Of lawyering, legal education and the charcoal woman’s son

Of lawyering, legal education and the charcoal woman’s son
Source: Yaw Sompa, AfricaLearn | yaw.sompa@gmail.com
Date: 09-10-2019 Time: 12:10:17:am

“The son of a charcoal seller shall one day wear white shirt.” This was a quote I always shared with humor but also with meaning. My mother sold charcoal. I am the son of a charcoal seller and yet today, I wear a wig and the big black gown, underneath such traditional splendor, is my proverbial white shirt.

Law is not my first profession but I take inspiration from the quote that, “Law is not a noble profession, but the noble profession.” Please pay attention to the emphasis on the articles in the quote. The quote harnesses the strength of seemingly common things as articles appear to make a rather bold and profound claim. This article has two objects, the principal object will be to submit a proposition for the ongoing legal education debate, opinions inferred from seemingly common facts. The article will also introduce my new book as an objective. (Yaa Yaa Kwarko, the Charcoal woman, maybe someone you meet often too, just out of pure chance…Lol).

Let us start with the easier objective, a new book: I wrote ‘Fate of System Thinking’ while at the Law School, a book that is the first and only book that reviews the banking crisis in Ghana from a business point of view. A book that teaches how to build strong resilient indigenous companies in Ghana, learning from the failure of the entire system. The central theme was, ‘Building to Last’ and how indigenous businesses can do that. As though one book for a law student who I have heard must have no life was not enough, I was profiling and learning from the playwright. Yes, ‘doing concert’ whiles they learnt the law or so it seemed. This book is about leadership, leadership lessons from James Ebo Whyte. Two books while successfully completing law school should make you question the narrative that, law students of today are not serious. Please listen to those stories of the deserving lawyers who got into law school without any such requirements for entrance examinations as nice narratives in hindsight, good stories, but not exactly fitting this current situation.

My new book is premised on the fact that, the word ‘entrepreneur’ is said to have originated to mean, "manager or promoter of a theatrical production". The masterful works of Uncle Whyte were an inspiration to find, how the foremost entrepreneurs lead and how a nation can learn from that leadership. I have learnt things I did not expect to find, things I have documented in my new book, ‘Be the Difference; A Leadership Roadmap for the New African.’ Lessons that are relevant as we have a national discussion on legal education.

I share my thoughts, respectfully, in the light of this new book, my call as a lawyer and the national conversation. Yaa Yaa, my mother, always told me, ‘Yaw, if someone hits your head, he or she is strengthening your neck’. A saying, I will always retort, a strong neck yet with headache, and in any case who needs a strong neck? (or so I thought). Roverman Productions produces a masterpiece every quarter and has done that for the last eleven years. Entrance into the group is however rather strange, auditions of thousands of people every year and an average of twenty people are selected. The admission into Roverman is perhaps very similar to the law school but that is only a fact I share to make the point that, restricted access to groups that produce masterpieces are not uncommon.

I was in second year, Actuarial Science student at UCC, I had come home for vacation, friends were doing their internship at ‘big’ places, and I had to ‘lead’ a group of people who worked for Yaa Yaa to go bring Charcoal from a village near Kintampo. We got to the village and the charcoal was still in the bush, needing to be carried to the truck. In the moment, my epiphany was humorous, I was reminded I desperately needed a strong neck to survive that day. I only hoped, Yaa Yaa’s continuous knocking on my head was enough to help me carry bags of charcoal, from a village farm to the nearest settlements where the truck could park (Don’t take directions to a farm which says, its right at the corner literally, it is a Scam. Free counsel from a country boy). The harsh reality of legal education is supposed to be preparing student for an even harsher reality of lawyering.

Lawyers like the son of the charcoal seller I was, have a choice between acting as entitled elite, the university boys or workers in a farm in resolving a mess. I could choose to be less concerned and get very little done as in the practice of law, or carry the charcoal with the workers, be involved in solving the problem so the charcoal seller did not have cause to strengthen my weak neck yet again. Long story short, I had an amazing time, one of my most memorable life experiences, carrying charcoal for hours and sitting at the back of a KIA truck afterwards for a journey that lasted over 3 hours. And then it made sense why they say difficult circumstances produces extraordinary leaders. The selection of the student for the profession must therefore be scouting for the candidates who can best carry through and resolve the big issues.

I have read Enterprise Risk Management, Finance and Information Security after Actuarial Science, I am considered an expert in all these fields and yet I have never claimed to know everything in those fields of practice. These professions I know teach that, inquiry to finding the most probable risks is worth investing in as loss preventions and loss minimization are valid strategies to optimize value. The goal for these professions is to optimize value but through efficiency and waste preservation. From my experience from this field, I suggest that, the quality of any selection criteria should be measured in how many good students are declined rather than the bad students that are rejected.

