I travelled into London on the tube for the first day of Bar School. Along the Central line to Holborn, I went up the long escalators wondering what it would be like. When I arrived, the place was rammed with students. I signed the enrolment forms and was given details of my tutor group. I received all the course text books – which were A4 sized and filled two big plastic bags – and headed off to the pub with my tutor group. There were some down to earth students and others who were very well spoken. I tried to avoid most law students at Oxford Brookes University because they were snobbish, so this was going to be odd as I would be surrounded by law students all day long.
The course itself was packed with core legal skills such as advocacy, negotiation and interviewing, as well as procedural legal topics like litigation and evidence. It was apparent from very early in the course that it predominantly used criminal law to practice skills or apply procedures. I preferred commercial law, so this was going to be tricky. Still, it was late summer and the sun was shining. Ambling between lectures along Bedford Row, I smiled as “Somewhere in my Heart” by Aztec Camera came from an open window into the warm, still afternoon air.
I had to immerse myself in the traditions of the bar. The Inn of Court library had seats designated only for barristers so students had to be careful not to sit there. On entering the library, the musty smell of old books hit my nostrils. Every wall was covered with tall, bespoke bookshelves, each crammed with a range of law reports and practitioners’ texts. The tall sash windows cast light on volumes of Chancery Division and All England Law Reports. I liked the galleried walkway upstairs leading to some dark corridors, which was a haven away from the bustle of busy students and barristers.
In the evenings, while preparing for the next day’s speaking and written assignments, I had an opportunity to watch some of the barristers in the library. Some seemed very business-like and smart in their pinstripe suits; others were a bit unkempt and eccentric; all were studious and seemingly upper class in this microcosm where the modern and traditional worlds sat side-by-side.
Attending eighteen dinners at the Inn of Court was compulsory to be called to the bar – as well as passing all the bar exams. This medieval ritual was held in an enormous echoing hall. From the marbled floor rose oak-panelled walls adorned with heraldic shields. Higher up were old, dark oil paintings of women in dresses and men in wigs, above which massive chandeliers hung from the ceiling by large windows. We wore black gowns and sat on benches alongside long oak tables, which all pointed in the direction of the high table where QCs, judges and benchers dined.
We sat in fours and the rule was not to talk to anyone beyond our own group. A three course meal was waiter-served and we were not allowed to get up for anything. In fact, we were locked in during dinner to ensure no one sneaked out. So, you had to make sure you didn’t drink too much before dinner as there was no going to the toilet until it was officially over. After dinner, we could leave briefly so long as we returned for port. The trick was to get a mate and sit with some teetotallers for the meal because a bottle of port was handed out to each group of four.
Every now and then it was guest night, so I took my girlfriend, Michelle, along for the experience. I was even invited to the top table once, which involved aperitifs in a private room, then dinner and conversation. I talked and laughed with the old big wigs, who seemed to enjoy themselves. One leant in and said “We haven’t met someone like you before.”