12 Strategies to Becoming the Happiest Lawyer Alive
Lawyers are the most knowledgeable and distinguished of all professionals. By our very training and orientation, we are imbibed with diligence, hard work, integrity and other positive attributes that mold us into the special species of humans that we become. From the very first day one enters University to read law, we are presented with the stark reality that we will not get through life with a slapdash attitude. We are taught that life calls for earnestness and conscientiousness, work and effort, as Carl Jung once wrote. In this article, I discuss the guidance and direction we get as students and the absence thereof when we enter the profession after law school. I also discuss the strategies that have proven beneficial to legal practitioners and other members of the profession over time. I suggest that we adopt some of these strategies to ensure that we live life to the fullest and enjoy the journey all the way.
Life as a law student
The first lecture I attended at the Faculty of Law, University of Ghana, Legon, on a fine September morning in 1992, was Introduction to the Law of Contract. The lecturer was no less a person than the venerable Prof. G.K.A Ofosu-Amaah, the then Dean of the Faculty of Law. Prof. Ofosu-Amaah came in accompanied by two young female lecturers, Mrs. Christine Dowuona-Hammond (currently a Senior lecturer at the School of Law, University of Ghana) and Ms. Johanna Odonkor (now Mrs. Odonkor Svanikier, former Ambassador of Ghana to France and Portugal, as well as to the International Organisation of La Francophonie and the OECD Development Centre.)
After listening to the exquisite, almost ex tempore delivery of the one hour lecture on Law of Contract, the whole class became subdued. By the time the young lecturers distributed the ‘reading list’ containing about ten decided cases, including the famous Carlill v Carbolic Smokeball Co., the reference books such as Smith and Thomas: A Casebook on Contracts, Trietel’s The Law of Contract, and the ‘tutorial questions’, most of us knew we had made a mistake by not choosing other courses of study. By the time Prof. and his team left, our faces were bereft of the previous grins and smiles we displayed prior to the lecture. Suddenly, we realized we were sergeants-at-arms who had to make the cut among the 60 students to remain law students out of the class total of about 120 students. The unspoken admiration we had for each other as the special few on whom the Almighty had shone his countenance to be admitted to read Law began to wane at that very moment. We became each other’s competition for survival.
With this grim reality in mind, no one had to advise us to go straight into the Law Library and start ‘briefing’ the cases and reading the textbooks on the reading list. Much to our horror, most of the cases had been torn from the few Law Reports available and there were very few copies of the assigned textbooks to go round. Throughout the day, we had to attend other non-Law Faculty lectures elsewhere and returned intermittently to the Law Library to find out whether some of the cases and textbooks were free to be used. On that first day, I was one of the many students who closed with the Law Faculty librarians late in the evening and I returned to my room in Volta Hall feeling mentally and physically exhausted. I wondered how I had allowed myself to be coaxed into such drudgery. In the following days, the few bold spirits amongst us took their young destinies into their own hands and dropped Law for other more tolerable endeavours. Those of us who had made pacts with the devil to be-a-lawyer-or-be-damned had no escape route. We had to stick with it.
The events of that first day of student life at the Faculty of Law was to set the tone for our studies throughout our stay at the University of Ghana. All the lecturers had subtle ways of keeping us fully engaged with our coursework. Attending tutorials and participating in discussions was mandatory. We enjoyed the thrill of being addressed by our lecturers as “Miss Ocansey”, “Miss Issifu”, “Mr. Akuffo”, “Mr. Dadson” and so on. Our colleagues pursuing other courses never had enough of our ‘I’m going to the Faculty Library’ constant refrain. It drove them nuts. We had little time to engage in idle diversion. The few times some us decided to let our hair down, the shiny and ever-present eyes of Prof. Kofi Kumado were destined to shine on us (pun very much intended). Otherwise, how could Prof. Kumado announce in a Law of Torts class that a certain Miss Boateng, resident of Volta Hall, had been visiting Mensah Sarbah Hall?
