I WAS NOT ALWAYS AN ARTICULATE SMART AND BRILLIANT LAWYER. I didn’t always have good oratory skills and I wasn’t always winning cases in court as an advocate.
My preparation towards my very first encounter, experience before a Judge of the High Court left millions of butterflies in my tommy.
As I recount, the perhaps more than 20 years experience, the butterflies keep flooding back, again, and now, again.
I had neither advocacy skills nor court room experiences back then, beyond the few tips we were taught back in Law School nearly 4 years prior to my clinching this job.
I had watched some law based movies like Christian Slater’s Murder In The First and Twelve Angry Men Jury but that didn’t come close to and could not be compared to my going to be “appearing” before His Lordship in Court!?
I applied to one of the most prestigious Law Firms at the time, ostensibly because I had served my mandatory Law School Chambers Attachment at this firm.
I really never wanted to be an advocate/ attorney. The lawyers whom we saw in court back then, didn’t give us the impression there was a lot of money to be made in legal practice, at least from their dressing and remarks. The sort of cars they drove weren’t very impressive. Most of them commuted by the public transportation system.
It was the disappointment of not being retained at the oil company I served at the time, that made this a last resort. Of course I had tried my hands on a few oil company contracts that seemed to take eternity to clinch. It was my mum that suggested to give this a shot. She said I should just start, seeing I was in despair and frustrated from my oil contract appointments.
Back then, it was very difficult to be hired by one of those topnotch big time Law Firms. It was a thing of pride, honor and joy to recount to friends and family, that you were a counsel in chambers of …, even though the remuneration was not very impressive. These were Law Firms whose principals were trained in England back in the days and most of not all of them had attained the rank of a Senior Advocate or Queen’s Counsel.
The understanding was that one was actually on pupilage, and strictly speaking, we were interns and should have been the ones paying for clerking to be trained, to attain the required knowledge, legal skills and experiences. It was only in these kinds of chambers that one got to handle top profile cases. So, paying us a “stipend” remuneration was very much welcomed.
At the Friday Meeting of lawyers, I think it was the 3rd of July, 1995, I was welcomed and admitted into the Chambers, to meet my senior colleagues. I was the youngest at the Bar in the chambers at the time. My letter of appointment had just been handed to me with very clear hiring terms.
The assumption was that since I was about three years Post Call, I could handle the preliminary proceedings in court like Mention Cases, Handle Call Over Dates, Adjournments etc!? Those where the commonest aspects of legal practice expressions. One was expected to have heard of these terms before?! Surely?
Right away, I was given 3 very heavy dusty files after the introductions. I was told they were just “for mention”!!!. What the hell was “mention”.?! I probably heard this term back in Law School, but I hadn’t really taken notice of it and I wasn’t about to expose my ignorance by asking what it was.
This may just have ruined my chances. Perhaps, it may have led to the recall of my appointment letter. You could liken this to hiring a medical doctor who hadn’t heard of a stethoscope before.
No. We didn’t have google or internet at the time, so don’t even go there...
The size of the files were very scary. The strings that held the pages together had become so loose, you could tell the age of the case file from the flaking of the files’ edges. They were in two volumes. The reddish one and the greenish one. I later learnt that the green files were the correspondences files, while the red ones were the litigation of cases in court files. You had to handle them with care. They were numbered. Not one page could go missing.
The senior lawyers may have noticed the strain on my face but I wasn’t about to blow this. I composed myself, joined in their conversations and interactions but I had one hand in my pants pocket to steady myself and for my jittery fingers not to be so obvious. My feet were soaked in sweat, held together by my socks, inside my shoes. I was just told that I was the lucky one of the three lawyers that had applied to work in the Law Firm. This made me feel even more privileged, special and honored.
“Mention”? I tried to look at it in the ordinary parlance. So what was I to do then? If I told the Judge: “My Lord, this case was for mention”, he would know exactly what I meant? What was I to do afterwards? Was I going to address the Judge as My Lord, My Honor, Your Worship? We were taught the difference and distinction in the Professional Ethics Course at the Law School. I would have to look for my Law School notebooks to draw the distinction. I knew one was for a High Court Judge, the other was for a Magistrate or Customary Court Judge. But which ? If I addressed the court wrongly. Was I going to be charged for contempt? They were not addressed the same way. What problem has I just brought upon myself, I thought.
Well, Monday was three days away. I had other things to worry about now, other than Mentioning the three case files.
I owned neither a lawyer’s wig nor a lawyer’s gown. I didn’t have the lawyers’ beeps or special winged-collar white shirts. All these were taken for granted by the Law Firm that I already owned them, because I was over three years Post Call.
The assumption was that a lawyer must own his wig and gown and other lawyers’ paraphernalia, but I hadn’t. Don’t forget this was a last resort job clinch, as I had my eyes firmly on working in the oil and gas industry.
For my call to Bar my cousin leant me his wig and gown. You could tell from the over sized wig and gown that they wasn’t mine. But the beeps, collar and studs were mine.
I couldn’t sleep the whole of Friday night. I had no lawyer in my family to ask what “Mention” meant. It was very difficult to network or get in touch with friends back in the early 1990s. Few friends and families owned telephone boxes. Most of the contacts were physical. You had to chance it, whether the person you were visiting would be at home. Of course you wouldn’t get a refund of your transportation fare, if the person wasn’t at home.
I had a few debt recovery briefs that were given to me by the Community Bank that my father was chairman at. Once you were a lawyer, the assumption was that you were also a good advocate. That you handled cases in court. A lot of young lawyers today want to be spared that experience. When it was time to file the cases in court, I briefed a couple of seniors to help me.
Now, I had no help. I still had to read the entire case files to come to speed with the subject matters. I had to read all the endorsements on the file to see what the previous lawyers said or how they handled the case files.
Twilight Saturday morning, I hit the roads to go buy my wig and gown and other legal paraphernalia. I recalled seeing vendors who sold lawyers paraphernalia around the court premises. So, I dashed to the court premises. I got my first shocker. I had no idea the vendors only worked days of the week that the lawyers would patronize them. They did not work Saturday or Sunday. The remaining vendors looked at me strange, that I was looking to buy a wig and gown on a Saturday? I thought Saturday was trading day? Not for lawyers’ outfit. They couldn’t help me. I had no idea how much they sold these items for and whether my money could afford them.
I managed to buy a few winged collar white shirts. Black socks. Not much. I was tempted to ask the few vendors, I saw on Saturday around the court premises, if they knew what “Mention” in legal parlance meant.? If a lawyer said a case was for mention? What did it mean and what was expected of the lawyer in court?.
The expressions on their faces warned me against it…
…to be continued….