Understanding the young lawyer

Equality, not patronising affirmative action and special treatment, is what young lawyers seek from LSK

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By Victor Hezekiah

Faced with a racialised political crisis that threatened to derail his campaign to become the first African American president of the U.S, Barack Obama delivered a speech on race, “A more Perfect Union”. That speech remains one of the most powerful on race. What makes it powerful, however, is not that it was electrifying or the oratory skills employed in its delivery. It is powerful because it revealed the real America to the Americans. Courageously, but with profound honesty and respect, Obama opened up for debate the most volatile topic in the USA – that of race.

Though racial discrimination had stayed with them for long, not one leader ever brought the racial factions together for dialogue. President Obama’s invite to talk about race was therefore an irresistible offer. The honesty to acknowledge the existence of that corrosive cancer, the rejection of whites’ dismissal of the resentment among the Black as imaginations, and the willingness to invite all sides to engage on the topic, all made the invite irresistible. Right there was the issue – a talk, a conversation, a discussion.

I see our LSK (“the Society”) is in a similar position. The (in)famous #AgeLimitMustFall movement which ultimately got to the agenda for the March AGM, was discussed more from a misunderstanding by most seniors. Speaking at the National Tallying Centre at the LSK Headquarters after being declared winner, President Allen Gichuhi had this to say about the issue: “I will start by implementing my five-point manifesto and push for amendments to the LSK Act to change the composition of the Council.

We need to reserve a seat in the Council for young lawyers and special interest groups.” While I acknowledge that the President made his comment in good faith and in a bid to address the growing resentment among young advocates, it is a perfect example of the mistaken position that most seniors held about the movement. Of course, the answer to the inequality question is already entrenched within the Statute that creates the Society – a Society that has at its very core the ideal of equal membership, and which owes equality, fairness and justice to its members. Yet, these words alone, on a document, have consistently proven to be hopelessly inadequate to deliver young advocates from inequality, or to provide young lawyers, rich and poor, employed and self-employed, their full rights and freedom as members of the Society.

Some seniors find the current crop of young advocates as ignorantly overzealous, seeking to get rich quick without working hard first. Dismissively, some seniors have told the young lot, “You will not remain young advocates forever”, which only embeds the aforesaid misunderstanding.

Of course, the practical and safe thing would be to coil back from these inequalities and in the hope that it somehow dwindles as we grow in the practice. We can dismiss the young clique as a complaining and a grumbling lot as some actually think them to be. But inequality is an issue that I believe our Society cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake we have repeatedly made over the years.

The truth is that the recent #AgeLimitMustFall movement and the issues that surrounded the struggle mirrors the complexities of inequality in our society that we’ve never really addressed.

If we choose to retreat into our respective offices or to simplify and politicise it, we’ll never unite to address challenges like institutional impunity (Kenya School of Law & Commission for Legal Education), poor remuneration for advocates, unfair control of the legal career, inequitable share of the ever shrinking market, and so on. To understand these issues, we must make a small tour to the past – the good old days.

The legal career has changed over time. Students are no longer paid for joining university; they pay to join. University of Nairobi no longer enjoys the monopoly of teaching law to a handful lot countrywide; more than eight universities teach law today with thousands of students graduating every year.

The Kenya School of Law is no longer a free six-month programme, but eighteen gruelling months that an arm and a leg. The Advocates Training Programme no longer trains lawyers to be advocates but is simply an extended year to repeat their undergraduate course. The bar exams no longer tests the students’ understanding of law but only milks them to their last coin.

Pupillage has largely ceased to be an enjoyable journey of learning and mentorship and has increasingly become as a source of cheap, sometimes free labour. 

By the time one completes the training, the system has essentially achieved its aim – to wear out the student through the taxing process. A number of students lose the battle – some for lack of financial muscle and some for lack of strong will. What is remarkable is that some remain defiant and hopeful through the difficulties.  Tired, worn out and disillusioned, the lawyer signs the roll and receives that precious document – Certificate of Admission. Soon, however, the young advocate realises that the certificate is a lifeless document which requires him to part with about Sh20,000 to give it life. He doesn’t understand why, but he must not question.

In any case, he hasn’t locus without membership, which membership is tied to the payment. Without paying, he’s technically barred from stamping any legal document or getting audience in Court.

Before long, the young advocate realizes that competition is very stiff. The expansion of the legal market is painfully slow. For every two steps ahead, there seems to be one step backwards.

He further realises that this is a career that has no retirement. He must fight for clients with his seniors, a number of whom were admitted before he was born, and who appear in several panels for corporate institutions. Due to stiff competition, the young advocate contemplates employment as an associate but immediately drops this thought when he see what his employed colleagues go through, get paid and how they get terminated.

His attempts to speak to the seniors get dismissed with one phrase, “You won’t be a young lawyer forever.” His only hope is the Society, which is comprised of seniors who are out of touch. Yet when he seeks for office to try and make a difference, he meets yet another barrier: “you are only old enough to vote, but too young to lead.” In other words, the senior does not trust his capacity to lead, though they trust his capacity to choose a good leader.

These issues cannot be simplified into giving young advocates a representative position in the Council. They do not fade away by simplifying them as temporal. That will only serve to confirm the young Advocates fears – that the seniors think of them as less endowed, and in need of affirmative action.

That way, the seniors will simply be giving credence to the young lawyers’ complaints that they are less equal members of the Society. Yet, that will be to misunderstand the young lawyers. They do not want special treatment. They simply want equal treatment – equal recognition as members of the society. Equal, not special treatment or opportunities. They want to be allowed equally into the battlefield to square it out with everyone else without discrimination. If they perish in the field, they perish.

To understand one another, we must remind ourselves of the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

It also means a deliberate commitment to work hard, exhibit professionalism, delivering on our responsibilities and accepting to be coached. For the seniors, it means acknowledging that the Certificate of Admission levels the field for its holders, young and old; that that priceless certificate in itself (should) command a minimum standard of decency below which no advocate should be treated – minimum wage, equality and dignity; that when the young advocates voice their discontent, they are not merely whining nor fighting the seniors; that when they demand for the falling of the age limit, push for electoral inclusivity and fight for their rights, they are not asking for special treatment, but equal treatment promised by their Certificate of Admission – not the sum of their practicing certificates. We must build on the common foundation that each member, young and old, loves this Society; that the young lawyer values hard work just as much as the senior lawyer does. The senior lawyers must trust that just like them, the young lawyers want a better Society not just for themselves, but for every member; and that they would welcome a dialogue with their seniors any time – on how to better our Society for the maximum benefit, not just of a few, but of all members, young and old alike.

We must all appreciate that in this Society of lawyers, we are all bound together as one; and that when an Advocate cannot afford basic needs like food or decent dressing or when an Advocate has to choose between paying boarding a matatu and having lunch, it should concern all of us even if they are not our children. That’s how we inject life to our democracy. It must work for all, not just a few. It should be the strength of our membership and not the size of our bank account that drive our democracy; the single Certificate of Admission and not the sum of our Practicing Certificates that gives us the locus to participate. 

In the end, we must realize that our Society is more than a collection of lawyers.  Our strength is in the profound generosity in each one of us, the inherent empathy in all of us and the unyielding hope in our common vision for a better society. That is what makes us the LSK. This is what I have learnt from my interactions with a few seniors. (

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