By the time we transitioned to the Ghana School of Law for the Professional Law Course, we had internalized the attributes of diligence, hard work and industry. We sailed through the Ghana School of Law without much effort. We did not have to pay bankruptcy-inspiring school fees. We did not have to wear prescribed attire to school for professional training. We did not have to write entrance examination. We did not have to go for entrance interview or exit interview that did more to deflate our egos than to prepare us mentally for the life ahead as lawyers. Most notably, we did not get any guidance or pep talk as to how we should arrange our lives as lawyers so as to enjoy the profession and be good citizens to our families and communities.
12 strategies to live happily as a lawyer
When we join the profession, there are no lawyers waiting in the wings to prompt us to mind the gutter, keep us on the straight and narrow path and generally cushion our fall. Over the course of time, we have to device our own ways of adapting into the legal profession and staying in it for the long haul. With a deep sense of service as a lawyer and a knack for constant learning from seniors and colleagues at the Bar, the life we enjoy as lawyers could be a most thrilling and fulfilling experience. In this article, I share twelve of the strategies that I deem crucial to helping any lawyer, whether in private practice or other spheres practicing our profession, to get the best out of our lives.
Choose your practice/work environment wisely.
Strategy 1: When we come out of law school, there is the tendency for us to accept any offer that comes our way. We are mostly attracted to certain jobs or law firms because we are desperate to get a place to work. You should make sure that you are joining a law firm or company where there is respect and civility. I remember when I finished law school and was looking for a law firm to do my pupillage, I was told a certain law firm at Nyaniba Estate was recruiting pupils. I went to speak with the Head of Chambers on a Thursday and I was asked to report to work the following Monday. I was told discussions on an allowance will begin once I started the pupillage. I agreed and reported for work on Monday morning, looking resplendent in my well-ironed black skirt, white shirt, and black high heels. As I was waiting anxiously to be given my first legal assignment, I was taken out into a veranda by the Head’s wife, also a lawyer, and shown a pile of dusty books in brown carton boxes and an empty bookshelf. I was then instructed to arrange the books on the bookshelf. I fell into a trance for a few seconds and when I came to, I looked at my crisp white shirt, I looked at the dusty books, I transferred my gaze to my new Madam and I started arranging the books. I immediately knew that was not the kind of working environment for me.
By the time I finished arranging the books, I was sweating with dirty hands and wheezing from an allergic reaction. I am allergic to dust, fumes and pungent smells. I told myself that I did not belong to such a disrespectful environment. I started asking around for a new place and a few days later, my National Service posting came and I also got a place at Hencil Chambers to do my pupillage. I left. Several years later, I heard some rogues alleging I was ‘trained’ at that firm. You do not have to remain in a toxic environment. You should work in an environment where you are valued as a lawyer; you get opportunity to write legal articles, discuss cases and legal opinions, handle cases, speak on issues and represent the firm. You should look out for a place where real substantive legal work is done and you get opportunity to work on Case Files. There should be a clear discussion on what form of remuneration you are going to receive and the manner of payment.
Strategy 2: You should make sure that you have reliable and supportive team members. For instance, when I had my first child, I was on maternity leave for three months. My Head of Chambers and Junior Associate at Nsiah Akuetteh & Co., L. S. N Akuetteh, Esq. and Teki Akuetteh, Esq. respectively, took over all my cases, including a certiorari application I had pending at the Supreme Court and handled them in my absence. I did not lose a single client or case because of the support I got and I was also able to have a long maternity leave.
Bring the best version of yourself to your job
Strategy 3: Once you have picked a great environment to work, you must relate very well with all team members without exception, whether they are lawyers or not. When I joined Hencil Chambers to do my pupillage, the first person I bonded with was our experienced Law Clerk, Bro. Kwame. He had over twenty years’ experience as a clerk. He was helpful in getting my assigned Case Files to me on time. In the absence of Mr. Ansa-Asare, he could update me on the stage each case had reached and assisted me with filing court forms such as writs. He assisted me with precedents to guide me on my assigned cases. He even advised me to open a precedent file and he gave me some of his own precedents to put on it, which I have till date – almost twenty three years now.
