Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Often, the Law defeats itself

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The Law envisages an ideal world, and as long as ours is imperfect, the Law will keep making a fool of itself. A few recent experiences drove this point home, and I have captured them under different story lines. Here goes:

I was in court the other day during the final ruling in an action for Nuisance.  The defendant’s generator was robbing the plaintiff of his nightly sleep. The judgment favoured the plaintiff and the defendant was ordered to pay a few hundreds of thousands in compensation. A no-brainer; it happens every day. But think again! Place the litigants in a dinghy, overcrowded section of Lagos where the electricity transformers have all crumbled from over-use, potable water lies in subterranean idleness waiting for elusive electricity to draw it up, and ventilation is nil, as even air cannot move freely amidst the logjam of buildings and humans. In a place like this, a generator becomes a basic tool for self-preservation. Anything less compromises the right to life. It is our world, our country, but the poor defendant pays. Maybe that is the hidden meaning of separation of powers. Yes, separated from the governed in favour of the governors. Now, you will agree that the judge erred. Not just because he placed liability unjustly, but also because he did not lay a proper sequence. The proper test should be:  Has the plaintiff been able to establish specifically that it was the exact sound of the defendant’s generator that denied him sleep at the precise hour of the night in question? Has he eliminated the possibility that in a street continuously buzzing with generators, it could be any of those (beyond that of his immediate neighbour) that remotely or directly resulted in his forced insomnia? Evidently, the judge looked at proximity. Yes, he may be right. But it then means that our neighbours will keep paying for the sins of our far-away leaders. Long arms of the law; my foot.  As the court pleases!

Regularly, I read of how some bosses in Europe and America get into trouble for requesting the passwords to employees’ social accounts.  In many of these countries, there are strong arguments that use of the Internet is a fundamental right. How do you reconcile this then with the overbearing practice of most organizations: forbidding Facebook at work.  These days, they do not merely disable the service (they have since been defeated by Smart phones and tablets) they publish Employment Guidelines warning of immediate sack of “anybody found on Facebook during work hours”. The question is; when you do ‘catch’ a defaulter, how do you prove the frequency of his visits, and how has this frequency affected his productivity? So, bosses merely set themselves up for wrongful termination lawsuits. Knowing this, they merely fume and rave, while the defaulting staff continues putting up smileys, and work piles up. But there’s a solution bosses can try! And it’s simple: First, create a profile of a very beautiful girl whose personal information conspicuously announces “an unexplainable weakness for lawyers”. Secure in the feeling that you can’t sack him, it won’t be too hard obtaining the Profile name of defaulting staff. The next steps are easy: Miss Charming adds Staff as friend. No man ever turns down a girl’s friend request. Of course as the boss you don’t have that much time to waste, and so should recruit any available awaiting-Jamb-result niece of yours for the task.  The chats begin. ‘Hi lawyer; spare a moment for your admirer?’ Unsuspecting, he gleefully tumbles headlong. More shoddy jobs, more missed deadlines.  But thanks to the massive memory of the Facebook chat history, within a week you will have enough evidence to nail him. Not to worry, illegally obtained evidence is acceptable in our courts.  And most importantly, the sacked dude retains his ‘right to browse’…only this time, for job openings.

Everyday, the self-righteous chants ring: “the only way out of corruption in Nigeria is to make it a capital offence!.” I agree. But I notice that the proponents say it with their eyes on the public sector alone.  Yes, they are the sole custodians of our wealth and should exercise a higher level of restraint! Really? But most critical wealth infrastructures are in the private sector. For instance, if the banks decide to wrongly channel our deposits for just 24 hours, it’s a state of emergency!  So the penalty should extend to both sectors: public and private. Now, instead of the glorious image of a bloated agbada-decked senator being riddled with the executioner’s bullets, more gory visions play out before my eyes: the University lecturer who hands out false grades, the hireling that ‘pushes files’ at the Government Ministry, the contractor with a hefty brown envelope, the hapless banker ‘borrowing’ depositors’ funds for the weekend, the peddler of fake drugs with the Regulator’s mark of approval, etc. lining up tearfully to face the executioner’s axe. Yea, you asked for ‘capital’ offence, and its literally handed down. Corruption is capital-based.  Oh, are we having a rethink!  And come to think of it, who will effect the arrests of these offenders? The police? (LOL!). See why the subject is not even worth debating? On to the next one, please.

