Solicitors need to keep a close eye on the Inns of Court.

Traditionally, the independent bar enabled even the most modest of solicitors’ practices to offer clients the very best in specialist legal advice. Nowadays, a barrister’s relationship with a solicitor is just as likely to be that of employee, partner, employer or business rival. But no solicitor can afford to ignore concerns about the future of the bar – or of the inns to which barristers belong.

Those concerns were explored with great authority in a recent lecture by Lord Judge, the former lord chief justice who is currently treasurer of Middle Temple. A treasurer is elected by each of the four inns of court from among its senior members and presides over the inn’s affairs for a calendar year.

One of the examples Judge gave was that Middle Temple spends around £725,000 a year on maintaining its library. ‘This magnificent facility,’ he pointed out, ‘is but a few hundred yards from an equally magnificent facility at the Inner Temple’ and it was ‘hardly a far horizon to Lincoln’s Inn or even Gray’s Inn’ (of which I am an honorary member).

Maintaining four libraries is not just a duplication of resources. They were designed for an age when barristers used to spend hours sitting at desks piled high with law reports. Now, all you need is a laptop on your kitchen table and a subscription to an online legal information service.

Judge had an imaginative proposal for putting his inn’s spare capacity to use. Libraries needed to become more like business centres, he suggested. But that involves more than just upgrading the Wi-Fi and the printers. It means providing secure storage space so that out-of-town lawyers can leave papers overnight. It means providing soundproof booths where users can make and receive calls on their mobiles. And some conference rooms would be useful too.

Readers will be familiar with a fifth storehouse of legal learning, roughly equidistant from the other four. The Law Society’s equally splendid law library would be well placed to take on the additional role of a specialist information hub. And it should certainly not find itself left behind if the inns start offering business services. We can be reasonably confident that desk space in the inns would be offered to solicitors on payment of a suitable fee, just as office space is available to rent now. Maybe the Law Society could offer similar services to barristers more cheaply than their inns. A lawyer who needs a desk for an hour or two won’t want to walk up or down Chancery Lane when there is another library closer to hand.

Sharing libraries would certainly require closer co-ordination between the inns of court but it would be little more than an extension of the co-operation that already exists on, for example, matters of discipline. Sharing educational facilities on circuit — another of Judge’s suggestions — would be a little more radical; but not much.

But the Middle Temple treasurer saved his most revolutionary thought to the end of his lecture, apparently unsure whether he should risk mentioning it. It was that the four inns of court should co-operate in the way that colleges at Oxford and Cambridge do – with the wealthier supporting the less prosperous.

That strikes me as a great idea, although I can see it might seem less attractive to the better endowed inns. They would no doubt protest that they use their wealth to provide scholarships and other incentives, competing with each other to attract the brightest students. But so, of course, do the Oxbridge colleges.

And Judge had concerns about those scholarships too. ‘We are devoting huge sums of money, virtually our entire available income, to support those who have not yet been called,’ he said. Of 2,000 students who might join each year, only 400 would find a pupillage, let alone a tenancy. And very few of those pupillages would be in publicly funded sets. The result, he said, was that a great deal of money was spent on ‘helping young men and women to go on expensive courses which will be unproductive of entrance to an area of the bar which affects the public interest’. It would be much better, he suggested, to help criminal chambers provide additional pupillages and to support newly called tenants who struggle to make a living at the criminal bar.

The problem with all four inns is that they look after their most junior and their most senior members – but not those trying to make a living somewhere in the middle. A single lecture by a distinguished treasurer is not going to solve that problem overnight. But solicitors need to keep a close eye on what the inns are up to. If they can shed more of their innate conservatism, they may become a force to be reckoned with.