I also enjoyed chatting a lot with the late Mr. E. A Owusu-Ansah and he gave me valuable insights into law practice from his experience as a former judge, Judicial Secretary and a lawyer in private practice. I developed enduring relationships with Mrs. Ansa-Asare and the entire Readwide team as well. I had similar excellent experience with the staff of Akuetteh Kudoadzi & Co. /Nsiah Akuetteh & Co. and built friendships that have evolved into familial relationships.
Strategy 4: You should show your willingness to work. Your seniors will give you work to do to hone your skills and learn on the job only when you show commitment. The fact is, they were running their law firms and conducting their cases in court before you came on board. So, whether you make yourself available or play hide-and-seek with them, they will do their work. And you will lose the opportunity to learn, grow and earn handsome income from your toil. Once you show enthusiasm, commitment and reliability, your seniors will make sure you are never idle. For example, by the time I finished my six-month pupillage, I had handled cases in Accra, Cape-Coast, Sekondi and Sunyani High Courts on my own. This was because I was up for every task that was assigned to me.
Strategy 5: Preparation and communication are key to your life as a lawyer and a professional. Do not expect anyone to baby-sit you. You will get guidance from your seniors but do not expect you are going to be ‘taught’ how to handle cases. It is your responsibility to learn. You will never know when you will be tested so you must always be prepared. Once during my pupillage, I was given a Case File by my Pupil Master, Mr. Ansa-Asare, and he asked me to meet him in Court the next morning. He repeated severally that he will be in Court to handle the case. But knowing him to be a very busy man, I knew he may not turn up if something came up so when I got home that night, I stayed up and read the file, went over the motion and affidavit and even conjured up some authorities to use, just in case. Surprisingly, at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, my Pupil Master appeared in court and sat next to me. I heaved a silent sigh of relief and when the case was called, I dutifully passed the Case File to him but he asked me to ‘move the motion’. I did and he congratulated me and I felt elated. I did not know I was going to be put to the test that morning. Luckily, my preparation saved the day.
Be self-aware in the Courtroom and other venues of work
Strategy 6: Ensure that you look the part, always. Of all the satiric jokes and jabs about lawyers, one thing that can never be taken away from us is that, we dress well. Perhaps, our crisp outlook has contributed to our charge of being ostentatious but we are not ready to shed our good looks, are we? ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man’ said Shakespeare, and the woman, I wish to add. As lawyers, we share these sentiments of Shakespeare. But we need to take a few notes of caution. For male lawyers, you should wear the right colour of suit to court; black, navy blue or grey. Never brown, navy green or other such colours. The fact is that clients already have a picture in their minds of how lawyers should look and they do not expect theirs to look any different.
Secondly, wear proper executive shoes and socks; dark socks always win but if you want your happiness to be reflected on your feet, ‘happy socks’ may be fine. Do not wear your executive shoes without socks, or go ‘Mungo Park’, as we say in Ghana. Unless you are a lawyer by day and a film star by night, do not wear loafers with your suit, please.
For female lawyers, I repeat here for emphasis: wear the right colour of suit to court; black, navy blue or grey. Never brown, navy green or other such colours. The fact is that clients already have a picture in their minds of how female lawyers should look and they do not expect theirs to look any different. Most clients have watched L.A Law, Boston Legal and similar TV law drama all their lives and they expect to see real life lawyers as those on TV. Again, wear proper formal office shoes. Court shoes always win. Ladies, rock your high heels; you look dashing and super smart in them. At the barest minimum, do block shoes. Flats or ballet- type shoes are a no- no whether in the office or in courtroom. It reduces your professional look and diminishes your presence. Just picture two lady lawyers wearing the same high end suit but one is in high heels and the other is in flats. Who will you be proud to show off as your lawyer? Of course, medical reasons always make for exception. As ladies, our hair, make-up and jewelry must also be professional in outlook. Our other accessories such as bags, belts and scarfs must be properly coordinated.