The wedding day is a cocktail of sweet smiles and kisses. How does life manage to get sour afterwards? The nags, the whines, the sulks, the fights.  But the line must be drawn. Do not strike the woman! Yes, any man that beats a woman is a beast. Anger and provocation are no defence!  We all agree. But these words do not stop the scourge. Every now and again, a woman rushes out to the media and bares all. The rest gasp in shock and outrage, meanwhile, gritting their teeth over their own private experiences and uploading more fairy-tale photos of marriage on Facebook.  That is until some dude goes overboard and the woman loses limb or life.  The Law is reluctantly brought in then, but usually, it’s already late.  The remedy?  A dedicated care-line for victims of spousal abuse. Once he deals you the lightest of slaps, call in the police quick! Also, a Law should be passed covering ‘the least touching in anger” as battery; and a minimum of 15 years behind bars for the brute. But therein lies the snag. Without a divorce, what is the legal status of a woman who sends her husband to jail, in our country?  Oh sure, the courts can order support for the wife and kids, but that is if the gentleman has an estate in the first place? If he doesn’t, how much more can you punish him for abdicating responsibility? He is already in jail! And we the outraged onlookers, how willing are we to pay a special kind of tax: Support for Battered Wives (SBW). More so, if the woman decides to divorce him, does our culture readily send out our brothers and our sons to marry a woman reputed to have locked up her husband?   This is a question even the Law cannot answer.

I rest my thesis.

Also published in THISDAY Newspapers, Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Client runs this Jungle

Credit: Google Images

Maybe Lawyers are largely grumpy, because their pleasures are brief. With expertise at little else, they live at the mercy of their clients. Ironically, in his bid to impress and sustain the client, the Lawyer gets so busy learning the Law and misses a vital fact: Successful businessmen learn little of the business, and more of the customer.  

A friend of mine complains that his client uses him as an errand boy “I book his flights and schedule his meetings, surely not what I went to Law School for…!” he fumed.  I had to interrupt him- “No, you are wrong, THAT IS what you went to Law school for; only that your tutors failed to teach you so. Read and learn your client, serve his purpose and his quirks.  Earn his loyalty and earn your fees.” Of course, the logic is too simple; and the lawyer is suspicious of anything that is not complex. They would rather stay on their high-horse, where no one will take them for a ride. And on the high horse many lawyers still sit, while the rest of the world has evolved cars. 

Surprisingly though, my friend paid me heed, and I went on to show him the various species of clients and how best to respond to their demands:

1.       THE TIGER
This Client is tough, aggressive and demanding.  He is curt and impatient, yells and cuts the phone on both you and your staff. He is a man of power and knows it too well. He owns big businesses and is a stakeholder of the Big System.  He has a horde of loyalists and expects you to swell their numbers. He is a masterful hunter, never fails to bring in spoils. He only needs you to hide the spoils and blood from the public’s prying eyes.  He does not want you to grovel, just be effective and don’t ask questions. He hates excuses and cannot stand failure. He believes nothing else is as important as his work. When you draw up your Retainer, do not attempt to ensnare him with a stringent clause. He pays no heed to contracts, he relies on his claws. He is derisive of your pretensions, and bored with your intellect. You merely play a practical role; just another necessary piece of his empire’s jigsaw.  He pays generously, but don’t take him for a fool. Chances are he has your meetings taped and keeps a dossier on you.  
Typical Signs: Brooding and silent during meetings (His assistants do the talking); Doesn’t take notes, but stares straight at you; Often cuts into your sentences without apologizing; Comes late for meetings and asks ‘can we start now?’; Chews you to shreds if you are late yourself; Always chauffer driven; Never discusses his family.

