The greater our knowledge increases the more our ignorance unfolds. – John F. Kennedy
I smile most of the times when I move round the Lagos metropolis and see stickers with the words ‘Wetin Lawyers Dey Do Sef’ inscribed on them. The words also never fail to bring back the memories of Efere Ozako (1967—2013) who was famous for his Wetin Lawyers Dey Do Sef? TV show which was then aimed at bringing law and Lawyers nearer to the grassroots. The Bar and the entertainment industry certainly miss him.
If you go out to ask some people randomly, especially some of those who have never had to use the services of a Lawyer, what a Lawyer does, it would not be surprising to get some negative feedbacks. One of my former colleagues in the office used to deliberately call me ‘liar’. He would say confidently to my face ‘that is what Lawyers do. You all lie. All Lawyers are liars’. I knew he was a lost case so I always smile and move on. Some people also feel that Lawyers like Insurers, do not actually do anything or they do not do enough to justify their pay. Some think all a Lawyer does is to just write grammar or speak grammar and no more. This piece is not to make a Lawyer appear worthy to the public but to put the responsibilities of a Lawyer in perspective.
The work of a Lawyer and the enormity or otherwise of his responsibility in respect of any brief or instruction depends on the nature of the brief and a couple of other factors. I have categorized the responsibilities of a Lawyer figuratively, which are not exhaustive, as follows:
THE DOCTOR (THE DIAGNOSIS)
I told the doctor I broke my leg in two places. He told me to quit going to those places. – Henny Youngman
When a lawyer is approached for his services, even for a service as simple as a letter of demand or a Notice to quit; the first thing a lawyer does is to examine the facts and the situation as to whether the letter should be written at all or whether it was the proper time to write. In some cases, the clients have an idea of what they want done. They just tell the Lawyer they want someone sued (they want to teach the other person a lesson). Sometimes they just want a letter written immediately. Sometimes they say ‘give the tenant a month’s notice to quit’. The Lawyer will look into the facts as presented by the client and the applicable law and the best line of action to take. In some cases, a phone call may just solve a client’s problem. In some situations, the actions which the client expects to be instituted are actually dead on arrival and these may be due to some reasons, mostly because the client slept on his rights. And these are the things a Lawyer needs to look out for in his diagnosis of a matter before taking any step. A Lawyer has to decide in which court an action has to be instituted. In some cases a matter can be instituted in two different types of courts and a Lawyer will have to decide which will be the most effective for his client. Sometimes, some actions are not ripe for filing. Examples are matters where arbitration has to take place before a court action; or where the law stipulates that a pre-action notice be given. It is the job of the Lawyer to look out for all these things in his diagnosis. Most lawyers in Nigeria don’t get paid for these diagnoses by individual clients. For corporate clients it is different; Lawyers ensure that retainer agreements are in place so that they get paid for briefs that terminate at diagnosis stage. Some corporate clients actually ask for opinions on certain matters. The opinions given by Lawyers, are by their nature some sort of diagnosis.
False gods killed the poet in me. Now I dig graves With artistic precision – Keora Kgositsiley
When a lawyer decides that a letter has to be written or an action has to be instituted or a document has to be made, the next thing is for him to deploy his knowledge of the law and in so doing also employ his artistic skills. Lawyers are artists. Some letters of demand require strong words. Some require subtle words but the right message would be passed nevertheless. Some letters have to be persuasive and need not be offensive. Some need just spread out the facts. Some are just written to elicit reaction from the other party. When a lawyer is drafting an agreement that is not common place, notwithstanding, the availability of precedent books, the artistic skills of the Lawyer are deployed to meet the need of the client.
THE TIME KEEPER
The time is always right to do what is right. –Martin Luther King Jr.
In some cases, once a lawyer has set the ball rolling in a matter, he becomes a time keeper. When a letter of demand is sent, it is not unusual for lawyers to give a time frame within which a demand is to be met. Sometimes when a client brings his matter to a Lawyer’s door step and after doing his analysis, the Lawyer knows whether the action is going to be statute barred in three days or will become in-actionable in a couple of days and swoops into action. And sometimes it is the rules of court that stipulates the time within which to file a process or take certain steps that come into play. Therefore, either as a matter of law or practice, a Lawyer is most often a time keeper.
Information is a negotiator’s greatest weapon. –Victor Kiam
Not all matters end up as ‘face me, I slap you’. Sometimes, the occasion calls for exploring alternative dispute resolution. Lawyers are generally good negotiators. They know the strength and weaknesses of their case and in most cases that of the opponent and they deploy this knowledge on the negotiating table. When the need arises, a Lawyer deploys his best tactics to get the best deals for his client when negotiating a settlement.
