|Dinning Hall Entrance for Middle Temple|
The "common law" found its origin in the twelfth century with the introduction of national courts under the reign of King Henry II (the great-grandson of William the Conqueror), as one national court's opinions began to be shared and adopted by other national courts. Over time, the language of law and the law itself became more and more specialized. This was thought to be encouraged by lawyers, as the could charge more for an exclusive trade (some things never change!).
The Inns of Court are thought to date back to roughly the same time, and are constructed much like Oxford colleges, each having its own library, chapel, accommodation, gardens, and dining halls (except that the food is better). Round church temple, used by two Inns, dates back to even earlier, as it is thought to have been built by the Knights Templar in 1186.
There are four Inns of Court: Middle Temple, Inner Temple, Gray's Inn, and Lincoln's Inn.
The initial purpose of the Inns was to provide space for vocational training, and would-be lawyers studied on an individual basis. Sir William Blackstone, whose "Commentaries on the Laws of England" was assimilated in the states as law absent constitutional or statutory law until even as late as the 1900s, described the experience as lonely. Now, students who wish to practice in England as a barrister (the rough equivalent of a litigator in the American system, or one who stands up in court) will pay fees and sign up to affiliate with an Inn, where they may study privately in a library in tandem to taking the bar vocational course (my understanding is that this course is much like bar prep courses in the states, only less compact). Once they have successfully passed the bar exam and fulfilled any specific additional requirements by their Inn, they undergo a ceremony wherein they are "called to the bar," a quasi-religious service at some Inns. Afterwards, qualified barristers vie for much-coveted poverty-pay "pupilages" under practicing barristers working out of "chambers" usually associated with one or another of the four Inns. (A new BBC drama depicting chambers, pupilages, and barristers can be found here.)
Barristers who have been called to the bar by a particular Inn continue affiliation throughout their career, and can also develop affiliation through the Inn with which their chambers may be associated. They have "dining privileges" there and, if so honored, can even live in an Inn if they can afford to do so. So in a way, it is a networking scheme, albeit an expensive and highly effective one.
|Middle Temple courtyard overlooking the Thames.|