20 Lessons From 5 Years of Legal Practice

20 Lessons From 5 Years of Legal Practice

The lawyering journey starts on the day one is called to the Bar. The day of the Call is therefore an important day in the life of almost every lawyer. The date 2nd October 2015 was the day a certain, otherwise shy, author was called to the Bar after a long journey which commenced in October 2013.

The 2nd day of October 2020, therefore, marked the 5th Anniversary of the author and his classmates. It is said, that like wine, the older you get at the Bar, the more experienced (presumably) you become and, therefore, the better. Having acquired five solid years of legal practice, the author, considering himself fortunate to have trained and read under very good seniors, if not the best, thought it wise to on his 5th Anniversary, share a few lessons learnt in these five years of law practice.

Coincidentally, this piece comes at a time when the new crop of lawyers have been called to the Bar and they may find some of these lessons useful. Congratulations to them are in order.

(1) Never stop learning.

The very first lesson is never stop learning. The legal profession is a learning profession. Your survival and success in the profession depends on your ability to learn – continuously. The law is as vast as the ocean. One never finishes learning. The more your read, the more knowledge you acquire, the more ‘ignorant’ you become. As A.B.K Amidu once said, “the fraternity of law is not a sleeping fraternity”[1]. Being called to the bar is when the actual learning MUST begin.

The law is constantly evolving. You are constantly in ‘legal battle’ with seniors or ‘better’ lawyers than you are. You do not know the legal arsenal your opposing counsel is bringing to court on a particular matter. Sometimes, you are not even sure of the lawyer on the other side and how good or experienced he or she is. You are bound to appear before judges who are very thorough, both in substance and procedure, and you cannot afford to take things for granted. As a matter of fact, there are certain lawyers who make sleeping very difficult when they are the counsel on the opposing side. And remember: judges hate unprepared lawyers, and would not mind exposing or, openly embarrassed in the presence of your clients. So, never stop learning!

(2) Always respect your colleagues at the Bar and their Lordships at the Bench.

As Lawyers we refer to ourselves as learned friends. We are friends because we may have sat in the same classroom, we were taught the same law, trained in the same ethics, etc. Respect, therefore, is key. No matter how superior you see yourself, no matter how senior or junior you are, respect is non-negotiable. The judges before whom we appear deserve our respect.

In these few years, I have realized that there is the temptation to be disrespectful to judges when they take positions that are averse to our client’s interest. The temptation is even more when we start appearing before judges who are either our mates or our juniors at the Bar. We must be guided that it is about the position their Lordships occupy and not their personality. Show respect in your language (oral and written advocacy) and your conduct. Show courtesy to all manner of players in the profession, and I dare say even the chambers clerks, court clerks and bailiffs.

His Lordship Justice S. A. Brobbey[2] in his valuable book[3] advises as follows “It pays to show courtesy and respect to the bench, opposing counsel, litigants or witnesses. That will, if nothing else makes you a gentleman advocate”. The learned author continues thus “Receive criticism in good faith. Take hints from the bench and Bar, and quickly use them to advantage”.

(3) You can always make your legal point forcefully without insulting or being disrespectful.

The law is not supposed to be too emotional. It is about the law and how it supports the case of our respective clients. In making submissions before the Court, one can be tempted to get swayed and attack either the judge or opposing counsel. This must be guarded against. By all means, argue your client’s case, disagree with opposing counsel, disagree with even the judge. However, in doing so, we must be courteous. Make your point with all the force that you can muster but show utmost respect to both the bench and counsel on the other side.

Counsel have been advised by the Supreme Court on the use of (in)temperate language in the profession when dealing with colleagues and the Bench. In Assemblies of God Church v Rev. Ransford Obeng & Others,[4] their Lordships speaking through Jones Dotse JSC admonished counsel to among others, Avoid abusive and insulting language…[as] Counsel can still make their points and arguments very strongly without the use of language that is sometimes associated with persons in some other vocations. Not so however in a Court of law. In Nana Yeboah-Kordie Asare II & Ano v Addai & 7 Ors[5] the Supreme Court speaking through Benin JSC noted that “The language employed […] by the Solicitors of the applicants is not in good taste, to say the least… Judges are not infallible though, yet they deserve some respect from legal practitioners even when they are believed to have erred in the law.” His Lordship continued: “The use of bad and intemperate language brings the court into disrepute and ridicule and that, in itself, could be the subject of contempt against the legal practitioner who employs such language, albeit under the guise of submitting a statement of case to the court”. Lesson: Let’s be guided in the manner in which we put our cases across.

(4) Know the judge before whom you appear.

A good lawyer knows the law or where to find the law. But a great lawyer knows the judge. Not my words though. Knowing the law is good, but knowing the judge, his ideals, personal principles regarding the practice of the law, whether he or she is procedure oriented or substantive oriented etc., is key. You know the judge by appearing before them, observing them, reading their decisions among others to understand their judicial orientation, paying attention to their mannerism, etc. When you know your judge, it guides you in the manner you must conduct yourself or the case.

(5) Respect your clients, even the ‘Pro Bono’ ones.

Clients are the people who give us work and the source of our livelihood. Whether you find yourself in Corporate, Transactional or Litigation practice, you have no practice without clients. It cannot be overemphasized that one must start building his or her clientele base and this must be consciously done.  The clients we get, if they are treated well will or may retain us as counsel. No matter how much a client annoys you, (and some can be) never disrespect them.

Pro Bono clients are also entitled to our respect. The fact that they are not paying legal fees does not warrant disrespect from us. We may be rendering legal services to them for free but they are clients and the duty of professionalism is not lessened because they are not paying fees. We disrespect our clients at our own risk. We must watch and avoid this temptation. It will be detrimental to our practice.

(6) Pay attention to detail.

The devil is in the detail they say. Paying attention to detail implies that you do not take things for granted. The minutest mistake you make at the Bar may cost you a fortune. In drafting or reviewing agreements, drafting court room processes (Writ of Summons, Statement of Claim, Entry of Appearance, Statement of Defence, Motions and Affidavits, Legal submissions, etc.), letters and other correspondences, attention must be paid to every aspect of the work. Otherwise, one’s work may be fraught with avoidable errors that could be unpardonable and would have huge cost implications on the client whether in terms of money or time.

(7) The opposing counsel is not an enemy.

This is one important yet funny aspect of the legal practice, especially when you find yourself in litigation practice. Some of the very good friends the author has made at the Bar are opposing Counsel in previous cases. Clients have the tendency of making opposing Counsel enemies, merely because the clients may be in a legal battle. By our training, we are made to understand that we are not enemies. Our clients may be enemies, although that ought not to be the case. We are only arguing from different facts and different positions of the law.

I handled my first divorce case in my second year of practice. I had a healthy relationship with counsel on the other side. We would attend court and engage ourselves in regular conversation at the Bar before our case was called. On one occasion, the author attended court with an intern, who was a classmate of the Petitioner. As the intern was chatting with his classmate, and the author was engaged with counsel, our client, the Respondent, was not happy. The author came back to chambers only to be ‘hauled’ by my Senior, into his office to explain what happened in court at the last hearing. Unknown to the author, the client had made a complain to my Senior that we were in court talking and laughing with her husband and his lawyer, a situation she thought was averse to her interest. After explaining to my Senior what had transpired, he laughed and said, must we be enemies at the Bar because we represent opposing parties? I think not.

(8) Counsel must always assist the court by pointing the Bench to the authorities.

Lawyers are officers of the court. We have a four-fold duty to our Clients, to the Court, to the Public and to the Bar (Colleagues). Counsel must, therefore, be ready to assist the court when the opportunity presents itself. In so doing, counsel must research on the authorities and lead their Lordships to such authorities. It is only when some of these things are done, that the law will grow and develop. I recall being involved in a matter in which a preliminary objection was raised. My Senior made us conduct the needed research and when we came across a judicial decision that supported the case of our opponent. We made three photocopies of the judicial decision, placed one on our file, enveloped one and addressed it to the Counsel on the other side and the other enveloped and addressed to the judge. When the judge delivered the ruling which was against our side on that point, she said she wondered whether we were for the Petitioner or Respondent. On the day of the ruling, the Judge and Counsel on the other side were both full of praises for the conduct of counsel in assisting the court with copies of authorities even though the authorities were averse to our case. Much as the ruling was against us, I think this gesture was and is still commendable.

(9) Bad cases can make you a better lawyer.

This is an adage the author once heard a senior lawyer say. I did not understand it initially. Most friends disagree when this is said. The point is that, the author has learnt not to be dismissive of cases that seem bad at the first instance or read. A client may present the facts of a case to you, prima facie, you might think the client has no case, but when you take your time, consider all the facts and research into the law, you might have your Eureka moment. When the case is seemingly bad, you are compelled to read and do more research and your Eureka moment will come and you realize that the case was not as bad as it seemed. At worst, if the case is bad and counsel on the other side is good, you would have learnt a lot and become a better person.

(10) The law is jealous. Be loyal to the law.

It is said that “the law is a jealous mistress and requires long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors, but by lavish homage”[6]. The law is said to be a jealous profession. It requires one’s full attention and does not admit of any infidelity toward it. In our studies of both substantive and procedural law, we are told that the law is jealous so it is advisable not to combine the studies and practice of law with anything that takes too much of your attention off the law. There are a lot of competing things that engage our minds; I have learnt that one must be loyal to the law and the modes of justice delivery.

(11) The person you train under has an influence on the kind of practice you will have.

The Power of Association is also applicable in legal practice. It is said that show me your friend and I will show you your character. I dare say that, show me your senior and I will have a fair idea of the kind of practice you will have. I have learnt that all things being equal, the senior under whom you read the practice of the law, has an influence on the practice you may have as a lawyer. If you train under a senior who engages in sharp practices, there is the likelihood that you will turn out to be a sharp practitioner. If you train under a hardworking and principled senior, there is a high likelihood that you will have such a practice.

(12) Honesty at the Bar is a sine qua non to success.

Those who do not understand our profession accuse us of being liars. It is purely because they do not have an understanding of the nature and practice of the law. Some, actually out of ignorance, think telling lies is part of our training as lawyers. For such persons, they deserve our forgiveness.

Honesty is one of the virtues a good lawyer must have. Counsel must be honest in all things and at all times. In our training in Legal Ethics and Advocacy, we are taught that honesty is one of the essential qualities of a good lawyer. Honesty is being truthful and living by your word. Over the years, I have heard a few comments from the Bench to the effect that the time treasured quality of honesty is missing at the Bar.

A judge before whom I appeared refused to take a word from me that I had conferred with counsel on the other side that he is not opposed to an application I was moving. Her reason was quite justified; she had heard a similar thing from counsel and granted an application, only to be confronted later by the counsel on the other side that he was vehemently opposed to the application and had not spoken to anyone about not being opposed. Colleagues at the Bar must be able to take us for our words and judges must not doubt our veracity when we speak from the Bar as officers of the Court. Without honesty, our practice cannot be sustained because one will be exposed in the future.

(13) Never take your appearances before the Bench for granted.

Appearance they say is deceptive but it speaks a lot about us. It is said that how you dress will determine how you are addressed. One does not need to appear flashy or flamboyant, but you must also not appear shabby in appearance. As much as possible, we must be moderate when we are appearing before the court and even outside the court. The learned retired Supreme Court Judge, Stephen A. Brobbey JSC in his book “Practice and Procedure in the Trial Courts and Tribunals of Ghana”, 2nd edition, writing under the topic “Being an advocate” said at page 598 thus “Dress appropriately. Let there be some art in your mode of dress. For instance, a black jacket, over a yellow shirt with a red tie, and a green pair of trousers will be a bad impression of you qua lawyer”.

The legal profession is a conservative profession. These days we like to wear striped colored tunic shirts and appear before their Lordships. A senior once asked me, when I was called to the Bar whether my attire was a blue striped shirt? To which I answered in the negative. Ideally, always appear in the traditional white shirt as a gentleman and in dark-coloured suits and similar colours for our female colleagues.

(14) Invest in your library. Without a good library, your practice will suffer.

As a lawyer, one of the most important assets is our library. Building your library is something I think one must start very early, possibly at the Faculty level. There is the need to buy and keep buying law books that will be very relevant to your practice in the future. That way, you need not rely on others or the public law libraries for anything. Materials like the Ghana Law Reports, Supreme Court of Ghana Law Reports, the Ghana Monthly Journal, Dennislaw, online portals like the Ghana Law Hub etc. must not be missing from your library. From the author’s experience, there are several instances where he has had to write an opinion or legal advice for a client on a weekend and there was no way I could have accessed the office library. The author had to fall on his own small library for authorities to write the opinion because I had almost every book I needed to rely on for that advice. I learnt many years ago that, when you empty your pocket to build your library, your library will put money back in your pocket.

(15) Do not neglect spirituality. Serve your God well.

The law is a profession. Most of us came to the law with our own religious biases and inclinations. For those of the Christian faith, it is believed that man is a soul that has a spirit but lives in a body. Theologians argue that the spirit is what enables us to commune with God. Being spiritual, therefore, implies that the lawyer knows that there is a supreme being who is the master architect of the universe. There is, therefore, the need to serve God seriously if one is religious and spirit minded. Pray to God and commit the practice into his hands.

(16) Do not only focus on procedure, substantive law is key.

When the author was done with his pupilage, one advice a senior gave him was that, never focus so much on procedure to the neglect of substantive law. The substantive law is what generates the cause of action. Procedure will only deal with how to go about asserting your rights. There is the tendency to neglect the substantive law and focus too much on procedure, such that, if there are no procedural irregularities one is found wanting. Both substantive and procedural law must engage the equal attention of the lawyer in order to assist the court and give the best representation to the clients.

(17) Value your time and let clients value your work and pay for it. (Law School is not a training ground for NGOs).

There is a write up I recently saw to the effect that ‘if a client comes to you with an instruction, you charge and the clients says he knows a lawyer who is willing to take lesser than your fees, just tell the client you also have clients who are willing to pay more for the services”.

We all have twenty-four (24) hours in a day. Lawyers are not given extra hours in a day, although I argue sometimes that we need more hours in a day. Every time a lawyer spends on a client’s brief must count for something. Therein lies the importance of billing. As lawyers, we provide intangible services; so there is a difficulty in showing clients what, in terms of work, has been done. There are instances when lawyers have been engaged to attend meetings for several hours or attend to a client at the police station to secure a bail. After doing the work, when you ask of your fees, you are asked, but what did you come and do? All of a sudden the client forgets that the lawyer trades his time and legal expertise for fees.

As young practitioners, there is the tendency that clients may give instructions and may not be eager to pay the requisite fees. One senior once told me that, about eighty percent (80%) of clients would not want to pay their lawyers. There is always the need to strike a balance between doing a good work and being properly remunerated for the legal service we render.

(18) The Clients for whom you do Pro bono may either bring you juicy briefs or will be the same people who will say you are a poor lawyer.

Pro Bono Clients are the clients for whom we do work for without taking legal fees. It could be because they are not in a financial position to pay or because of the relationship with the lawyer, one cannot talk of fees. While in Law School, we were told that sometimes the clients who do not pay your fees (Pro Bono Clients) are those who will stress or worry you the most. The author did not appreciate this until he got one of such pro bono clients who will sometimes call the author on phone as early as 5:30am and when the call is not answered and the author calls back, the client will ask the author; why is it that when she called at 5:30am the author did not answer? The most interesting aspect was that this client was sometimes calling the author on ‘MTNPay4me’[7]. Some too will call around 11:30pm when you are retiring to bed only to inform you that the party on the other side is insulting them.

The author has learnt that the Pro Bono Clients are those that are likely to bring you some of the juiciest briefs. If you give them good legal representation and advice, they become a source of referral for you and that is positive. If you are not fortunate, you will fall into the hands of Pro Bono clients who will even be expecting to rather take away from you and in the end regard you as a poor lawyer.

(19) Do not neglect your family despite the demands of the Profession.

The family, is said by sociologists to be the basic unit of the society. Lawyers come from and belong to families. The family provided support in some instances to our education and upbringing. After being called to the bar as a lawyer, the family in such cases may have legitimate expectations to receive some degree of support from you. It is not good to neglect them to their fate as if they never existed. In this regard, particular attention must be given to our parents who struggled and sacrificed in bringing us to the level we find ourselves as lawyers. Our spouses and other family members must all be given some attention and assistance as one is enabled. The author thinks that it is a sin for a lawyer to deliberately neglect demands or family obligations, when we have the ability to assist.

It is also factual that these days, some lawyers are called to the Bar in their advanced ages, at which time they may have started their own families. These families, usually the nuclear family, may have sacrificed a lot for one to get to where one finds himself/herself. It is important that although the practice of law demands time and attention, some quality time is spent with the family when the opportunity comes.

(20) Let no one disrespect your age at the Bar. Look at the Bigger Picture.

Last but certainly not the least, it is better to have a long-term view of one’s legal practice. Know exactly how you see yourself in say ten years. Keep focusing on that. Put measures in place that will let you achieve that dream. Never think you know enough. Learn from all avenues and from the least opportunity you get.  Never let anyone look down on you because you are a junior or young at the Bar. The legal profession is one that really respect seniority, to the extent that in some courts, cases are called in order of seniority. There is the tendency for senior lawyers to look down on juniors. But the author has learnt that, seniority at the Bar in and on itself does not translate to superiority of knowledge. The author has seen many instances where junior lawyers have flawed senior lawyers who appeared unprepared for the brief. Once you learn and take your practice seriously, you should be fine and no one can disrespect you because of your age at the Bar.

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash

[1] Cited with approval in Republic v High Court (Commercial Division) Tamale Ex Parte Dakpem-Zogboguna (Substituted by Alhaji Alhassan I. Dakpema) – Applicant, Dakpema Naa Alhassan Mohammed Dawuni, Civil Motion No. J5/6/2015 judgment dated 4th June 2015.

[2] A Former Justice of the Supreme Court of Ghana

[3] Practice and Procedure in the Trial Courts & Tribunal of Ghana second edition at page 600

[4] Civil Appeal No. J4/7/2009 judgment on 3rd February, 2010

[5] [2016] 93 GMJ 1 SC

[6] Justice Joseph Story

[7] MTNPay4Me is a service whereby a person can call your number but the bills for the calls are paid by the recipient rather than the caller.

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