American Inns of Court continue to promote professional ethics

Issue June 2005 By Andrea R. Barter, Esq.

Twenty-five years after their formal organization, American Inns of Court continue to successfully promote their goals of legal excellence, civility, professionalism and ethics within the legal profession.

According to Boston Inn of Court co-founder Christopher A. Kenney, Sherin and Lodgen LLP, Boston, the inn system has had a uniformly positive influence in fostering these core values.

“The model works,” said Kenney. “People develop personal relationships, challenge and perhaps abandon misconceptions, and gain new perspectives. When you can have a constructive meeting among the bench and the bar that allows for open exchange of ideas and perspectives on issues affecting trial and appellate practice, it helps everyone involved.”

The brainchild of Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and U.S. District Court Judge A. Sherman Christensen, American Inns of Court are usually comprised of judges, lawyers, law professors and law students. Each inn meets approximately once a month to socialize and to hold programs and discussions on matters of ethics, skills and professionalism.

Looking for a new way to help lawyers and judges better the profession, the American Inns of Court modified the traditional English model of legal apprenticeship to fit the needs of the American legal system. The goal is to help lawyers to become more effective advocates and counselors with a keener ethical awareness. Members learn side-by-side with the most experienced judges and attorneys in their community.

Membership is typically composed of masters of the bench—judges, lawyers with more than 15 years of experience, and law professors; barristers—lawyers with 7-to-15 years of experience; associates—lawyers who do not meet the minimum requirement for barristers; and pupils—third-year law students. The suggested number of active members for an inn is around 80.

Most inns concentrate on issues surrounding civil and criminal litigation practice, and include attorneys from a number of specialties. However, there are several inns that specialize in criminal practice, federal litigation, tax law, administrative law, white-collar crime, bankruptcy, intellectual property, family law, or employment and labor law.

The general practice is to divide the inn membership into “pupilage teams,” each consisting of a few members from each membership category. Each pupilage team conducts one program for the inn each year. Pupilage team members get together informally outside of monthly inn meetings in groups of two or more. This allows the less-experienced attorneys to become more effective advocates and counselors by learning from the more-experienced attorneys and judges. In addition, each less-experienced member is assigned to a more-experienced attorney or judge who acts as a mentor and encourages conversations about the practice of law.

The Boston area is host to four Inns of Court: The Boston Inn of Court, the Frank J. Murray American Inn of Court, the Massachusetts Family and Probate Inn of Court, and the Suffolk University Law School Litigation American Inn of Court.

The Boston Inn of Court was chartered in 1990, and holds the distinction of being the 100th chartered Inn of Court. Today, the inn continues to meet monthly for dinner and a presentation. The two-hour meetings are divided in half. During the first hour, members socialize and dine. During the second hour, one of the inn’s eight groups addresses a current litigation practice topic, with particular attention paid to issues of civility, ethics and skill development. Most groups present a series of skits that provide an opportunity to analyze that month’s subject of interest. The inn is then invited to discuss and debate various approaches to the issues that arise.

According to Kenney, “The atmosphere is conductive to open and frank collegial dialogue. It is really very good continuing legal education without straining to be that.”
“If you were to survey the trial bar and ask them to list the greatest areas of disenchantment, you would see an overwhelming unanimity that modern litigation practice doesn’t have the hallmarks of ethics, professionalism, civility and excellence: the core values the inn espouses. The inn tries to reverse that and inculcate that into the members so they then go out and make that part of their practice, in the courts, in their practice, before the bar,” said Kenney.

Lisa M. Cukier, Burns & Levinson LLP, Boston, is this year’s president of The Massachusetts Family and Probate Inn of Court. Cukier says the MFP inn differs from the others in its focus as well as in its membership size and program format. The inn is larger, with 139 members, none law students. Members are not assigned to teams and just one inn member, sometimes in conjunction with an outside speaker, presents the educational seminars.

Stressing her inn’s mentoring function as well as its collegiality, Cukier said, “We wanted to be as inclusive as possible. There is no other organization in the commonwealth that offers practitioners, judges, registrars, professors and legal scholars the opportunity to mingle with people exactly in the same practice area in an environment where they can learn and grow and deal with difficult ethical issues and issues of practice isolation together.”

At the other end of the scale is the Frank J. Murray Inn of Court, with approximately 60 dues-paying members. According to its president, John A. Shope, Foley Hoag LLP, Boston, “We like to think of ourselves as a smaller and more intimate inn in relation to some of the others here in town.”

The Frank J. Murray Inn, which focuses on Superior Court practice, does not employ the pupilage or team system. Nor does it use the nomenclature of the American Inns of Court, eschewing the titles of barrister, master of the bench, and associate.
“We are a fairly egalitarian organization. One purpose of inns is to break down barriers among judges, senior partners and clerks, junior attorneys. The advantage is that dialogue is open and honest. Candid dialogue between lawyers and judges has been fostered by the intimate scale of our inn and the fact that lawyers and judges have gotten to know each other very well through regular attendance,” said Shope.

Richard M. Gelb, Gelb & Gelb, LLP, Boston, is the founder and this year’s co-president of the Suffolk University Law School Litigation American Inn of Court. Gelb values his inn membership because of the camaraderie, networking and mentoring opportunities.
“I liked the idea that we’re isolating time to think about our role as a professional,” said Gelb. “Lots of programs raise legal issues that don’t necessarily have a clear-cut answer. Ethics in law school is aspirational. Here you have context on how to apply disciplinary rules. The questions aren’t bar review questions. There aren’t clear answers to these things, which creates a dynamic discussion. Many students will be taken aback that they have spent an evening discussing one issue and yet haven’t come to a categorical decision.”

Representatives of each inn stress that they are not a lecture series, CLE, or an adjunct of a law school’s program. Nor do they compete with other legal organizations like MBA, BBA or MCLE . While an inn has something in common with each of these concepts, it is quite different in aim, scope and effect. “A lot of focus is on culture of lawyering and advocacy; through the inns, trial advocates are trained to achieve excellence without compromising professionalism or ethics,” said Kenney.

Membership is on a first-come-first-served basis, with a sliding dues scale based on years in practice. If an inn has a full membership roster, it will refer the applicant to other inns. Members are not recruited, but participants who believe a third-year law student shows particular promise may submit the student’s name to the membership committee.
The Inns of Court celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first inn during the 2005 National Leadership Conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, in May.