University of South Carolina School of Law Professor Martin McWilliams made history last Fall when he was appointed a Fellow of the Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, in London. He is one of fewer than 30 Fellows and the first non-British citizen to receive this honor, and his appointment was even announced by the Times of London.
Why is this so significant? Consider that every English judge and barrister must be trained in and be a member of one of the four London Inns of Court. Accordingly, Gray’s Inn, one of the four Inns, lies at the heart of the English justice system. Gray’s Inn’s history stretches back to medieval times, with its first recorded reference appearing in the 13th century. Shakespeare performed at least one of his plays there, Sir Francis Bacon was a member, Thomas Cromwell was a member, and the first Queen Elizabeth was the Inn’s royal patron. In past centuries the Inns were considered to be England’s “third university,” along with Oxford and Cambridge.
“It was really a great shock, and quite an honor, to be made a Fellow, considering the incredible history and modern importance of Gray’s Inn,” McWilliams said. “Very heady stuff for a Mississippi boy.”
He was quick to point out that this honor is less about him individually than about the quality of the university’s School of Law and the partnership the two institutions have shared since 2004, when the school established its London Maymester program at Gray’s Inn.
In McWilliams’ view “the appointment is a huge compliment to our faculty, and to the university as a whole, since the Inn’s members are among the elite of the legal profession in England, most of them Oxford and Cambridge educated.
“The real story here is that they think so highly of the relationship. They believe that we lend prestige to them,” he said.
McWilliams is the co-founder and director of the School of Law London Maymester program, a three-week course offering an intensive study of comparative U.S./English legal institutions, international civil litigation and international arbitration.
South Carolina is the only U.S. law school that offers a full-scale program on the premises of one of the Inns of Court. The program is now in its 10th year, and over that time, McWilliams has seen the bond between Gray’s Inn and the USC School of Law strengthen and broaden.
“The School of Law and the Inn have mutually complementary missions. We are both involved in training advocates for the bar, and share a strong focus on professionalism, civility at the bar, a scholarly approach to the practice of law and a dedication to the rule of law,” McWilliams said. “The partnership, while young, has proved strongly beneficial.”
The program has also become increasingly reciprocal. In September 2012, The Honourable Mr. Justice Sir Michael Burton of the High Court of England and Wales, Treasurer (elected head) of Gray’s Inn, came to Columbia to be the keynote speaker at the School of Law’s Journal of International Law and Business Symposium. In 2011, Gray’s Inn sent its moot court team to Columbia to compete against the School of Law’s own team, and will do so again in 2013.
And when the current group of USC Law students arrives in London this May, they will be invited to attend one of two annual “guest night” dinners at Gray’s Inn’s 16th-century Great Hall, where they will be recognized as honored guests of the Inn.
“It’s truly a privilege to be a part of this program, and to represent the University and the School of Law abroad,” said McWilliams. “It’s strongly gratifying that Gray’s Inn perceives that the University of South Carolina School of Law, and its students, can make a positive contribution to the purposes and goals of the Inn.”