Experience and Observations of a Founding Member of the American Inns of Court

The Bencher—September/October 2017

By M. Dayle Jeffs, Esquire

In 1979, my brother and I composed a two-man law firm with primarily local clients. In November, our secretary called me on the intercom and told me, “There is a Sherman Christensen here. He doesn’t have an appointment. Do you want to see him?” I replied, “He’s a federal judge. Of course I want to see him,” and quickly ushered him into my office.

Christensen told me that, in the summer of 1979, Warren E. Burger, Chief Justice of the United States, was vacationing at a cabin in the mountains of Utah. He invited Dallin H. Oaks, the president of Brigham Young University and a former law clerk of the Supreme Court; and Rex E. Lee, dean of the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU and a former law clerk of the Supreme Court, to the cabin for breakfast. Lee reported to me that Burger cooked pancakes for everyone while wearing a sweat suit.

Lee told me later that Burger discussed with them his concerns about his observation that the practice of law had become so adversarial that it was losing the dignity of the English practice of law; and seemed to be losing the purpose of finding justice, choosing instead to win at all costs, even loss of integrity, before the courts.

Christensen said that Oaks and Lee, with the approval of Burger, had asked him to spearhead a pilot program to increase professionalism in the legal profession. He said that Burger had spoken at a national conference of the American Bar Association about his concern over the deterioration of professionalism. Christensen said that Burger had visited the Inns of Court in London and had been impressed. Students of the law were housed at the Inns and took their meals in a great hall. At intermittent times, judges and experienced barristers would attend their evening meals. At such times, the judges and barristers would discuss appropriate practices and issues of law. The judges, barristers, and students would have an open discussion of such matters.

In the meeting with Oaks and Lee, Burger discussed the concept he had been pondering for some years. He indicated his concern with practitioners of the law and the lack of professionalism, civility, and decorum in the courtroom. Burger wanted to foster a program that would embrace or encourage the highest levels of professionalism, competence, and civility and improve the highest traditions of the American legal system. He wanted a program that would be unique and not a supplement to other existing programs. Burger asked Oaks and Lee if they would undertake the development of such a program and they had asked Christensen to serve as its head.

Christensen said he was putting together a pilot program to try to develop some adaptation of that process to address the concerns of the chief justice. Christensen asked me if I would be part of that pilot program. He asked me to take the position of Tribune and I inquired what that would entail. He told me it was like the treasurer. I would manage the finances, keep a record of attendance, send out notices of meetings, etc. I assured him I would be pleased to participate and take such a position.

Shortly thereafter, Christensen called to invite me to a planning meeting. The meeting was held at a local café near the old county courthouse in Provo. Attending the meeting were Christensen, Judge Aldon Anderson, Judge J. Robert Bullock, Christensen’s brother, Cullen Y. Christensen, two attorneys, and a student from BYU law school. The attendees discussed what kind of format we could use to meet the goals Burger intended. Christensen did not want the program to be another seminar; as he said, there were plenty of others doing that. He wanted something that would stimulate those in attendance to discuss issues presented in the program, as Burger had observed in his visit to the English Inns.

In the café meetings, consisting of a group of five or six, we were all requested to submit names of those individuals who might be invited to membership in the Inn and who might contribute to its success, and those who might learn and gain from attendance. It was decided that there would be 12 third-year students from BYU law school as members.

Almost-weekly meetings were called by Christensen through most of 1980, while also holding meetings of those invited members of the pilot program. During Inn meetings, everyone was expected to express his or her own ideas. Everyone then discussed each comment. It was finally concluded that we should try a format of an evening meal about 6:00 p.m., followed by a demonstration of the topic of the night to last no more than 45 minutes, followed by a discussion by all present, essentially a critique to obtain the points of view of all who would address the issue. Meetings would be monthly during the school year.

The first meeting with a membership of about 40 was in February 1980, followed by meetings in March, April, May, and June. While it was assumed the primary purpose of including a group of experienced trial lawyers and judges was to be a service to the profession, it was somewhat surprising, as we learned from the critiques, that the judges and experienced trial lawyers found a significant benefit from attendance. Because we were dealing with hypothetical cases, there was a free exchange between judges and lawyers (Masters of the Bench) as to what each expected of the other.

Each meeting was an open discussion, with Christensen directing our efforts. We strived to develop an Americanized version of the English Inns of Court that could produce some of the mentoring, congeniality, and uniqueness that those English Inns possess. Christensen felt the necessity to fit the American Inn program into the established structure of American legal education; not as an alternative but as a fine-tuning of trial or conduct issues, done flexibly and harmoniously. He reminded us that there were many programs already in place as part of the American legal education system and bar associations: seminars, litigation organizations, workshops, lecture groups, etc. It was with this in mind that we tried to develop a program that was unique.

We developed a structure similar to a corporate entity, with a judge, counselor to the Inn, president, and treasurer; and with an executive body to give direction to the presentations. The format featured legal or trial issues demonstrated, followed by a critique with all members participating, asking questions, discussing propriety of positions taken, etc. In the meetings, everyone was expected to express their own ideas. Christensen made us feel that whatever we said was important and was to be considered and discussed freely by everyone present.

