The American Inns of Court, which is perhaps the oldest, largest and fastest growing legal mentoring organization, is firmly rooted in the noble 800-year-old tradition of the Inns of Court in England. Local chapters of the Inns of Court provide a collegial atmosphere that encourages networking between all members, mentoring and skills development, the exchange of concepts, ideas and techniques important for every practitioner, and enhancing civility. It provides a valuable opportunity for newer attorneys to socially interact and work together on a less formal basis with judges and more seasoned attorneys. Participants often remain involved for many years and end up developing close ties and lasting friendships.
The Ventura County chapter was founded in 1995 by a core group including Justice Richard Aldrich, Judge Harry Walsh, Jim Armstrong, Richard Regnier, and James McGahan. Steve Henderson was instrumental in setting up our chapter as a 501(c)(3) organization, and has served as the CEO ever since. It was not until Judge David Long became president in 1996 that our chapter was named the Jerome H. erenson American Inn of Court (“JHB Inn”). Who was Jerome H. Berenson? After interviewing some of the founders, I learned that Judge Berenson was a partner in the Oxnard firm of Nordman, Berenson & Lewis, a past VCBA president in 1960, who then was appointed to the Ventura County bench in 1962. He was later elected as presiding judge and continued in that role for some 15 years until he retired in 1982.
The Inn meets for dinner the second Thursday of each month from September through May at the Saticoy Country Club in Somis. The group consists of eight teams of ten members each. Members of each team consist of judges, attorneys, and in some cases law students, and are slotted in three different levels: Masters (judges or seasoned attorneys with 20 or more years of experience); Barristers (five to 20 years’ experience); Associates (less than five years’ experience). Each year, JHB Inn presents two to three scholarships (to cover the dues) to law students to become team members for the whole year. This effort to extend the bar’s outreach and mentoring to local law schools has often resulted in these students becoming great attorneys who stay with the Inn, like Rachel Coleman. The team assignments are randomly drawn by the VCBA staff in July, and then any final tweaks are made by the Masters and Board. The 2010-2012 JHB Inn Board is led by President David Lehr, Treasurer Carol Woo, and Immediate Past President Alyse
Lazar. Next year, Lindsay Nielson will take the helm. Other board members include Judge Tari Cody, Judge Walsh, Richard Regnier, Katie Pietrolungo, and Panda Kroll. Dues range from $255-375, which mostly covers the food cost. Any remaining funds at the end of each year, is normally around $500-1,000, are donated to VCBA’s pro bono program (VLSP).
The educational function of Inns of Court is provided by the interesting, creative, practical, interactive team presentations on all areas of legal practice. One team is assigned to present each month. Whoever said that attorneys are dull has apparently never attended a JHB Inn meeting. The topics of each program are up to each team to develop as long as there is no duplication. One thing is for certain, the teams never fail to entertain (with elaborate/outlandish costumes, props, guests and animals), especially when they seek to outdo the other for the coveted James F. McGahan Memorial Excellence Award, a perpetual plaque with the names of each winning team member, which was first awarded in 2000- 2001 and every year since. This plaque once hung in Courtroom 22 during the time that Judge Long served as supervising civil/MSC judge. After Judge Long’s retirement, Judge Walsh has retained custody of it. During my recent visit to a meeting, I was treated to a “Wizard of Oz” program on attorney sanctions.
It’s not all fun and games, because, as new members soon learn, countless hours of script writing and role playing practice are contributed by each team member in order to bring everything together. The excellence Award is decided by the Masters and Board members who score each presentation after each monthly meeting. Teams are judged by criteria such as the topic’s timeliness and relevance, involvement of each team member, entertainment, creativity and innovation, educational value, and written materials. Recently, the score sheet was modified to add a category for projection of voice clearly and audibly. The difficulty is having that perfect balance of education while still being entertaining. Not only are members able to obtain their continuing legal education, but they also enjoy camaraderie, a nice setting and the delicious food offerings at the Club. As Associate James Perero jokingly refers to the experience, saying it is like the “Dungeons and Dragons” for lawyers. I too have fond memories of my previous stint in 2000-2001.
Every year, the national Inns of Court recognizes (for each of its seven regions) “a practicing judge or lawyer whose life and practice display sterling character and unquestioned integrity, coupled with ongoing dedication to the highest standards of the legal profession and the rule of law.” Our chapter recently nominated Judge Long, who has been a longstanding fixture of JHB Inn and has continually shown his dedication, for one of the 2012 Professionalism Awards. If you’re interested in participating in this unique and rewarding experience for the upcoming 2012-2013 term, now is the time to submit your application to Steve at the VCBA office.