A question of ethics

Plea for lawyers to espouse virtues of the profession to promote common good

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It is not my intention with this article to appeal to the passions of my colleagues. I ask only for their impartial reasoning. I also mean not to accuse anyone or lay blame, for when the conduct of lawyers is called to question, we (lawyers) have a collective obligation to bear the culpability. I therefore take the shame upon myself, in common, with the entire legal sorority.

Events happening in the legal profession both at the Bar and the Bench have yielded ground to the public viewing lawyers as just another common grouping and not the noble profession of times past. To mention a few, two botched general meetings where the conduct of lawyers was, to say the least, unbecoming, lawyers on the wrong side of the court – the dock – facing fraud and recently robbery with violence charges, judges perched at the crest of the judicial hierarchy openly expressing disagreement, lawyers engaging in a physical confrontation, campaigns full of propaganda and slander whilst seeking positions.

All these things and many others have been brought to the public glare which has caused the society to view the nobility that this profession has always claimed with justified suspicion. There are many things that a lawyer may be accused of but none dents the repute of their profession than when it is to do with their conduct. The conduct of an advocate is his insurance and assurance of the confidence placed in him.

The first expectation of a lawyer is fidelity to ethics and integrity. This obligation is not one that a lawyer should at any opportune moment seek to circumvent. It is one that should be inherent in him. It is the element that attracts the confidence placed in him not just by his client but by the Court, his colleagues and the society at large. This element is a bounty that every lawyer should not shun but embrace. No man choosing Law as a profession should yield to the temptation of breaching his integrity. If one cannot resolve to maintain integrity, then he would rather choose another occupation since in choosing to be a lawyer one in advance consents to be a person of integrity.

In my years as a lawyer, I have quietly learnt that prospective clients or employers do not take interest about where a lawyer was schooled, his family, his place of abode, his interests or hobbies. Instead they inquire or evaluate a lawyer based on his integrity. The reputation he develops becomes either his greatest asset or liability. Even intellect ranks lower than integrity and conduct; in any event, it takes a lot of intellect to maintain good conduct throughout one’s career.

Integrity does not only mean being trustworthy or faithful or honest. It includes a multiplicity of virtues all rolled into one. Civility and courtesy is a key component of professional integrity. Courtesy is, at all times, expected to be extended to colleagues.

Even in the face of a clear victory let your learned friend leave with dignity since litigation is not a contest. One American judge often advised lawyers that ‘‘your adversary today may be your judge tomorrow’’. In my early years of practice, older lawyers often reminded us that clients come and go but colleagues remain throughout ones career. The lesson here was that one should not antagonise colleague because of a client who will not be there tomorrow. Nowadays, the courtesy that lawyers had for their colleagues, which made other professions admire lawyers, has speedily eroded.

Respect is another key element. Respect is to the Law, the Court, the client and the learned friend, more so, as has always been the practice for as long as the profession has existed, to the older lawyer. Shouting down a senior colleague, whether in court, a meeting of any kind or before any forum is certainly going against this age old tradition of respecting one’s senior. Even on the bench, a newly recruited judge would always show respect to an older judge even if they are of concurrent jurisdiction. In many jurisdictions till this day, young lawyers at the threshold of their careers identify an older lawyer who becomes their mentor to steer them through the path of practice. This is not only a critical key to professional success but it prepares a young lawyer to become a mentor someday. In this country it happened in the early days but we have come to a point where young lawyers can without any colour of shame scream down at a lawyer who has practiced longer than they have lived.

Then there is the element of independence. A lawyer should not relinquish his independence of thought because of money, briefs, fear or any other cause. A lawyer who is independent-minded has control to do the right thing. Granted, a lawyer should always advance his clients interests with vitality. Such vitality should, however, be to an extent permitted by law since clients’ interests are always partisan. The legal profession as a whole has an obligation to keep all forms of social order working fairly and with integrity. It therefore behoves every lawyer to make a contribution to this by maintaining his independence of thought to do the right thing.

What is happening in the legal profession presently whether on the Bar or Bench is a worrisome trend. I wonder what legacy the profession is leaving to those who will come after us. Is it a rich legacy, and if so, rich in integrity, independence, civility and respect, legal education, commitment to improve the justice system and advance the rule of law and pro bono services? Or is it rich in dishonesty, scheming for power and positions, malpractices, professional negligence, advancing corruption, eroding legal education and jurisprudence? The latter seems to be the prevailing status and so calls for our urgent attention and correction. The place to start, in my view, is by reforming the individual lawyer before we focus on the profession as a whole. This will help restore the nobility that our counterparts in other jurisdictions still enjoy.

Let me pen off by narrating the story of a leading retailing store in the United Kingdom. In the autumn of 1909, a young man who had previously worked as a shop assistant in Manchester opened his own shop in London. He named it Selfridges after himself for his name was Harry Selfridge. Selfridges is that landmark store on London’s Oxford Street. From the early years of setting up of this store, he set standards on how everyone who interacted with the store would be treated. He had virtues that he expected his employees to strictly observe which have been passed from generation to generation. The store has over years grown and is of international repute. Today it still stands out as it has done for the past over 100 years: a mark of excellence and loyalty to its commitment to satisfy the customer.

It’s my wish that the legal profession in this country would strive to restore the nobility, respect and admiration that it once so proudly wore. In this we need to come together and build up a great and useful fraternity. Let us evaluate our conduct so that the nobility in us is expressed not through lip-loyalty but in actual practice so that even in 100 years, like this London store, the virtues of our profession’s nascent years will still prevail.

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