Inns of Court, collective name of the four legal societies in London that have the exclusive right of admission to the bar. These societies—Lincoln's Inn, Gray's Inn, the Inner Temple, and the Middle Temple (see also Temple, the)—date from before the 14th cent. They take their name from the buildings where originally schools of law were held, apprentice lawyers gathering to learn from masters of law, much as in guild training. Today the societies are more like clubs, although they still control admission to the bar. The Inns of Chancery were lesser societies (preparatory colleges for law), dependent on the Inns of Court; their importance declined in the 18th cent., and they disappeared in the 19th cent.
See W. B. Prest, The Inns of Court under Elizabeth I and the Early Stuarts, 1590–1640 (1972).