San Diego was one of the first regions to have an American Inn of Court and, based on the number of local Inns now, it is one of the organization's biggest supporters more than 25 years later.
Judge William B. Enright helped establish the first American Inn of Court in Southern California – the Louis M. Welsh Inn – in 1984, serving as its president for many years.
Today, there are five Inns in San Diego, including the William B. Enright Inn, the J. Clifford Wallace Inn, the Fiorenzo V. Lopardo Inn and the William L. Todd Jr. Inn. Another Inn – the San Diego Inn of Court – predates the American Inns by 10 years, but differs slightly in mission and format.
Based on a British model, the American Inns of Court are designed to mentor young attorneys while promoting civility and ethics in the profession.
"What attracted me initially was the ability to get to know people in town better and to learn to be a better lawyer," said Claudette Wilson, a founding partner of Wilson Turner Kosmo and a member of the Welsh Inn's executive committee.
"It's just very satisfying to know that you're teaching the next generation to be better lawyers and teaching them how to interact in a positive way with other attorneys, whether they represent the same side or the other side in cases."
Membership to the highly sought "invitation only" club is open to both lawyers and judges alike from all practice areas. The organization is divided into three groups: "associates," who have the least amount of experience and are admitted for one year; "barristers," who have between 5-10 years of experience and gain entrance for two years; and "masters," the most preeminent judges and attorneys who have a lifetime membership.
Each Inn meets once a month for an educational program presented by its members. Small groups within each Inn meet monthly as well to discuss any issues involving the practice of law.
"I think it's made me a better trial lawyer," said Higgs Fletcher & Mack partner Susan Hack, incoming president of the Enright Inn. "The American Inn of Court is the only organization with monthly meetings which assist young lawyers with the practice of law."
The informal setting of Inn meetings is one of the group's biggest draws. Attorneys can chat with judges free from fear of being "out of order" while opposing counsel can engage in friendly banter with each other.
In London, members of the British Inn of Court regularly dine together and socialize, purposely creating an atmosphere of collegiality.
"It's just human nature," said retired San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard Haden, who is a member of both the Welsh and Wallace Inns. "How can you get mad at someone you're going to see at lunch every day?"
"If you have a discovery question, you're much more inclined to call them and work it out as professional colleagues rather than fire off an angry email or text message. It's just a marvelous group."
Wilson recalled her first meeting, more than 10 years ago, when a discussion arose about a particular procedural issue. Judges and several "huge players in town" began having a spirited back-and-forth about the best way to handle the situation.
"There was just this wealth of information," Wilson said. "I sat there with my mouth open, thinking, 'This is the best thing I've ever participated in.'"
As the number of attorneys in San Diego grew, so did the need for more Inns of Court. The Wallace Inn was formed in 1984 to cater to attorneys in the Del Mar area while the Lopardo Inn – originally named the Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Inn – was launched in 1997, extending the organization's reach into the North County.
The Enright Inn debuted in 1991 with the help of former Justice Howard Wiener, and it is now the largest Inn in San Diego County with more than 160 members.
When talking about his reason for getting behind the American Inn of Court concept, Enright said it was an idea whose time had come, and it's still relevant today.
"The approach I took was, the profession has been very good to us, now it's time to pass (our knowledge) on," he said. "It's flourishing now. It's really helped the profession and enhanced the profession of those who are members."
Enright, who has been a member of the San Diego County Bar Association since 1950, said the Inn is the "finest experience" he's ever been involved with.
"It's something that lives beyond the lives of the people participating," he said. "It has a real impact on the profession. You can see it."
Longtime Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps partner Robert Steiner was among those selected by Enright to be on the executive committee of the Welsh Inn when it was founded, and he remains on the committee today.
Steiner said the organization is essential to the legal community.
"You need this kind of stabilizing influence to be the best value for your client," he said. "Being at Inn meetings allows you to learn things that are not available by simply reading books."
Inn meetings also provide a relaxed – and appropriate – environment for judges to interact with attorneys about the issues of the day and concerns within the legal industry. Judges, by design, are isolated from the bar, giving them little opportunity to gain insight into the practitioners that appear before them on a daily basis.
The American Inn of Court seeks to remove that obstacle.
"I've always found that it's a two-way street," Haden said of the Inn experience. "It's good for us to hear about the problems lawyers are facing. I think it makes us better judges.
"This is a high-stress profession," he added. "It's good to know people on a personal level."
Young members aren't the only ones who benefit from the Inn experience.
"I'm always looking to better myself as an attorney," said Hack of Higgs, Fletcher & Mack.