Denver Bar Association
June 2012
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On the Wings of a Pegasus Scholarship | Part One of a Two-Part Story: An Uncommon Glimpse Into the Home of the Common Law

by Becky Bye

 

Becky Bye stands in front of the Royal Courts of Justice, which was initially opened by Queen Victoria in the 19th century.
Becky Bye stands in front of the Royal Courts of Justice, which was initially opened by Queen Victoria in the 19th century.
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oodrow Wilson once said, "We are citizens of the world. The tragedy of our times is that we do not know this." Centuries earlier, Socrates also noted, "I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world." Throughout time, leaders and academics alike have reiterated that we do not live in a box or a bubble; regardless of what we do or who we are, we live in an interconnected society.

The same holds true for the practice of law, even in landlocked Colorado.

When our country won its independence from England hundreds of years ago, lawyers practicing in our country trained in England’s common law. Since that time, our legal system has evolved to match the ideals and culture of the United States while deviating from the United Kingdom.

Although the U.S. legal system shares the same language, the same common law system, and ultimately, the same origins, it operates in a fundamentally different way to meet the country’s unique needs, much like Darwin’s explanation of variation among species that share a common ancestor: each species must adapt to its uniquely different habitat.

The Pegasus Scholarship

Because of the importance of learning about other jurisdictions to better understand one’s own and make positive changes, the Inner Temple Inn of Court, one of four Inns of Court in England, instituted an exchange program—the Pegasus Scholarship—among young lawyers in common law jurisdictions around the world.

Each year, the American Inns of Court sends two lawyers from the U.S. to London for six weeks to work with different barristers and learn about their legal system and all of its nuances, including court visits and observations, meetings with judges and justices, and even participating in educational retreats and programs intended for aspiring barristers.

In the U.K., anyone who practices as a barrister must affiliate with one of the four Inns of Court. All four Inns are located in the "Temple" part of London, just east of Westminster Abbey and the House of Parliament. Each Inn identifies itself with a unique coat of arms displayed prominently throughout its property; the Inner Temple’s is a Pegasus.

Overall, the English Inns of Court constitute picturesque educational and professional institutions with gates, gardens, and centuries of history, where barristers can congregate for meals, events, and where aspiring barristers (known as pupils) must begin their legal journey before being "called to the bar."

In the U.S., the American Inns of Court is the parent organization to hundreds of local Inns of Courts nationwide.1 Membership is voluntary, but the organization bases itself loosely on the English Inns’ model of mentorship and professionalism.

In late 2011, I applied for the Pegasus Scholarship and felt so lucky to be one of two lawyers in the U.S. selected as a 2012 scholar. In mid-February, I packed two suitcases (literally full of suits), and headed to London. To prepare, I spoke with previous scholars and reviewed various materials about the program—even so, I had no idea what to expect. I simply looked forward to the experience of a lifetime, professionally and personally.

The World of Barristers

The scholarship focuses on the world of barristers and their role in the U.K.’s legal system. Barristers take over a case when it reaches the courtroom. Before a case goes to court, solicitors work on the matter, maintain most of the client contact, and practice in all aspects of law, including transactional law and litigation; however, they typically do not make official appearances in courtrooms. Barristers work in chambers; solicitors work in firms or can be solo practitioners. Solicitors actually hire barristers to take their cases to court, and both have different requirements, exams, and paths for acceptance to their professions. Most important, from a pop culture standpoint, barristers wear the famous powdered wigs when in most courtrooms.

Chambers, the workspace for barristers, operate similar to law firms in many respects. All barristers must be independent contractors so that a barrister can represent anyone without a conflict; if they were in firms, they could be conflicted out if another barrister in that firm represented the opposing party. And yes, oddly enough, because of this rule, barristers commonly work with another within his or her chambers on one case and later oppose that same barrister in a different case.

First Chambers: A Focus on Civil Law

I spent my time in two different chambers of barristers. My first chambers placement had about 30 barristers who practice in a wide range of areas, namely international law, defamation (a large part of the U.K. civil law system due to England’s ruthless tabloids), and property law. As with many chambers, it rents its offices from one of the Inns on its historic property.

Because barristers pay rent for their individual office within chambers, many share the same room. I was impressed that barristers do not feel compelled to have a large or private office, whereas in the U.S. many lawyers covet their privacy and the pomp and circumstance of a large office.

Nearly every room I observed, regardless of how many barristers shared it, contained an extremely small desk next to one or more of the barristers’ desks. Barristers reserve these desks for pupils—barristers who recently passed the bar and serve as apprentices for at least one year. Although barristers have no financial incentive to take pupils, many believe that it is a duty, regardless of inconvenience, to help mold the next generation and maintain the professional integrity of the bar.