2.       THE HORSE
 This is the Client on a race against time. A no no for the lazy lawyer.  He is always on the move, last-minute flight tickets and late night marathon meetings. His impossible deadlines will keep you gasping for breath. His speed doesn’t make him any less thorough. He skims through a 200-page document five minutes before a meeting and is able to comment on every little detail.  He reviews your letters spotting typos and inelegant constructs, you want to scream at him for being so damned smart. He doesn’t outwardly undermine you, but you often leave his presence feeling small.  He is extremely impatient and keeps to time fanatically. He calls you up by 3.00 am to discuss emerging opportunities for cyber-insurance, apologizes for keeping you awake, but talks till 6.00am, ending with a reminder that a meeting is scheduled for 8.  He pays fees promptly, noting when Retainers are due for renewal, but insists you send in a detailed invoice showing the structure of your billing system.
Typical Signs: Keeps rolls of writing pads and never stops scribbling;  nods vigorously when points are being made at meetings; Calls his wife a hundred times a day (shows they don’t see much of each other); Offers you coffee instead of soft drinks.

3.       THE DOG
This is the social animal.  He rarely meets you at offices, he prefers hotels and bars. His favourite sign-out phrase is “Lets meet up for a few beers sometime”. When you eventually take him up on that, you find that he easily gets tipsy and talks freely about his personal life. In sympathy, you feel obliged to reveal a few private things as well. What you don’t notice is that his ears immediately flare wide, taking in every detail, analyzing your psyche and measuring it for weaknesses.  He flatters you regularly, praising your work.  You wonder why he never loses his cool, and you work harder to keep him smiling. He doesn’t need to remind you of deadlines; unconsciously, you feel compelled to meet them.  This earns you more praise, and you wag your tail accordingly. He takes you into confidence on his business challenges. You feel genuinely needed, until you start noticing that he delays your payments, and this usually coincides with earlier negative business forecasts he had made at your last beer hangout (it is now a regular weekend affair). Just when you are about to blow up, he surprises you with a bonus pay. You learn to be more patient, and willingly oblige when he calls you from abroad- to assist in booking a ticket or paying his casual staff. He is such an enthusiastic friend, you figure he will be equally enthusiastic as a foe, and you don’t want to rock the boat, yet.
Typical Signs: Booming laughter; taps your shoulders when making a point; buys you gifts whenever he travels; never comes for meetings alone (Some pal always tags along).

4.       THE HARE
While the Horse is speedy but stable; this Client is always on the fast lane.  He is in endless trouble with the Law, and when he is not, it is one friend or associate instead.  You are friends with the police largely because of him. He doesn’t bring you briefs; he brings deals, and patiently listens as you enumerate legal requirements for his transactions before asking whether there is a way around them.  He is full of street cred and rarely converses in English. He prefers pidgin. He only hires lawyers because he believes they share his disdain for the straight and narrow.  So, whenever you talk of ‘legal implications’ his face turns ugly. He reminds you that lawyers make the laws and should be able to break them easily: unless you are a dulling lawyer. He often disappears for months on end and his numbers are switched off. Then he suddenly appears looking even more dapper and offers no explanations for his absence. He adamantly refuses to get into a Retainer agreement and only pays you on a case-by-case basis.  
Typical Signs:  I haven’t figured out any yet.

5.       THE SHEEP
Docile and quietly cooperative, chances are you met him during a long flight, started a conversation and awed him with extensive knowledge of your Practice specialty. He calls you ‘sir’ and takes your word as law.  His emails are polite and he never complains when you delay his jobs. He dutifully pays your fees and likes to flaunt you to his friends and family. You churn out template-replicas for him and save your best for the Tiger and the Horse, but he is effusive in his thanks for your insightful opinions.  He is very easy to impress; and there lies the problem! Someday soon, he will be in another flight, and run into a more eloquent lawyer. He will be unable to stare at you during the next meeting (which you will take as typical timidity); until he sends an email with those dreadful words: ‘we are unable to continue retaining your services…’ and he won’t take your calls again, having crossed over to where grasses are greener.
Typical signs: Calls you ‘sir’

I rest.