During the first years of the pilot program, we saw that there was no other forum in the profession that afforded the opportunity for a free and frank discussion of principles and issues while maintaining a respectful interchange between the participants. As Christensen said, “The critique portion of each monthly meeting should be jealously guarded for ample input of all present, especially judges and experienced lawyers, so that practitioners and students alike could develop perceptions that a judge can have.” He opined that this process would be a further opportunity for the bench to learn new perceptions and ways to improve court administration and courtroom conduct from counsel.

Burger apparently believed that the work of the pilot program had merit to be considered nationally, and for the American Inns of Court to become a national organization.

In 1980, Christensen went to London to experience for himself the camaraderie and distinctiveness of the meetings at the English Inns of Court, with the exchange between judges, experienced lawyers, barristers, and students; and to see how we might adapt that plan to the American Inn of Court that was in progress. He and Burger viewed professionalism as encompassing more than just the improvement of skills and litigation technique; it should include the concepts of integrity, respect for the courts, decorum in the courtroom, civility between lawyers, and defense of the rule of law.

Christensen suggested we should institute some sort of emblem incorporating the Inn’s relationship with the English Inns. The emblem was designed by his daughter, who was a skilled calligrapher, to resemble a British coat of arms featuring the word Excellence, indicating the ultimate goal of the Inn.

In late August 1983, Christensen called to say that Chief Justice Burger was putting together a committee for the purpose of exploring whether the pilot program of the American Inn of Court could go national, and that he had recommended me to be appointed to that committee. About two weeks later, in September 1983, I received a letter from Burger thanking me for my work on the pilot program with Christensen and appointing me to the Ad Hoc Committee on the American Inn of Court of the Judicial Conference of the United States. As an attorney in a very small practice in a relatively small community, I cannot describe the feelings I had in receiving such a letter from the Chief Justice of the United States. I was thrilled.

The first meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee on the American Inns of Court was held at the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington, D.C. The conference room was beautiful, with fine walnut paneling and a T-shaped conference table that could seat 25 or more. There were 17 members, chaired by Christensen. He and Anderson sat at the head of the table with Mark Cannon, Clerk of the Supreme Court, and Lee, who was at the time Solicitor General of the United States. We learned a bit about each other, our backgrounds and present status within the judicial system, as well as the goals and aspirations of Burger and Christensen.

Eight of those 17 members were participants in the pilot program and thus all were from Utah. We explained how having a meal together helped to develop camaraderie and relationships. The meal was followed by a demonstration of the principle subject matter of the evening, followed by a critique period during which the members exchanged thoughts, ideas, or criticism, all with an eye toward how these principles should be conducted in a courtroom and used to further the goals of the American Inn of Court in strengthening professionalism in the broad context envisioned by Burger and Christensen.

After we had been in session for about an hour, Burger came in the room and went to the head table. He expressed his thoughts, feelings, and desires about what the Ad Hoc Committee should accomplish.

As he excused himself, he indicated he was leaving so we could carry out the work we were called there to do. Before he reached the door, all those present gave the Chief Justice a standing ovation. He turned, moved back toward the conference table, and reached out to shake my hand. As the applause died down, he said in an emotional voice, “This committee may be the most important thing I will have contributed during my tenure as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.” I was close enough to see that he had tears running down his face. He exited the room to another standing ovation.

The Ad Hoc Committee on the American Inn of Court of the Judicial Conference of the United States met quarterly for two years, as did subcommittees given different tasks to help further the development of the American Inn of Court on a national basis. It was a truly remarkable and unforgettable experience. In those meetings, every person who expressed himself or herself was treated with the same respect regardless of experience or status. One subcommittee was assigned to the task of writing a pamphlet to describe how to create an Inn of Court chapter. Its chair, a judge from California, assigned me the task of writing up how to form and establish an American Inn of Court.

It seemed to me that implementing a successful Inn of Court chapter required it to be connected with and supported by an accredited law school. It is also essential to establish a relationship with, and support of, federal and state judges and experienced trial lawyers. Their experience and expertise infuse younger practicing lawyers with the standards demonstrated in the American Inn of Court program; those younger lawyers would learn in an unusual and unique way the respect and commitment fostered by the program.

My experience with the American Inn of Court is probably the most enriching and satisfying experience I have had as a practicing lawyer. It has strengthened my appreciation for our judicial system, the rule of law, our constitutional guarantees, and my overwhelming respect for the great majority of fine lawyers, judges, and our American judicial system.

I have cherished my long association with the American Inn of Court. It has shaped my commitment to its standards and given me the opportunity to urge others to adhere to the same standards. I believe that the American Inn of Court program continues to be a great influence on the legal profession to the commitment to those high standards.

It is my hope that all Inns, numbering nearly 400, will continue to convey the vision of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger in carrying out the goals and purposes of the American Inn of Court program.

M. Dayle Jeffs, Esquire is the founding partner of Jeffs & Jeffs PC in Provo, Utah. He is a founding member and past president of the A. Sherman Christensen American Inn of Court.

© 2017 M. Dayle Jeffs, Esq. This article was originally published in the September/October 2017 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the express written consent of the American Inns of Court.