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Being part of the "Inn" crowd: Learning professionalism through the American Inns of Court

The American Inns of Court (AIC) is a membership organization designed to bring bench and bar together in an informal setting. While not a traditional model of legal apprenticeship, the AIC has modified the English system of the Inns of Court to reflect the unique aspects of our American system of law and society.

Each individual inn meets approximately once a month (except during the summer) to hold programs and discussions on matters of ethics, civility, trial skills and professionalism, and usually involves the "breaking of bread" as well. Small individual teams or "pupilage groups" of lawyers and judges of all ages and experience levels are formed within the inn. The members of these pupilage groups meet often and informally themselves to share a meal, plan programs, socialize and discuss legal developments of interest.

Each inn and pupilage group is populated with four different levels of legal participation. The highest level is comprised of Masters, the most talented and experienced litigators and judges whose participation in the Inn is usually permanent. The next level includes barristers, who usually serve two-year terms and typically have between five and 15 years of experience. Associates are the entry-level lawyer participants, usually with one to five years of experience, and finally, some of the inns accept a few law-school students.

All of the inns strive for diversity, both in terms of social diversity such as race, gender and ethnicity, but also in terms of practice. Civil and criminal government lawyers, small-firm lawyers, solo lawyers, prosecutors and criminal defense counsel are all welcome and encouraged to apply for membership.

In San Diego, there are six different inns that cater to different interests and geography. The Louis M. Welsh Inn, the oldest of the groups, meets downtown and is a general practice inn, as is the William B. Enright Inn. The recently formed J. Clifford Wallace Inn meets in the Carmel Valley area and many of its members practice in intellectual property litigation. The William L. Todd Jr. Inn attracts graduates of the University of Southern California, while the Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Inn serves the North County legal community. Amongst the diversity of the inns in San Diego, there is truly something for every interested litigator.

The AIC is not a fraternal order, a social club, a continuing legal education program, an apprenticeship arrangement, nor a law-school program, and yet it is all of these things and more. Judges and lawyers of all ages coming together in frequent meetings to talk about excellence, civility, ethics and professionalism, as well as the latest legal news and gossip, makes for long-term relationships built on trust, confidence and common ground. Working in small groups on a common continuing legal education program topic can also foster goodwill, respect and close ties to other lawyers one will likely meet again in San Diego's relatively small legal community.

While the benefits to lawyers are tremendous, the judges in San Diego also support the fine work being done by the inns. The Hon. Ronald Styn, Superior Court judge and president of the Welsh Inn, said: "Young lawyers are subjected to enormous demands on their time to meet deadlines, develop their practice, make a living and have a life outside the law. Often lost is the need for professionalism, civility and ethics. The AIC emphasizes these issues and allows young lawyers to meet and learn from the senior members that the practice of law is more than winning and billing hours. In addition, it is an opportunity to meet attorneys and judges outside of an adversarial relationship."

The Hon. Dana Makuto Sabraw, U.S. District Court judge for the Southern District of California and president of the Wallace Inn, agrees. "The American Inns of Court is a unique organization in so many ways. I know of no other organization that is devoted to mentoring members of our profession -- particularly those new to the practice of law -- with the expectation that through genuine fellowship, a shared meal and interesting educational programs, our young lawyers will learn to practice law with unimpeachable integrity, courtesy and a respect for the institution of justice. In today's world of reality TV and unmitigated brashness, the Inns of Court is a flash back to a more gentile time -- when civility reined. All lawyers benefit greatly from participation in the Inns of Court. Our doors are always open to those who might be interested in joining."

Law school teaches young lawyers the law, but the American Inns of Court teaches them how to be lawyers. For more information on how to join a local AIC, go to www.innsofcourt.org.

Gerber is a partner in the intellectual property, entertainment and media, and business trial practice groups in the Del Mar Heights office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP.

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