge or Dublin, or of the Faculty of Advocates of Scotland, or if admitted for purposes of being called to the Irish bar.

Method of keeping terms is to attend the hall during the 4 law terms — Hilary, Easter, Trinity, and Michaelmas.

Lincoln’s Inn dinner was at 4pm. In the 17th century it was at 3pm.

Hilary term — 23 Jan to 12 Feb; Michaelmas term — 6 Nov to 28 Nov; Easter term — Begins 17 days after Easter Sunday and continues 27 days; Trinity term — Begins 18 days after conclusion of Easter term and continues 20 days.

The student is required to remain in the hall until grace is said after dinner, or else he loses the benefit of that day’s attendance, his name struck off by the Steward who regularly attends to enter all names of those present.

To keep a whole term, one can attend every day in a whole week and any one day in grand week; the method of shortest compass [and expense] is to attend 4 days preceding grand week and the Sunday in grand week if the four days are part of the term; attending a whole week and every day in a grand week (14 days) will complete the term at same expense as shortest term.

Terms are charged by the whole, three quarters, half and quarter.

Dinner is provided every day through term and students may attend every day by paying a repast fee above the number of days keeping.

Plain black gown are worn by diners, and can be rented at the door; students sit at either of side tables, cross tables occupied by benchers and barristers.

Students cannot be more than two terms in arrears for his eating commons. If so, the Steward cannot record his keeping a term.

Exercises take place after dinner, and benchers then retire to their private room.

Students need not begin to keep commons in the hall until two years after their admission to the society, nor do they need to make the 100 pounds sterling deposit until they begin to keep terms.

Any student may, on application to the Steward, have a certificate of his belonging to the society, which entitles him to a seat in the student’s box in the courts at Westminster Hall and the Old Bailey.

Students are not required to possess chambers or to reside in the Inn unless he chooses.

Before a student can be called to the English bar it is necessary that his name shall have been five years on the books of the society, unless a certificate be produced of his having taken the degree of MA or BL at Oxford, Cambridge, or Dublin, in which case 3 years would be sufficient, during which period he must keep 12 terms commons in the hall and perform 9 exercises, no more than 3 of which can be performed in one term.

Exercises are immediately after dinner but application must first be made to the Steward for a certificate signed by a practising barrister of the society who attests he is acquainted with the student’s character and that the student is an unexceptionable person and which, if approved by the rest of the barristers, allows the student to commence exercises the next day.

When a student is qualified for the bar his name must be affixed on the screen in the hall a fortnight [same for all four Inns of Court] and a petition signed by him presented to the benchers at a council, one of the benchers must move the consideration of the petition, another special council is then fixed for the purpose of calls; if the candidate is approved and the petition granted, it is ordered that the petitioner be published or called to the bar at the next exercise in the hall, which is generally the following day. On that day the student must attend personally; and after dinner proceed to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, which are administered by the steward before the benchers. After taking the oaths, he is (published or) called to the bar by the benchers, and retires to the council chamber to sign the register of his call, in the presence of the benchers; who immediately leave him to the enjoyment of the company of his friends, usually invited on the occasion. When the register is signed the Steward delivers too each gentleman called a copy of the order for his call to the bar, which he is required to produce at Westminster Hall previous to his taking the oaths there, which should be done within six months after he is called to the bar.

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