Tuesday, March 30, 2010

If I were a Judge...

Judges are what lawyers want to be when they grow up – or as gaffe prone Joe Biden could put it: Lawyers are second-class citizens in law-world. Everything points to some show of superiority of the judiciary over the toiling lawyers; like the way people ignorantly assume that the justice minister is superior to the minister for special duties.

Even the language used betrays the disequilibrium. Lawyers are ‘called to the bar’; judges are ‘elevated to the bench’. Lawyers are merely learned friends. Judges on the other hand are not merely learned but are Lordships, Honours, Worships and all the language that signifies a halo right above the grey wig.

It is professional bigotry! People seem to forget that the judges were once lawyers. So, while they disparage us daily, make lawyer jokes that insert shark-teeth around our oratorical jaws; judges get off easy, smelling like new money. It’s a good-bad ‘cop’ situation (‘police’ is too Nigerian and may be interpreted as insolence to the bench). Lawyers are the bad cops, the ones mocked for their zealous pursuits of their clients interests. There is something about being a judge that brings on awe and feelings of ineptitude in the beholder. Few would cast aspersions on a judge; well until judgment is given to the other party.

From the magistrate courts to the Supreme Court, the judiciary is all powerful, all knowing and almost always right. At trial, judges are the infinitely perceptive eyes and ears of the court. Trial judges are also part-time psychologists since we agree that they can interpret the witness’ demeanour and are blessed with the innate gift of knowing the lawyer who tells the most lies. Judges must also have rather strong wrists to support the fingers that take down the noises lawyers make. Smart lawyers have caught on to extensive powers of the trial judge and have learnt to defer to their preferences. The judge in the court we appear in may determine the length of our skirts, the size of our jewellery and anything their imperial inclinations desire.

The appellate courts are in another realm. It is like an impenetrable sect. Nothing brings terror and dread to the most confident lawyers like a ‘judicial whisper’ (aka, the words justices murmur seconds after a lawyer finishes what he assumed what a brilliant argument and seconds before the lawyer stops assuming he was close to brilliant). Their Lordships are infinitely wise and omniscient – or we hope they are since technically, ‘appealing to God’ after the Supreme Court, might be a bit of a stretch.

Better still, judges do not really retire. People refer to judges as ‘Justice X’, ‘Mr. Justice X’, twenty years after X wore a wig. The Nigerian in many of us cannot deny the effect of a high sounding honorific. Even honorary doctorate holders proudly insert the ‘Dr’ immediately after ‘Chief’ when writing their names. Lawyers, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of a grandiose appellation. Save some community chieftaincy title, we are stuck with the same plain old Mr., Miss, *yawn* Mrs and Ms.

The only snag to being a judge is the asexuality. Females apparently do not exist in the judiciary. I often see lawyers, who without blinking, refer to a female judge (who wears a skirt, long weaves even if primly tied to a bun, make-up, has well manicured fingers and does everything women do) as ‘Your learned brother’ or ‘Your Lordship’. Really, after all the time and money spent at the salon and make-up store, a little expression of recognition would not be out of place!

I think I can live with that though. Caster Semaya still has her Olympic gold medal.
Being a judge will be fun. It will feel like a third skin, right above my unwarranted ego one. Lording over counsel who could ordinarily be bullying seniors in any law factory would give me immense pleasure. Judging can’t be that hard – apart from the writing bit, all I’ll have to do is pretend I am listening, point out illogicality in counsel’s arguments and use counsel’s research to write a judgement. I could also use precedents. At the appellate court, I’ll simply ‘concur with the well reasoned opinion of my learned brother’.

If I were a judge, I would sit at 8 am everyday just so I can pontificate about how hardworking I am. I would make no exceptions – rain, hail, thunder, federal executive council or otherwise. On days when the court’s generating set decides to go the way of the nation’s electrical supply, I would be undeterred from sitting and appearing to do justice.

Heaven help any poor counsel who comes in late. I would use my practiced supercilious eye on errant counsel look and make sure to make some quip merely to teach her a lesson. Just before she announced appearance, I would quickly strike out her matter for ‘lackadaisical prosecution’ of the matter.

I would be Draco-mistress of all, Catherine the Great, Margaret Thatcher, all rolled into one.

Judging will be bliss.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Random Thoughts: Myth Busters

TGIAF – Thank God it’s almost Friday. I am not in court today and I am not offering to appear in court. My thoughts today run to the awe lawyers still manage to garner, which is in itself is awesome with the number of lawyers in the country and on television. Lawyers, like most heroes are yet mystified - a thing that will probably continue for as long as we wear the most distinct uniform of all (and that includes the clown’s). In my Joan D’Arc mode (aka, slayer of ignorance) though, I have decided to shine light on these mysteries.