Greet, greet, greet. It does not cost a thing to greet and it puts others at ease. Whoever you meet in court or at a meeting, greet them. Look them in the eye and greet them: Junior lawyers, senior lawyers, your client, the opposing client, the opposing lawyer and others present. It is always a good idea to have some exchange of greetings with your client before court sessions start to put them at ease. Greet Court clerks and be polite to them and they will return the pleasure.
Whiles addressing the court:
Strategy 7: Be polite and pleasant. You must be polite when addressing the Court. Put your points across without being rude or saucy. In his book, “The Discipline of Law”, Lord Denning, M.R. advised lawyers on their conduct in court as follows:
“Remember also that, whatever the tribunal, you must give a good impression. Your appearance means a lot. Dress neatly, not slovenly. Be well-groomed. Your voice must be pleasing, not harsh or discordant. Pitch it so that all can hear without strain. Pronounce your consonants. Do not slur your words. Speak not too fast nor yet too slow. All these things are commonplace but they are so often forgotten that I warn you against the mistakes I see made daily. No hands in pocket. It shows slovenliness. No fidgeting with pencil or with gown. It shows nervousness. No whispering with neighbours. It shows lack of respect. No ‘ers’ or ‘ums.’ It shows that you are slow-thinking, not knowing what to say next. Avoid mannerisms like the plague. It detracts attention. Don’t be dull. Don’t repeat yourself too often. Don’t be long-winded. All these lose you your hearers; and once you have lost them, you are done for. You can never get them back—not so as to get them to listen attentively.”
We all observe some of these forbidden behaviours in court all the time. Sometimes, we make these mistakes unconsciously and we are unaware of the effect we have on the judges and those before whom we appear.
I have heard similar sentiments expressed by our judges regarding how some of us behave when we appear before them. Mostly, they ask ‘What are you doing about the attitude of the young lawyers who are now coming out’ and mostly, I try to mumble a few rationalizations here and there and promise that as ‘seniors’, we will do something about it. Some have attributed our mannerisms to the ‘computer age’ but I hold a contrary view. I believe showing decorum in Court has nothing to do with whether you were trained as a lawyer in the 1900s, 2000s or 2020s. If this is how we come across to those we appear before, then it will be most wise for us to be self-aware so as to minimize these annoying behaviours. My point is that, these shortcomings do not afflict only the young at the Bar. The old lawyers fall into the trap every now and then when they take their eye off the ball. I fell into a most embarrassing situation about two years ago. I appeared before Mrs. Justice Ananda Aikins to oppose an application to set aside a writ I had filed in a suit before her. It took several adjournments before the motion was finally dismissed. The Court made no order as to costs and I was displeased about it. As I pressed on with my request for costs, I realized my voice had gone a notch higher than how I ordinarily speak. I quickly ended my plea for costs. Once I got out of the courtroom, I felt regretful and embarrassed. The judge probably took no notice of it but I felt terrible all the same.
Be magnanimous when a decision goes against you. Whether it is a ruling in an interlocutory application or the final judgment in a case, always be magnanimous when a decision does not go in your favour. Everyone around watches your reaction to a defeat so be careful how you handle such situations. I have observed many situations where a lawyer whose application has been refused puts on a furious frown and murmurs their displeasure openly, sometimes almost to the point of being audible to the judge. The fact is, once a judge has given his ruling or judgment, there is nothing much you can do to get a reversal at that very moment. Thankfully, the Rules of Court provide several avenues by which you can challenge a judge’s decision. So, any theatrics you put up, whether to appease your ego or your client or both, will yield nothing other than stares of disapproval from the Bar and the gallery.