As a Pegasus Scholar, I essentially played the role of a pupil—I sat at a pupil’s desk and observed a handful of barristers engaging in their trade. In my first chambers, I worked with a barrister with an outstanding reputation who worked on many high-profile cases of national and international importance. He has the initials QC after his name, which stands for Queen's Counsel. This means he was selected by a committee as one of the more distinguished barristers in the legal community. Some of the privileges of attaining the esteemed QC status include wearing a silk robe instead of the traditional non-silk variety; charging higher fees; and occasional invites to special events, such as meet-and-greets with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Above all, QCs receive substantial respect from lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

Some of the cases I observed stemmed from Trinidad and Tobago—because it is a British colony, barristers can practice there. Cases ranged from insurance cases against the Trinidad government to an appeal of a death sentence conviction to the U.K. Privy Council, which is the Supreme Court for U.K. territories.

Another case I observed included an oral argument to the High Court (equivalent to a district court) regarding how much a prominent tabloid should pay a claimant for defamation by publishing false information, despite the tabloid admitting the information was false and publishing an apology in their application. Ultimately, the barrister from my chambers received a beneficial ruling for the client, and to my surprise major newspapers published the outcome the following day.

While at the defamation arguments, I observed that instead of focusing on case law, advocates advanced their arguments based on facts and common decency. The barristers were cordial to each other and the judge.

I also noticed that written pleadings to (and even from) the courts contain only a scintilla of case law. Compared to U.S. briefs they were unstructured. When I articulated my observations, several barristers told me that courts actually discourage the use of case law, especially string citations, because the reliance on other cases can be distracting and may cloud the actual arguments and facts. Advocacy in the courtroom comprises the core of a barristers’ work. Therefore, the U.K. litigation system places a strong emphasis on the oral argument itself and less emphasis on written briefs and arguments.

Another observation from my immersion in the U.K.’s civil law is that, barring a few limited exceptions, it lacks jury trials. Most trials are bench trials. Their reasoning: many civil matters are complex legal and factual matters that might be too sophisticated to put forth in front of an inexperienced trier-of-fact.

Second Chambers:
A Concentration in Criminal Law

My second chambers specialized in criminal law. I spent most of my time in the second chambers away from the office and in courts ranging from the Old Bailey, a famous criminal law court for serious crimes; the Crown Court, equivalent to a county court; and the majestic Royal Courts of Justice, which contains dozens of large and small courtrooms for various civil, criminal, and government matters.

Unlike the careful and time-consuming jury selection process and voir dire in the U.S., one of the biggest differences in U.K. criminal law is that the barristers select the first 12 jurors who appear. When I observed a murder trial set to last more than four weeks with four defendants and nearly a dozen barristers, jury selection took just a few hours, and it only took that long because the jurors had to determine whether they could spare weeks away from their jobs and other duties.

Other differences in the criminal law proceedings I observed included that the defendant or collective defendants sit in a box surrounded by glass and with police officers either in the middle or the back of the courtroom, and barristers have little interaction with the defendants. The solicitors are also present in the courtroom and serve as the liaison between barristers and defendants.

Additionally, the government hires barristers to be prosecutors or "public" defenders in any given case, so virtually all criminal law barristers prosecute and defend in different cases. The American criminal system differs substantially in this regard, because prosecutors and public defenders are only employees of the government for that side and, in many cases, possess fundamental philosophical differences and engage in polarized perspectives of the criminal legal process.

Life in London

"Next month, Bye will take readers further inside the legal system of the U.K., introducing members of its judiciary and a brush with Queen Elizabeth, as well as eye-opening experiences visiting the Edinburgh and Belfast courts. She also will delve into lessons learned in mentoring and the practice of law.

Throughout my scholarship, I took advantage of the culture and nightlife at my disposal in London. For example, I ventured to see "Sweeney Todd" in the West End, and to my surprise and excitement, the musical takes place on Fleet Street, which is the heart of the small legal district in London where I worked. One of the musical’s antagonists is a criminal law judge, who works at the Old Bailey. When I saw the musical, I was in in the midst of observing the long trial at that court. As luck would have it, I ran into the barrister I was shadowing at the show.

That eventful moment served as a mere microcosm of the broader impact the scholarship would have on so many facets of my life. From pop culture and musicals, to a deeper understanding of the role of advocacy in society, the scholarship has provided me enlightenment and has made me a better lawyer and citizen of the world. D

Becky Bye may be contacted at beckybye@gmail.com.


1 For a more in-depth discussion on the American Inns of Court and the Inns of Court in Denver, see “‘Inn’side the Denver Inns of Court,” in The Docket, October 2010, available at denbar.org/docket/doc_articles.cfm?ArticleID=6754.


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