Myth: People who talk a lot are likely to be the best lawyers

Reality: Prattling lawyers are rarely winners.

For one minute, put yourself on a bench, in a very thick gown and really heavy wig in some African country. Imagine that as you patiently withstand the heat, your job also involves listening to people natter about everything and nothing – like you don’t get enough from the Federal Executive Council. So, you patiently listen and since you can’t tell the difference between the hundreds of cases you hear, you also have to write down what they say. After a while, you realise that when people talk a lot, they often insert a number of ‘untruths’. It hurts that people try to deceive you. Soon you get suspicious when a person in a wig says something as innocuous as ‘Good morning’. You also have the thankless task of reading through briefs and cases to counter the prejudice-arrows shot at your saintly impartiality.

Then, add to our scenario that you now have the discretionary power in certain cases. You check your quiver: you can’t do anything about the increasing heat to your skin; you can however do something about the lawyer who thinks falling in love with one’s voice is in.

Which lawyer wins?

Myth: Lawyers Read Books
Reality: Lawyers Like To Think They Read Books

Some photographer must have assumed that the only acceptable background for lawyers’ pictures is a bookshelf filled with old, unread law reports and texts aka ‘the book’. At some point, everyone started to believe her and since then, the rule has come to stay. Once in a while, an adventurous rebel takes a picture behind a swivel chair and almost succeeds, save a hint of ‘the book’, perhaps right on the far left of the desk.

It makes sense – ‘the book’ implies wealth and wisdom. However, at the best of times, it is no more than a prop.
Lawyers don’t display the dog eared books they really read on shelves. Once in a while, with an eye on a client, the wise lawyer makes a show of flipping through some leather bound text. Often, the client falls for it and mentally justifies the bill the lawyer charges. Everyone is happy.
The book will probably outlive us all.

In the true tabloid fashion: More shattering exposes soon. Watch Out!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Law Life Does Not Imitate Art.

Despite what everyone thinks, practicing law is far from fun. Of course, underlying my sweeping statement is my lawyer-conceit that assumes that people find time to wonder about what we do and attach some sentiment to what pays our bills. I however like to think that somewhere in between the security issues, a distracted National Assembly, energy (non-) supply, the existence or otherwise of a non-acting President, among other thought-worthy issues; we do our bit in keeping the world well hung. In any case, time has shown that worries have nothing on Nigeria since life tends to go on. The education minster will party in the midst of labour strikes in the education sector; the budget will be signed whether or not the President exists; graduates will be deployed to a state that is giving Georgia and Turkey a run for their CNN coverage (who cares if we lose a few of them), etc.

Once in a while however, I get statements like ‘wow, you are a lawyer! I read Grisham, you know’, accompanied with a misty-eyed look. I am usually amused at the disappointment people show when I fail to provide the ‘I am your soul-sista’ or ‘I feel like we totally connect, you know’ expected response. It is however difficult to sympathise with anyone who takes a retiree lawyer’s views seriously. If law was really that fascinating, Grisham would be in some law factory, loving the law and oblivious to the world and everything around him, rather than writing about it.

Law life does not imitate the art. The closest thing to ‘real’ lawyers is something in between the respected late vociferous Gani and what some bad belles may have called ‘lethargic’ former justice minister. Most lawyers are really boring with lives where the sole excitement or show of revolt is in the colour of pocket kerchief they choose to wear on the day they appear on NTA to provide blustery contradictory statements on the most recent drama at the National Assembly. The rest like me are the juniors who do work no one wants and is sent to clients who are looking for someone to blame and really don’t want to listen to our opinion. Grisham does nothing to paint what really happens.

One of the most influential pictures of lawyers is probably a man in a suit and in classic Johnnie Cochran style – ‘if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit’ to a mentally bullied jury. In real life, there is no judging jury of twelve. The judge is all we have and is too egoistic to be bullied. There are also no dramatic opening or closing statements since the rules of court mandate counsel file written addresses. The Nigerian lawyer has little or no chance to grow his oratorical mastery and in any case, the bench is the sole listener to the soundless oratory on paper.

