The Law Society’s restaurant and bar is called Six Clerks, after the predecessors of solicitors. There was a Six Clerks’ Office based in Chancery Lane, whose under-clerks acted as attorneys for suitors in the court of Chancery, until the economy grew so large that the need for attorneys in a court of equity required more than a public office could supply. So ‘solicitors of the Court of Chancery’ emerged. The Six Clerks’ Office was only formally abolished by the Court of Chancery Act 1842.

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) mentions the Six Clerks’ Office several times in his diary, and not always in a good way. One day in October 1663, he has to wait all afternoon for his lawyer, who never turns up, and on another in the same month he reports that ‘I find that my case, through my neglect and the neglect of my lawyers, is come to be very bad’. At around the same time, he calls his lawyer his ‘attorney and solicitor’.

John Donne (1572-1631), the poet, was active a few generations earlier, in Elizabethan and Jacobean times. At the beginning of his career, decades before he became dean of St Paul’s, he worked for the master of Chancery, who was also lord keeper of the Seal and so head of the legal profession.

In a book I have been reading about John Donne – ‘The Reformed Soul’ by John Stubbs, which I can strongly recommend – there is much about the early legal profession, and the rest of my information comes from that book.

John Stubbs reports that the Six Clerks were the most influential faction at a practical level in the Chancery Court. They issued patents and writs and gave ‘informal but costly’ advice to litigants. The Six Clerks believed they ran the place, and an earlier Elizabethan lord chancellor had had to order the clerks to stop butting in when the court was in session.

An interesting threat to their position arose during Elizabethan times. The queen was short of money, and so took it upon herself to issue patents of monopolies for cash. For instance, the Earl of Essex was given the monopoly for farming sweet wines; Sir Walter Raleigh had the patent for selling such wines. More and more patents were granted, including the right to become a bureaucrat, such as a clerk in Chancery. The Six Clerks were furious that their jobs now came through royal patent and not from within Chancery itself.

John Donne was a law student at Lincoln’s Inn. He never became a lawyer, although he returned to Lincoln’s Inn later in his career when the Benchers appointed him their Reader in Divinity. As such, he had to preach twice on Sundays during term-time, about 50 times a year. He received lodgings in the Inn in return.

The training of lawyers at Lincoln’s Inn in those days was effected mainly through oral disputation rather than written work. A Bencher would outline a case, and the students would divide up into groups to discuss it. This happened in the main Hall after the midday meal. There were moots and occasional lectures, too – but the lectures could last for seven or eight hours.

Most students did not go on to practise law, but were gentlemen who looked down on practising lawyers. They went to Lincoln’s Inn to pursue their own intellectual interests, or just to have a good time. John Donne wrote of those days: ‘A fair day shoots arrows of visits and comedies, and conversation, and so wee goe abroad: and a foul day shoots arrows of gaming or chambering [visiting brothels], and wantonness, and so we stay at home.’ In the late 15th century, fines of £5 were introduced for fornicating in a room or building in the Inn, and £1 for fornication in the grounds or in the street.

Women were generally forbidden to enter the Inn. Fashion fads like ruffs, white doublets, velvet caps and brightly coloured cloaks were prohibited as well. 

Interestingly, in the violent days of the Reformation, Lincoln’s Inn harboured many Catholics – and that was because it lay outside the jurisdiction of city and suburban justices, and a constable needed the authorisation of the bench to enter. But there were raids nevertheless, and John Donne’s own brother, Henry, also a student at Lincoln’s Inn, was found with a Catholic priest in his lodgings, and beaten and put on the rack. He subsequently died in the vile, vile conditions of Newgate Prison before he could come to trial.

Few people want to return to those times. But the history is instructive, if only to show that there is change and change again, always on the same and familiar locations that remain the centre of London legal life.