Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Enslavement of Young Lawyers

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The setting is a danfo, parked under the sweltering heat of a particularly grumpy afternoon, the blazing orb kindling the metal encasement of the bus with a view to gradually barbecue the mass within. Sweaty flesh glides against sweaty flesh as the passengers grudgingly adjust for the next to come in, searing tempers, curses and grumbles. The minutes traipse along and the sun steadily creeps towards a blistering climax.

He sits calmly, seemingly oblivious to the double dosage of heat his black suit is wooing to him, face stuck to the magazine which he interchanges as a hand fan. Beads of sweat tumble down his prematurely wrinkled face, he flicks them off with his fingers, he has no handkerchief.
Thankfully the bus finally fills up, with promises of at least some air and motion but the conductor is evidently deriving some warped satisfaction from the general discomfiture and insists on collecting the fare before the bus moved an inch. Maledictions rain down his head from the incensed passengers.

The fellow, apparently no stranger to evil wishes smilingly remains deaf to the mounting rancor and cheekily stretches out his hands to each cursing passenger, taking all the time in the world to fish for change … it eventually gets to our gentleman’s turn to pay and he digs out an unnaturally crumpled note, the conductor rejects it instantly and tosses it back to him, the veneer of calm wears off and the gentleman inaugurates his own tirade drowning out all others, with emphasis on the unschooled mind of the ruffian being the propelling force behind his wretchedness. Unfortunately the conductor deciphers the word wretched and bunches his fist menacingly close to the gentleman’s face, inspiring the latter to bellow out an introduction… ‘I am a lawyer!  Dare you touch me and see if I don’t bundle you to a place where touts of your kind are housed’ We all turn, and indeed the gentleman has a starched collar on. 

At the word lawyer, the conductor’s anger melts away…and is replaced by loud raucous laughter which lasts two full minutes. ‘Lawyer!’  He chokes, making a derisive sweeping gesture with his left hand, ‘Olorun! So if lawyers start to de come out even this one go follow…why you no fit buy your own car put AC for am? See as im wear coat under sun…me I no be lawyer but at least I get sense to wear only singlet as the afternoon hot so’. (Here I recognized slight similarities in the hygienic state of the said singlet and the gentleman’s collar)
Many more of the conductor’s epigrams were swallowed by laughter; the passengers were at last getting their moneys worth… I felt like shedding tears for the poor fellow.

This happened years ago. If it were now, maybe my reaction would have been more proactive. Do we not owe a duty to our learned friends?
Duty...that’s a word we throw around so carelessly in the legal profession, sweet sounding jargon as ‘rights and duties are co-relatives, civilized society would be elusive without an effective interplay of both…blah blah blah…’
Now, that was one of a class in that bus, a class of victims of a duty-free legal practice, convenient pawns to be tossed about in pursuit of the bigger picture.
They abound, and are so easily spotted: Greying white shirts, oversized suits, trousers creased and folded in multiple places, and when the jacket comes off, the damp ring around the armpit region testifies to a hard life in a hard job.

Yes, that is the package many an Associate (how that word deceives!) in our Law firms are turned out in. Does it mean they lack decent taste…I wonder
Assigned all the dirty and back-breaking work, they take home barely enough to lift them over the destitution line.  You can sight them anywhere under our belligerent sun, looking harassed, with sweaty faces and reddened eyes …A bike here, a keke there…forget cabs, unnecessary luxury their principal calls them.
It is bad enough to be poor, but trying to put a cloak over it comes off as downright ridiculous.
But the profession demands proper dressing at all times, no blames. We must appear respectable. Respectability means a black jacket, tie, collar, the works …It inspires confidence in clients.
Sorry, it is an expensive rule but every lawyer is expected to measure up.

Of course the success of the measuring up is seen through the client’s eyes, and clients are not blind. A person you hire to wrestle tens of millions from a defaulter should at least exhibit more sartorial competence than your average scare-crow.
They even ask for tips… ‘Ah ah now oga, nothing for your boys?’ This, to a barely literate client. Well, let’s call it the Bar-tender instinct.  
For the men (who incidentally form the bulk of this group) it is impossible to work out a marriage/family plan with the next to nothing remuneration…to them, the law is indeed a jealous mistress.

The concept of duty is not voluntary, bah! Leave duty to the altruistic inclinations of man and nothing is done. Thus the need to impose a standard…
Recently we have all been buzzing with arguments and counters as to why the position of SAN should be scrapped…while I have as yet not taken any sides, I will need to remind that it is only in the issue of conferring that title that some form of standard is introduced with respect to the material packaging of the practitioner; a vital ingredient. It will not be a bad idea if extended to every law firm in the country.

Many a principal sits looking well fed and smug, swiveling in his easy chair barking out orders to his foot soldiers and dusting crumbs down to them from his table by month-end. The standard should be: the right to establish a law firm being automatically attached to the duty to provide a prescribed level of welfare to all the fee earners. And compliance should be mandatory.

Away with the rambling speeches of seminars and conferences…Young Lawyers: Carving out a Rich Future for the Legal Profession. The Law: An Instrument of Socio-economic Transformation.  yak yak yak. Rather let us introduce stringent measures: chunky salaries and allowances, reasonable appearance fees, staff vehicles (or monetary equivalents) as preconditions to being an employer of (legal) labour.

Back  in Law school, one of our lecturers in trying to illustrate what constitutes conduct incompatible with the legal profession made a joke about mounting a horse with ones wig and gown on…ok, we don’t have horses now, how about climbing onto a bike, perched in a keke…or overhanging from a molue in ones professional regalia?
Stop and search…discover the employer. For perpetuating a travesty, he should face the ire of the Disciplinary Committee, with penalties ranging from mild chastisement to full-blown suspension.

The world has gone materialistic and owes no apologies for that, gentlemen of the world’s leading vocation should ordinarily set the pace. They deserve every bit of the good life.
Banks and Oil Companies are the dream workplace. Yes; they work their behinds off, but the AC drones all day and takes the bite off the pressure, coupled with the certitude of a sizable salary, profit sharing, upfronts and other juicy ancillaries.
That is welfare.

Not so for the junior lawyer…he should be content with fanning himself with the sheaves of paper on his desk whenever power fails while fighting the evil teeth chewing up his empty entrails. He might as well have skipped Law school; poverty needs no rigorous preparation.

Recently I was in one of those nice buildings at Victoria Island alongside a small crowd of people waiting for the lift to descend, when a delightful fragrance wafted through. We all turned to look and there stood two regally attired young persons, a gentleman and a lady. Sparkling white shirts, glossy plastic collars, inch-perfect suits and shoes that observably had minimal interaction with the earth. Even their voices wore an immaculate polish, their car keys jingled, and their faces glowed with robust health and confidence. They waited with the rest of us. Nobody could stop staring…
My heart swelled inside…those are my learned colleagues, I almost shouted.

That’s what I’m talking about; the ideal lawyer’s look… the minimum standard.

                  I rest my thesis.

Published in Thisday Newspapers: June 2, 2009-  http://allafrica.com/stories/200906020235.html