Lawyers don’t say ‘objection my Lord’ every three minutes like Nollywood wants us to think. Law practice has largely evolved from table banging objections to smoother ways of backstabbing. In any case, (for the reasons outlined in the previous paragraph) verbal lawyering is a fading art. One more thing Nollywood does not get right – lawyers do not ‘rejoice’ with their clients after the judge gives a ruling with their favour. Whoever wrote that into a script?
Almost every self-respecting Nigerian family has coerced the least resistant child into studying law. There are so many lawyers in Nigeria that the allure has largely worn off. It follows that apart from the beloved human rights lawyer, who is near knighted, the rest of us are largely disdained or ignored. Members of the unfortunate lawyer-less families are easily recognisable – that are the ones that call us ‘De-law’.

Fiction rarely mentions the wig and gown. For obviously sartorial reasons, few non-Nollywood movie directors bother with clich├ęd uniform. The lawyers wear dark sharp Saville Row suits. Some even get away with Legally Blonde-pink. Ha. Law in real life is sober – black gowns over sober flat shoes and everything anti-aesthetic.

On television, most lawyers stick with basic salutation – Mr. Miss, Mrs, Ms. Anyone seeking the ire of a ‘real’ Nigerian lawyer may stick with fiction. Here, lawyers are identified by the prefix ‘barrister-’ or ‘lawyer-‘.

Have a great week.

Lawyer Rookie

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Diary of A Desperate Naija Woman

There is a book every woman and woman lover must read: 'The Diary of A Desperate Naija Woman'

I met Bola Nelson today. She is even more delightful in person than virtually (we've had an email relationship).

I absolutely love her book - which has little to do with an acknowledgment in it (ok, maybe a littler!)

She is on Amazon Barnes and Noble and better still on her own blog

Monday, March 8, 2010

Good lawyers Don’t Make Good Friends

Lawyers are victims of the conflict between the worlds we live in and the world our ‘educationally disadvantaged’ family and friends know. We are torn between our stronger inclinations of law training – backstabbing, pride, snobbery, resilient nitpicking, among others - and the ignorant world outside the courtroom and law office. Law training often wins.

Take Latin. In law-world, Latin is cool, smooth and amazing – like a young Antonio Banderas speaking Spanish we don’t understand. Outside law-world, Latin is a dead language used only at the Vatican City. Law-world is clearly insulated from the outside as lawyers hold staunchly to Latin phrases no one understands or cares about.
For instance, lawyers, ensuring that mortals are within a earshot are more likely to say things like: ‘Oh, was it done uberrimae fidei?’; ‘I would not worry about it, the matter is res judicata.’
It must be some love for vowels.

Regular people grow friendships by spending time together, sharing jokes with friends and family, leaning on the shoulders of kith and kin during the rough times, etc. Apart from the fact that lawyers hardly have enough time for frivolities as building friendships, no properly trained legal mind can spend one hour with other people without mentally preparing a bill of charges. Even pro bono lawyers prepare a bill then write it off. We have to justify every second of the day.

We also find the telephone pretty disconcerting and against our very ideals. Somewhere in our treecidal minds, the telephone as a ploy to usurp the paper – our one true love. Telephone conversations also do little for our litigious minds – burden of proof is needlessly heavy, and the witnesses’ demeanour cannot be observed from one end of the telephone line. Nigerian lawyers are particularly suspicious of recorded conversations as few courts would actually admit them. We also have to deal with the issue of the constitutional right to privacy,

In the real world, forgiveness is idealised. People like to make up and deal with situations. In law-world, arbitration is for losers and negotiation is only as good as when we win. Real lawyers fight to the bitter end, dragging their clients with them.

We also revel in spotting typos. Finding one or better still, a flaw in another’s arguments or a law no one will ever use is mentally celebrated with balloons and trumpets. We really like this – actually we really like anything at all that reminds us of our intelligence.
Our skills in this area are not really appreciated in real life. People live life spelling their names as ‘Jennifa’ and don’t really bother about it. Most lawyers can’t keep themselves from pointing out typos on BlackBerry messages or Facebook statuses.

Law teaches that primary school was a waste of time - ‘and’ does not always mean ‘and’; ‘or’ has more meaning than a two letter word can offer. When in doubt, we use ‘and/or’. The smartest lawyers can use ten years to get a matter dealing with the definition of ‘should’ from trial to the Supreme Court.

We love to hear us speak. Other people think that the only set of people who they really have to listen to is the Minister of Information and the Acting President (when he acts). Usually, anytime we try to go beyond a 140-letter twitter, people ignore us. We don’t like being ignored.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Aside: Why I went to Law School

In court, appearing alone against some lawyer whose white hair takes the glamour off his wig. While we wait:

‘How are you?’
‘Fine Sir.’
‘So, who did you come with?’
‘I am appearing alone Sir.’

Well, could it be because call to the Nigerian Bar generally gives you the right to appear in courts by yourself?