I was taught at the law school that, nine qualities define a good advocate: Practice & Industry, Tenacity, Courage, Self-Control, Honesty, Quality of Judgement, Presence, Language and Humanity. I have no doubt some students do not have the quality to be lawyers, these are the Sons of Nde (my fictional story of a village pocket lawyer). There were some of my mates I will have nowhere near my case and by extension, they should be nowhere near anybody’s case. It is also true that, there may be some students who do not put in the necessary hours of work. There are yet others who may not have the aptitude, temperament or even the fortitude to become lawyers. That is an argument we all hear, we know that, and I do not think anyone will contest that, except that we question the percentage claim of students forming this category. There are many students among the 1,820 who will in my respectful view be great lawyers but by the nature of the system of selection, Ghana may never know the strength of these sons and daughters. The question must, therefore, be; of what noble means must the noble profession select its noble men and women?

The selection criteria must, therefore, have a view to all the qualities of the good advocate. Practice and industry is built over time however, it is a process of continuous learning, curiosity and questioning. Tenacity and courage may be products of grit born out of personal experiences. Self-Control and Honesty are ethical standards that the ever-present eye of the GLC will guide you. Language is a product of all the substantive and procedural law studied and the only quality tested in the entrance exam. Presence may be an art form, a Harvey Specter with finesse, but how do we screen for qualities of humanity or even judgement?

It is for the students like the person who scored 49.5% that I write this article, that person who in my respectful view may be as much of a lawyer as the person who scored 50%. The essential question then becomes; how do we know how prepared he or she is for the professional course beyond a 49.5% which in any case is statistically 50%. The question as to whether or not the margin of 0.5% discredits one of the competences of a good advocate is a headache I am yet to find a strong neck for. Of course, a minimum intellectual capacity is required to be a lawyer, but then again, who lacks that capacity if he or she had a first-class from a reputable faculty?

Just maybe, the argument to make selected campuses run the professional program is the solution, just perhaps the interview as part of the process was more likely to select the candidates who are more inclined to be better lawyers. I do not profess to know the way out of this, but I know how Roverman gets its exclusive numbers by which it executes its mandates. The amount of public trust the lawyer has and the strength of mind a person requires to hold the biblical view of lawyers as ‘holding the keys of knowledge’ means that it may not be a call for everybody. The demand for learning may not be a luxury everybody can afford but people who fail or pass must be convinced it is on merit. Roverman auditions among other applicants and then further interviews. Transparency. If I went for an audition and I sang to the who crowd of applicants whiles hearing others, I clearly could measure myself against the average. Then in line with the vision of the group, an interview will be conducted to selected the people who are known to be the best fits. So just maybe a public moot and an interview for all persons who obtained a second class lower and above will be a better approach.

I know Roverman is a private organisation and Ghana School of law is not, I can understand all the reasons one may have to disregard the inference to select the most competent in the most transparent way but whatever the notions of readers may be the lawyer has a heritage deeply rooted among the knights of old. The making of the lawyer in many ways bears resemblance to the making of a king. The African King swears on the sword to be humane and to serve the best interest of his people. Critical among the criteria of selection must, therefore, be an assessment in totality of the qualities of a good advocate. So like the many who walked today, I too write for reform. My advocate for reform is however very different from what many call for. My views are to have a comprehensive assessment that selects the best student, not through a single paper that measures only language. My advocacy is that; we may reform the legal education for transparency. A nation can have all its citizens trained to standards of learning, curiosity, questioning and courtesy. The whole nation may be a nation of lawyers. The truth is, the more citizen that can have the clarity of thoughts a lawyer ought to have, the better the nation will be. So let us have as many as are able to be lawyers and yet with even higher standards.

In the words of my Latin teacher, Nana Oko Agyemang, let us reflect on the Latin chant, “Quam bonum pro patria mori” which translates ‘how good and how pleasant it is to die for your fatherland (country)’. To the student who feels the knocks on the head, in the words of Yaa Yaa, strengthen your neck! To the other sons and daughters of charcoal sellers, do not look upon this system and stop dreaming, dream, even dream bigger. Be not afraid of greatness; some may have been born great, some may have greatness thrust upon them and yet others achieve greatness by the dent of hard work. So do not limit yourself. You can go as far as your mind lets you. My name is Yaw Sompa and I believe in Ghana.