I have never met a vampire personally, but I don’t know what might happen tomorrow. –Bela Lugosi
Some clients come to a Lawyer with their matter and they want to know even before the Lawyer takes any step, their chances of success. In essence what they want is for the Lawyer to see into the future and see into the mind of the Judge and tell the client the chances of the success of his case. Lawyers generally, tend to analyze the situation and allay the fears of the client. Most experienced Lawyers try not to give iron clad assurances to client even when they are optimistic on the success of the matter.
If people like you, they’ll listen to you, but if they trust you, they’ll do business with you. –Zig Ziglar
A Lawyer is a businessman like any other professional trying to earn a living. There are difficult clients who do not want to pay for services rendered. A Lawyer must know how to collect his fees. Smart lawyers, regardless of how close a client is to the firm and no matter how informal a Lawyer was briefed or instructed, as soon as there is an instruction or a brief, the next thing is a letter to the client stating the instruction in clear terms and how is it understood by the Lawyer and further stating professional fee for the brief which most times, are negotiable. Some law firms charge a nominal consultancy fee before a client or a prospective client sees a Lawyer so that clients do not come and waste the Lawyer’s time; especially, when the Lawyer does not have a retainer agreement with the client. And sometimes, it is just a measure to ensure Lawyers get remunerated for their efforts even if it is just a ‘diagnosis’ of a matter as stated above. There are difficult situations that lawyers face daily in the course of their business. A Lawyer is a manager of resources and he will continuously endeavor to be in business.
He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious. – Sun Tzu
Sometimes when clients have instructed a Lawyer to institute an action, they expect the Lawyer to join in the hostilities between parties. They do not know that for a Lawyer, it is just another case. In some other cases, when a Lawyer is not shouting in court or raising an objection on every move of the other counsel, they may say ‘he is not an action Lawyer’. But where we have a Lawyer that knows how to make the court smile, has enough swagger and theatrics; some clients enjoy retaining such Lawyers. Some Lawyers just know how to fight their battles without getting caught up in the conflicting interests of the client and the opposition. They know what to say, when to say it and they continue to retain the confidence of their clients and in some cases, enjoy the discretions of the court in their favour.
THE PRINCE OF PEACE
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God – KJV Bible, Matthew 5:9
When the battle line is drawn, sometimes it becomes the responsibility of a Lawyer to make peace between parties. This usually happens where the Lawyer knows both parties. This may also happen where the opposing party is member of a family that is a client and it becomes necessary to advocate for peace. However, it is not restricted to where the Lawyer knows both parties. Sometimes, it just happens that the Lawyer could see the possibility of settling a matter without resort to the court. Such move by the Lawyer might just bring about the needed solution and parties would sheath their swords.
THE JACK OF ALL TRADES
The law cuts across disciplines. The law regulates almost every aspect of human endeavor. But the law is one thing and facts are another. There are several fields of endeavors that exist outside of the law as a discipline such that a Lawyer must know enough to be able to serve his client properly when the need arises. I was in court sometime in 2014 where a silk sought an adjournment to cross-examine an expert on DNA. I was fortunate to be in court at the next adjournment and the silk actually told the court that he had done extensive research on DNA that he felt like an expert himself. He left the court that day satisfied with the cross examination and the expert was sweating by the time they were done.
I have had to go to court as an in-house-counsel in a matter for my employer in a case that has to do with investment and the capital market and the counsel for the other party was not very vast in capital market matters. He was just asking the wrong questions because he did not have a firm grasp of how the capital market or the Stock Exchange works. My witness succeeded in schooling him. The Lawyer has to be well read, inquisitive and continuously replenish his general knowledge.
THE MASTER OF LAW
Child I cling no longer to the Zaire, I am no more master of my tears, master of this patchwork of time – Tchicaya U Tam’si
In addition to the fact that a Lawyer must be all of the above, a Lawyer must finally be true to his calling as an expert in law. A Lawyer must know the law. He must be abreast of developments in law, rules of court and all that has to do with knowledge of the law to be able to meet the needs of the court and that of the client. I was in court once where a Lawyer cited and relied on a repealed law to enforce a right and the opposing Counsel countered on that ground. The Lawyer was surprised to learn that the law had been repealed but quickly recovered by citing a Supreme Court decision that decided that it is irrelevant that a non-exiting law is relied upon as long as the right sought to be enforced exists in law.
The above are not by any means exhaustive as regards what Lawyers do. Even me, wetin I dey do now sef? I dey write tori. Lawyers write too.