There are three levels of membership of the Inn: students, barristers and Masters of the Bench more commonly known as benchers.
The lowest level, that of student (once known as “inner barrister”), is open to all of good character who satisfy certain educational requirements, which nowadays include acceptance by a British university for a degree course. Further details can be found under the Joining The Inn.
On obtaining a degree, and/or passing certain law examinations, and completing the requisite number of qualifying sessions which are educational and collegiate events during the four dining terms of the year, the student qualifies for Call to the Bar.
The process of formal education and examination for the Bar is regulated by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) on behalf of the four Inns. The BSB validated a number of providers to deliver the Bar Professional Training Course (previously known as The Bar Vocational Course) in 2010. But Lincoln's Inn plays a full and vigorous part in supplementing this process by means of moots and debates, the provision of qualifying sessions and by a system of sponsorship whereby practising barristers give general assistance to students on an individual basis.
Call to the Bar is made by the Treasurer of the Inn on one of the four Call Days in the year. The student then becomes a barrister, or, as it was once called, an "outer" or "utter" barrister: "inner" and "outer" probably refer to the positions once occupied on the benches in Hall during moots, or legal debates.
Membership After Call
Membership is for life and, once Called to the Bar, members become members of Hall. Barristers spend their professional lives as members of Hall. They are entitled to the rights and privileges of members which include: use of the Library, the ability to lunch and dine in the Inn, use of the Chapel for weddings and christenings and access to Continuing Professional Development courses run by the Inn. Some members become circuit judges, tribunal adjudicators, arbitrators, legal academics while others become employed barristers with the Government Legal Service, Crown Prosecution Service, local authorities and still others become non practising barristers and make their way in fields other than the law.
The highest level of membership is that of bencher, or (more formally) Master of the Bench. Benchers form the governing body of the Inn, meeting once a month in term as a body in Council. The benchers also oversee the detailed affairs of the Inn through some twenty committees (which also include representation from members of the Inn who are not benchers).
There are currently over 280 ordinary benchers, comprising mostly judges and senior barristers, the latter being in the majority. Many of the judges will have been first elected while still practising barristers, but it is customary to elect anyone appointed as a High Court judge if they are not already a bencher. Barristers typically will have been QCs for seven or eight years at the time of their election as a bencher, but there are also usually at least twenty “juniors”, i.e. barristers (whatever their age) who have not become QCs (or “taken silk”). In addition, members of the Inn who, though not practising at the bar, have attained important positions in other walks of life, may be elected benchers.
The election of benchers is by Council itself, but nowadays only after considerable input from Hall members (who can learn more about the procedures in the Members Area). Election is for life, but once retired from practice or from sitting as a judge a bencher is accorded “emeritus” status, which carries all the privileges of being a bencher but without the right to vote in Council.
There are also about sixty honorary benchers. Some may be members of the Inn who have for example achieved high judicial office overseas, but many are those who have achieved distinction in fields other than the law and have not necessarily been members before. They cannot vote or hold office, but otherwise are full members of the Inn of the rank of bencher.
In addition to the honorary and ordinary benchers, the Inn has two Royal Benchers, HRH the Duke of Kent, KG GCMG GCVO and HRH The Duke of York, KG. Previous Royal Benchers of the Inn have included HRH Princess Margaret, HRH Prince Albert, HM King George V, HRH Prince George, Duke of Kent, and HM Queen Mary, who in November 1943 became the first woman to be a bencher of any Inn.
In the other three Inns of Court there is a tradition that within their Inn the benchers are addressed and referred to as “Master”, for example “Master Smith”. That tradition does not prevail at Lincoln’s Inn, where the benchers are simply referred to by their usual social or judicial forms of name.
Lastly, the curious may wonder why the term “bencher”. In fact the term only has a roundabout connection with the term “bench” as in the judicial bench, and even today, as noted, only a minority of benchers are judges. When the Inns evolved in the Middle Ages, moots, or mock trials, conducted in the hall were a key feature of the legal education of students. The hall was set out like a court and the senior members of the Inn took the part of the judges and sat on a bench. At that time, and indeed until the late nineteenth century, none of those senior members would themselves have been judges, since on appointment as a judge a member left his Inn of Court.
The Inn is led by the Treasurer and Officers, who are the elected annually. The Treasurer is the head of the Society. 2009 saw the election of the 500th, and first female, Treasurer of the Inn, Miss Elizabeth Appleby QC.