Be courteous to opposing Counsel and parties alike. As lawyers, we are colleagues in the profession. That is why it is absolutely necessary that we deal with each other with courtesy and respect, irrespective of seniority. Many of my friendships at the Bar, especially those with colleagues who are junior to me, have been developed through cases I have handled with such colleagues on opposing sides. Such friends include the late Kweku Sey, Esq., Peter Dadzie, Esq., Kwasi Adu-Mante, Esq., Joseph Akyeampong, Esq., a.k.a Guy Milo, Stephan Antoh, Esq., Johnnie Klutse, Esq., Stephen Owusu-Adjei, Esq., Richard Bobbison, Esq., Hon. Rockson Nelson Dafeamekpor and so many others too numerous to list here. Apart from the camaraderie such courtesies engender, they also provide business benefits. I have had many case and client referrals from colleague lawyers at the Bar because of the rapport we have built over time. I have also reciprocated the gesture in several ways. Some have appointed me as their personal/family lawyer or estate planning advisor.
Put your best foot forward in your personal life (Yourself, Family and Community)
Strategy 8: Take good care of yourself. It is very important that we make time to exercise regularly. Depending on what works for you, you can join a gym, go for walks, play weekly soccer, jog, swim or engage in any other activities that help exercise your body and mind. By the very nature of our work as lawyers, we need to replenish our energy regularly to stay in top shape. Regular exercise will help you to sleep well, get fit, be mentally sound, more focused and keeps you calm. For good measure, regular exercise enhances libido and its associated activities.
You should also ensure that you get enough sleep. Considering all the gadgets and toys bombarding us with information around the clock, we need to be intentional about how and when we put off these gadgets and switch off and have a good night’s sleep. Lack of sleep disorganizes our thought processes and leaves us irritable. Create and make time for recreational activities. You should also do well to take time to rest during legal vacation, Christmas and Easter breaks or whatever time suits you. If you work in an organization, take your leave when it is due. Rest, recharge and return after vacation with more energy and focus.
Strategy 9: Take care of your family. Stay in touch with your extended family even if you live in a different city or region. Just remember that, they do not need you to live. It is just beautiful that they will have the bragging rights that you, a distinguished lawyer, are their relative. Pay visits regularly. No witch or wizard will eat you up. We are at a higher risk of dying from our sedentary lifestyles than been mauled by an imaginary witch or wizard. And whiles you are visiting, be humble at all times. Do not turn up your nose just because you are now a lawyer. Speak in your local dialect, please. Leave the Latin expressions and legal gobbledygook behind. In that regard, use words like among other things not inter alia, a month not per mensem, first among equals not primus inter pares and so on.
Spend quality time with your nuclear family too. Children grow up so fast. It is advisable to avoid carrying your work home to continue there. If you must do so, limit working to when the kids are asleep. Train your kids at an early stage to have a sleeping schedule. Having been born and bred in Ghana, I thought that children slept and woke up as and when they pleased, or, as commanded to do by their parents. I learned it was a habit that had to be cultivated only when I visited my late father in England many years ago. The first day I visited my dad and his family in Horsham, West Sussex, I was surprised when at 7 p.m. sharp, Andrew, the youngest of my half siblings, started pleading with Susan, my step mom, to let him stay downstairs a little longer. When I inquired about what was causing Andrew so much anguish, I was told it was his bedtime so he had to leave for his bedroom. Wow. What discipline, I thought. We needed to strike a compromise at that point. So, in commemoration of the maiden visit of their beloved sister Francisca, all three of the kids were given an extra thirty minutes to stay with us, the adults – my Dad, step-mom and I -in the living room to chit-chat and generally have fun. Charlotte went to bed at 8:00 p.m. instead of her appointed time of 7:30 p.m. and Richard, the eldest of the three, left at 8:30 p.m. instead of 8:00 p.m. They were aged 5, 7 and 10 years respectively at the time. In the subsequent days, I observed my siblings went to bed at their appointed time without any fuss at all. By 8:00 p.m. each day, the whole house was quiet and we the adults could put our feet up, sip some drinks, chat and generally relax and unwind. Seeing how effective having set bedtime routine was, I made a mental note to do same in future. And I am happy to report that I did and it worked.
