What you'll never learn at law school
The recent passing of Avis Henriques, a legend of commerce and a woman of substance, reminded me of my early legal education.
The following story is dedicated to her and should be required reading for all young lawyers. After you've completed this brief but vital course in the practice of law, you may feel like laughing at it rather than learning from it. That'll be a huge mistake on your part.
By the time I graduated from the law faculty and entered the Norman Manley Law School, it had been confirmed to me, beyond doubt, that very little of what I'd been taught would prove helpful in my future practice. There were exceptions. For example, I sat at the feet of the brilliant Professor Telford Georges and learned about administrative law and the law of human rights. These proved to be the two most relevant academic courses I ever experienced and so, naturally, they were the chosen options of very few students.
Professor Georges lectured and tutored on these topics without a single reference to any textbook, but based on his extensive and varied experience. That went down well with me, since I'd long decided that textbooks would NOT be on my reading list. They were expensive, pompous, pretentious, unrelated to real life, and, most important, redundant. I soon learned that legal textbooks were nothing more than authors' interpretation of past legislation (usually British) and decided cases all of which were available for me to read in the law library. Why did I need warmed-over views from snobbish authors?
The best law lecturer I ever had was Ms Dorcas White, from Montserrat, who taught me comparative law, the unpopular elective alternative to the sexy international Law (but which turned out to be so much more applicable to real life) and who, like Professor Georges, believed in independent thought. She did recommend a textbook that I bought out of respect but rarely read.
At the faculty in Barbados, I was a member of a clique of two who always sat as far to the back of the lecture theatre as possible (the better to nap or consult a racebook). Because very few final-year students chose comparative law, we stood out like sore thumbs in Dorcas' first lecture. As politely as she could, she opened with an assurance that she didn't speak loudly and a gentle, general suggestion that it might be best if students moved to the front where they'd hear better. The entire class rushed to the front, save for two who remained rooted to their seats in the back row.
As usual, I avoided all contact with authority for the rest of the year. After final exams, I found myself in the law library (don't ask) and was faced with Dorcas seated opposite the entrance. I tried to dodge her but she called me over with a crooked finger. She said, "I'm probably going to get into trouble for telling you this but, from the very first word of your exam paper, I knew it was you. I didn't stop laughing for the whole time." We became fast friends and she remains as unpopular as ever, but also one of the most incisive thinkers alive.
So, I approached law school with my congenital cynicism hardened by three years' experience in the faculty (save for the two exceptions already cited and, of course, the wonderful Dennis Morrison, who dominated my first year as a law student). There was good news. I was home and Caymanas Park offered a delightful alternative to classes, which I happily embraced. One day, the other member of my clique of two suggested I attend a guest lecture by one Noel Edwards, QC, whom he recommended (unusual for him) as somebody to whom I'd relate. You see, my partner-in-crime was older than I and had worked in the courts before studying law, so knew 'the runnings'.
Noel Edwards left an indelible mark on my psyche. He advised that, if you wanted to be an advocate, you had to be a know-it-all. That sparked the audience's attention, since most persons used that phrase as a put-down. He said knowing the law was the least concern, as we ought, by now, to know where and how to find the law. What we needed to know was everything else, including how to clear goods off the wharf, how to fix cars, how to make furniture, and how to gamble on horses.
Well, blow me down, he had me at hello! His point was that, if we were going to represent clients, they came from all walks of life and engaged in all sorts of activities from which disputes arose. If all we brought to the table was legal expertise without having at least an idea of how their business operated, we'd be useless to clients. So, thanks to the great Noel Edwards, young protégés of mine are sick and tired of hearing me preach my philosophy: "The least important thing in the practice of the law is the law!"
Early in my legal career, one of my first cases came when the firm's client was sent to me as a young associate. Her name was Avis Henriques. Her husband founded L.A. Henriques, a jewellery business of great national renown. He died and she was thrust into a leadership role in the business at a time when it was unusual to find women at that level. She came to me in great distress.
One of her regular customers was a self-styled 'Bishop' (famous for his costumes and his 'kookoo-macca stick') of a self-founded fundamentalist church who would leave his expensive diamond ring with L.A. Henriques for cleaning. On this occasion, when he returned for the ring, he claimed that his perfectly good diamonds had been replaced by fake diamonds. He sued for the loss of his diamond ring.
Avis Henriques was beside herself. She considered it not only a slur on her but on the reputation of her husband, against whom the bishop wouldn't have dared make such an accusation. With Noel Edwards' advice ringing in my ears, I embarked upon a course of action that took me to Swiss Stores every afternoon after work when I spent an hour a day for a week or more learning from Peter Bangerter how to make diamond rings and how to clean them. By the time Peter was finished with me, nobody could tell me anything about the manufacture of jewellery and how possible it was to remove real diamonds from their settings and replace them with fakes. Needless to say, I won the case at trial and Avis Henriques was vindicated.
I've told that story to young lawyers repeatedly over the years, and especially now when it appears that many law-school graduates believe self-importance and rudeness are sound substitutes for experience, the story is helpful to those who want help. So, I thank Telford Georges, Dorcas White, Dennis Morrison and Noel Edwards for shaping my mind a certain way and Avis Henriques for the opportunity for me to prove that mindset correct.
Rest in peace, Avis Henriques. You will be remembered.
Peace and love.
-Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns