The Wig & Skirt, By Funke Aboyade, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The 2012 Regional Conference of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association ended two days ago in Sydney. It was a great learning experience and afforded me and other lawyers from the Commonwealth the opportunity to keep abreast of new trends in legal practice.
It also afforded us the opportunity to see up close and personal how self serving Western nations really are or - if you’d like to put it less charitably - how hypocritical they can be.
Many a time they take the moral high ground and preach (sometimes, talk down) the gospel of democratic tenets, basic freedoms and human rights to countries where democracy is either not practiced or is not practiced in accordance with their own style. All well and good except, when their interests, national or otherwise, are threatened they don’t hesitate before putting such rights in abeyance or chipping away at them. 9.11, the United States and its detention facility at Guantanamo Bay is a perfect example.
Brings the mind to what the Bible says about the heart of man being desperately wicked; I think applying that to governments worldwide a government, any government, is inherently despotic or dictatorial. It is just a matter of how many miles they can and will take if they are given an inch by their citizens. Some have the façade of, and do indeed practice to be fair to them, democracy but the truth is: step on any sensitive toes and the fangs come out. That said, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing for a government to put their national self interest first, it’s the pretence to cover it up I find unnecessary.
Lawyers gathered in Sydney were stunned when they received the news that Ms Jennifer Robinson, one of the lawyers of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, had been ‘detained’ at Heathrow Airport and almost prevented from flying from London to Sydney where she was billed to present a paper at one of the conference sessions, ‘Lawyers on the Frontline’. She was told she was on some kind of watch list. The surprise lay in the fact that Ms Robinson who’s based in the UK is an Australian citizen. And so is Assange. Airline officials at the check-in counter indicated to her that they would require clearance from Australia House before they could issue a boarding pass to her.
Of course the attempt to prevent her from travelling raises many new and troubling questions - and the realisation that being a lawyer in this age of new and threatened forms of terrorism is no walk in the park.
Which all goes to show really that all democracies established and emerging alike are, in the words of CLA President, Mrs. Zoma Ozobia, ‘a work in progress’. And that vigilance remains the eternal price of liberty.
With the Joseph Kony issue coming up it was quite fortuitous that the Chief Justice of Uganda, Benjamin Odoki, was at the conference. I had a brief interview with him and the details are in the body of our cover story.
The opening ceremony celebrated Aboriginal culture and practices; indeed there’s now a tradition in Australia of recognising at public functions, the indigenous culture which consists of some 600 Aboriginal nations.
Each speaker (including Governor Fashola) at the opening ceremony prefaced their presentation with an acknowledgement of and paying of respects to ‘the traditional owners of the land’.
I found this most poignant given Australia’s troubled history in relation the original owners of the land. Happily, the country is set to amend her Constitution in an historic move which will see the full rights of the Aborigines restored and full recognition and respect, long denied them in the Constitution, accorded them.
One of the sessions which particularly interested me, ‘Commercialisation of Legal Practice’, proved a treasure trove of information on current trends in the legal profession. For instance, anyone heard of the Twitter law firm? I hadn’t either. But there you have it, they exist and so service a market. They dispense legal advice in, wait for this, no more than 140 characters! In the words of one of the speakers, a regulator, ‘scary but true!’
What about cloud computing? Already prevalent in the developed world and used as a main source of storing information. Quite by coincidence, only the day before my daughter (who very firmly believes I am a relic of the past) was telling me about icloud and urging me to ‘move with the times’. So well, what can I say? At least I wasn’t drawing a blank when the issue came up at the conference!
Or various ‘Just ask’ websites where for a token sum you can obtain legal information. If it translates into legal advice gone bad, can you sue the provider of the information? Questions, questions.
Or CallupLaw which has set up a couple of hundred law firms in the last few months?
Of course, there’s the so-called Tesco Law in the UK (which I have written about a few times in this column and in this section generally) and their variant in Australia where you can purchase say a box of corn flakes in the supermarket along with legal advice?
Legal outsourcing, another trend we have discussed a few times in THISDAY LAWYER. It comes with its own challenges. Ethical issues, conflict of interest issues, liability, et cetera.
What form of billing should law firms adopt? The billable hour, value billing, event billing, fixed rates, et cetera? At the end of the day it’s a commercial call but does that amount to commercialising the law? Questions, questions.
Alternative Business Structures and Multi Disciplinary Practices, again we have discussed the latter a few times in previous editions. Australia was one of the first countries to embrace MDPs, as far back as 1999. The UK has done so in relatively recent times and the United States does not appear to have it on her front burner. MDPs proved a regulatory challenge in Australia and the challenge was addressed by allowing such entities to be incorporated so that they could be regulated. Any incorporated legal practice was then mandated by law to have at least one Solicitor Director within the meaning of the Act governing the legal profession. The entity was required to put in place a system that ensured that they rendered legal services within the meaning of the act, failing which they could forfeit their law practice certificate.
Then of course, law firms in some advanced jurisdictions are permitted to list on the Stock Exchange. Instructively, Slater & Gordon, an Australian law firm was one of the first law firms in the world to go public. This was in 2007. The Australians have a very strict ethical infrastructure, and with the firm preparing to buy a UK law firm, the expectation by Australian regulators is that it will be taking with it all those ethics including those not strictly required of them under English law. Listening to the Australian experience was quite enlightening.
Have we got to the point where commercialisation, or as one speaker put it, ‘commoditisation’, of legal practice is making us lose the essence of being lawyers?
These trends are not necessarily a bad thing and they call for healthy debate but as one speaker put it, ‘the legal profession should be selling its values, not cost’. Lawyers, he said, must never become complacent about their professional ethics.
To be in the reckoning in providing trans-border legal services we would do well in the Nigerian legal profession to keep an eye on some of these trends and amend laws and regulations governing the profession to help us be competitive and modern in the 21st Century. Tradition is good, but clinging to it for no other reason than ‘we’ve always done it this way’ just won’t hack it in the global services market. I do not by any means suggest slavishly copying those trends but I think a good objective look and seeing which ones, perhaps with modifications, could work for us might not be such a bad idea.
There’s no point attending all these conferences if as soon as we leave we put everything learnt away and promptly forget about it until the conference comes along. Or if we dismiss them by assuming they won’t work for us.
Over to the Nigerian Bar Association…
The Ambassador’s Ambassador
I cannot end without saying a few words about Nigeria’s High Commissioner to Australia, Ambassador Ayo Olukanni. Suave, personable, unassuming, approachable and quite the intellectual (he’s also a poet and a writer) he flew down from Canberra to be with Nigerian delegates and attend the conference (he’s not a lawyer but holds two post-graduate degrees in the field of International Law and Diplomacy). In spite of the fact that he’s not based in Sydney he was able to host Nigerian participants and attend to their welfare throughout his stay.
One had imagined that right after Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola, SAN departed Sydney that would have been the end of it, but no, he stayed on and attended many of the sessions, mixing very freely and interacting with his country’s citizens.
Ambassador Olukanni is a career diplomat and I must say, judging by his conduct there’s a lot to be said for a higher ratio for career as opposed to political appointments when appointing our representatives to foreign governments.
I had the privilege of having a few discussions with him and his passion for Nigeria was unmistakable.
He made us all proud as Nigerians abroad.
What a breath of fresh air!