Are lawyers worth weeping for?
The noble, learned profession in Jamaica is in trouble. Senior members are increasingly, from observation, themselves being accused of criminal violations.
The process of acquiring a practising certificate to enable a person to offer legal service is a long, arduous one. Years of formal education, coupled with the study of the legal environment in which you will culturally practice, are capped with the application to the General Legal Council for its certification of your eligibility to be called to the Bar.
The ceremony associated with being called to the Bar is a significant event. It provides a moment of affirmation, the imparting of pride to the new admittee, and the beaming of your loved ones. You have arrived.
This is, however, just a major step along the path to professional excellence. In law school, I was told that once admitted to the Bar, you are just indicating your suitability to learn how to practise law. You may not even know the layout of the court building or how the registrars' office functions and how to combine all the inputs for the best interest of your client.
How true, but still incomplete as the matter of your moral fibre has not been tested. Your ethical standards have not been set with the parameters well defined. You must come to the profession with the full knowledge of the distinction in meaning of 'mine and thine'.
Unfortunately, today there is a glaring trait, most undesirable, that is evident in so many lawyers. The interpretation that the issuance of a practising certificate is a licence to print money. Sadly, too many lawyers have not accepted that the practice of law is a service profession. We get paid to serve those in trouble with the law. Every person who enters your chambers as a prospective client is troubled. Loss of freedom, property or money. These are their pressing concerns.
We are not like doctors who frequently hear the words that it is time for their annual check-up. Our clients need help now. It is normal for a client to have lived with the 'problem' for a considerable period. They did not come to you at the onset, as they had no money. They saved, borrowed and begged to put together some funds to approach a lawyer.
They enter your chambers with fear. Fear of the unknown judicial system and you, the lawyer. Before they leave, they must repose trust in you, the individual and in your alleged competence.
This is the place where the rubber meets the road. A lawyer has a vulnerable, frightened client seeking help. To abuse the trust, to abandon the moral standards, to blur the meaning of 'mine and thine' deserves to be a criminal offence and be treated as such. Do they, when apprehended, deserve our commiseration and weeping?
The danger in venturing into uncharted waters is obvious. I do so at my peril. There are too many lawyers with practising certificates in Jamaica. There are too many inexperienced lawyers who are living at the expense of clients' assets, not only fees earned. There are too many lawyers in Jamaica who do not see clients as parties in need of professional help of the highest order, but as a bank for the next car, vacation, party or house, etc. They borrow from clients' assets with every intent to repay. They spend in anticipation of earning, and when that does not materialise, they are in the proverbial bind.
The legal profession can be represented as a pyramid. Lots of room at the bottom, and those who fight to progress professionally climb up.
There are a few at the pinnacle. It should become part of the training and discipline of the profession that the concept of 'don't love them, don't hate them, just serve them to the best of your ability' becomes the ingrained standard. Have the law schools failed, or has the society been too lenient? Let those who are not worthy lawyers go to another avocation.
'today fi yu, tomorrow fi me'
It is quite apparent that legal malpractice is not a prominent feature of the landscape in Jamaica. The availability and applicability of clients suing lawyers does wonders to focus the mind on the service aspect of our profession. This attitude that "today fi yu, tomorrow fi me" is providing the excuse for some of what passes as legal service.
Why is it that in a conveyancing matter, the settlement cheques are not prepared and distributed with the settlement statement exchanged by the respective lawyers? If the settlement statement is not prepared, there can be no completion of the transaction. This means the lawyers know how much money is to be distributed and they have it in their control. Why is there a scarcity, primarily among sole practitioners and small firms of retainer agreements?
Put in writing what the lawyers' obligations are, how much it will cost, and give the client assurance that the service to be undertaken is that which they need. This is a service profession. My thoughts are formulated after more than 25 years of practice. Should we weep for errant lawyers?