I remember a couple of years ago, a friend visited me at home around 7:20 p.m. After we chatted for several minutes, he asked where my children were and I said they are in their room getting ready to sleep. He was in shock. “How do you manage to get them into their room at 7:00 p.m. and stay there? he inquired. I simply replied that it was a ritual they grew up with and that when they were younger, I used to read to them in their beds before they slept so now that they could read on their own, they had many story books to interest them and they will rather settle in bed in the evening and read instead of loitering aimlessly about. The morale of the story is that, once you set sleeping routine for your children, you can get to spend time with them after work and when they sleep, you can have time to unwind, do a bit of reading or work before you also retire to bed.
Strategy 10: Be useful in your community. You may not be aware of this but being a lawyer in your neighbourhood gives your neighbours a sense of protection. They know that in case of anything, you are there to help. This expectation is hardly communicated but it is very much alive in their minds. They have such expectation whether you talk to them or you drive past them without so much as a wave of the hand. For this reason, make a conscious effort to relate to your neighbours. Be interested in what goes on in the community and give of your time and legal knowledge when necessary. Lawyers of the finer mold keep their private lives, as well as bear part in public services.
I recall an instance where I had sued a popular church that had developed an interest in coming to mount giant speakers close to my neighbourhood and disturb us in the name of worshipping their maker. As soon as they were served with the writ, they instructed a lawyer to come and plead with me to settle the suit amicably and promised they will not repeat their actions. When the lawyer came, he confided in me that he admired the steps I had taken to stop the nuisance in the neighbourhood. He lamented how in his own neighbourhood, a certain church operated by some unknown characters was causing so much nuisance with their weekly all-night prayer sessions. He said, “Senior, I wish I could do what you have done”. Then I asked him, “What is preventing you from stopping them”? He was quiet. He had no answer.
It is advisable for us to be a bit measured in our ostentation in our community. Lawyers’ lifestyle has long been a ready source of parody. It has been written elsewhere that although lawyers are not, as a class, profligates, moral rectitude is not one of their strong points. Whether we hold these truths to be self-evident or not, people will always have these perceptions about us. But one thing is for sure. Your neighbours know you and know that you are a lawyer so do not presume otherwise.
Strategy 11: Charge appropriately for your services and make sure your fees are paid. One major source of unhappiness for many lawyers is their inability to charge fees commensurate with their work. Because we sell services, many people do not see how we lose if they fail to pay us our fees. It is, therefore, important that we set systems in place to ensure that every piece of work we do is adequately compensated. Do not be afraid to turn down a client who is not prepared to pay for your services. And do not be afraid to sue for your fees after you have performed services for clients. Whether you collect your fees or not, the client will not come back again anyway. And even if they do, you may also not be interested in working for them. So, collect your fees by all means necessary. Dennis Adjei-Dwomoh, Esq. once got me into a fit of giggles when he revealed to me that, the first time he met me in court about ten years ago, I was pursuing a client who was trying to abscond with my legal fees.
Strategy 12: This above all: to thine own self be true. Stay true to yourself. Never think that everybody is going to be a fan. Stop trying to please others and start living the life you want. For sure, daggers will be thrown your way from all sorts of quarters, low and mighty. Stay focused and enjoy your life. You will encounter all manner of great people who will enrich your journey. Keep them close and savour their good counsel. You may also encounter corrupt characters who bolster up their timid egos and colourless personalities by a nauseating show of conceit. You will encounter those whose chief aim and purpose in the profession is to lick boots to officialdom and case briefs. Do not despair. Be courageous. As Polonius once advised his son, Laertes, in HAMLET, “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in, bear’t that th’ opposèd may beware of thee.”
Life, the sages say, is how you make it. Most of us believe that, one’s success or happiness depends on how much money one makes. But money may be in abundance in most situations and happiness may be a scarce commodity. This is because money may play a part in our happiness but it cannot free us from all ills. As you can see from the strategies shared, making or having money is not what will make us happy lawyers. It is the little things we ignore that count much towards our happiness. In the coming days, I may share some strategies with colleagues who may want to transition onto the Bench.
Afehyia Pa. Here’s to a wonderful new you in the New Year, 2022.