Sunday, September 28, 2014

Juggling Words

Colosseum or Coliseum also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre in Rome

What do lawyers do? As we juggle words and shuffle papers, we render our services in helping  our clients to get out of whatever legal troubles they land themselves in and carry out their endeavours by obeying the law.

A woman walked into the office half an hour before our office closed. She needed some legal advice. I decided to see her as I thought that should not take long. As it turned out , I had to ask one of my staff to stay back to type a letter and photocopy the documents which she had brought with her. These days, I find that I have become less independent at work in the sense that I no longer wish to attend to the clerical part of the work. The woman’s problem was to do with her husband’s and as he  had suffered a stroke, she had to deal with a legal problem  that  was to do with a property that he had rented out years ago. After listening to her story for some twenty minutes, I told her that in order to stop the execution proceedings that are already set in motion, it would be practical to offer a good sum of money as ex-gratia payment to the claimant that happened to be the Electricity Board. She had brought along all the necessary documents and it was apparent from those documents  that  they had engaged a solicitor as soon as they got wind of what the tenant had done before absconding years ago. Notwithstanding the correspondences between the previous solicitor and the Electricity Board, the latter had gone ahead and obtained the judgment without the couple’s knowledge. Even though she claimed that the  electricity had been tampered with by her previous tenant, as the subscriber for the particular account, her husband would be liable to settle the outstanding charges for all intents and purposes. I could tell that she was not a push over though she acted like she was just a housewife who needed legal advice and she was apologetic. That reminds me of another incident where the wife had acted like she was merely taking instructions from the husband and that her husband would be very furious with her if she had not executed the instructions given by the husband properly. I could not recall what exactly happened in my other case but all I remember was that it had left a bad taste in my mouth and yet I never learnt simply because I believe that it is our professional duty to render legal help to these ordinary folks.

When I asked the woman how she ended up walking into my firm, she said she happened to be in the vicinity when she went to the bank a few doors from our office and she decided to walk into our firm. As we were preparing the letter for her, one of my office partners returned to the office after a meeting. When I saw that they acknowledged each other, I asked her why she had not mentioned that she knew my partner. Later on I found out from my partner that he had already handled a couple of matters for her. Maybe I should give the woman the benefit of the doubt that  she was just confused. While I do find that clients do not  usually give you the complete picture, I still feel that it was quite unnecessary for her to be evasive about how she ended up coming to our firm for consultation. She must have figured out that since my partner said he would not be available  on that day, she did not have to mention the fact that she knew and had consulted one of our firm lawyers on other matters before. To me, all these are tell tale signs as to whether a client is being completely honest with you. I
became less sympathetic to her plight upon knowing that she had not been completely honest with me.

To Kill a Mocking-bird is  a book that I had been meaning to read for years . There is a copy of the novel sitting on one of the bookshelves in my house and my husband tells me that the book belongs to me. I cannot remember buying the book. As a bibliophile, I have not read all the books that I have  bought  over the years and with a few exceptions, I usually  remember having bought them. Anyway I was very glad that I finally got round to reading the book at the end of my recent trip. When I finished reading the novel on board the flight home , I was touched and moved to tears. I  wonder  whether the story would have affected me as much as the present if I had read it before I started practising law. The author, Harper Lee is indeed a very good story teller. She gradually led us into the story through the voice of Scout Finch who had recalled her growing up years in Maycomb when she  and her brother  who was four years her senior were both children. While the core of the story is about racial injustice,the author painstakingly took us through the scenes and the characters in  Maycomb to help us understand the neighbourhood and their inhabitants. Atticus Finch is a widower and he had to single handedly bring up two young children with the help of Calpurnia, their cook who had been with the family since Jem Finch was born. Lemonade in the morning was a summer-time ritual for their household as Calpunia would set a pitcher  and appeared in the front door and yelled  Lemonade time ! You all get in outa that hot sun ‘fore you fry alive!’ Scout had felt her tyrannical presence as long as she could remember and Atticus always took the side of Calpunia and  Atticus said Calpurnia had more education than most coloured folks.’  Atticus played and read to his children , and treated them with courteous detachment.
Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself’  is  how Lee describes Maycomb.

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it . In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the court- house sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering  shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by nightfall were life soft tea-cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

Atticus went to Montgomery to read law and returned to Maycomb to begin his practice after being admitted to the bar. His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in the Maycomb County jail . As there was nothing much Atticus could do for his clients who refused the state’s generous offer to escape the gallows if they pleaded guilty to second- degree murder, he had a distaste for the practice of criminal law. He practised economy more than anything. Scout started going to school and one day,  someone in school announced that Scout Finch’s daddy defended niggers so she had to ask Atticus.

“‘Do you defend niggers, Atticus?’ I asked him that evening.
‘Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout. That’s common.’
‘’s what everybody at school says.’
‘From now on it’ll be everybody less one – ‘
‘ Well if you don’t want me to grow up talkin’ that way, why do you send me to school?’’

Scout had wanted to avoid school but her dad would not let her quit school as it was the law. She had a profound distaste for school since the first day of school when the teacher discovered that she could read and her teacher had ordered that she should ask her dad to stop teaching her to read.

Atticus explained to Scout about why he had to defend Tom Robinson.
‘Atticus sighed.
I am simply defending a Negro – his name’s Tom Robinson. He lives in that little settlement beyond the town dump.  He’s a member of Calpurnia’s church, and Cal knows his family ell. She says they ‘re clean –living folks. Scout, you aren’t old enough to understand some things yet, but there’s been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending his man. It’s a peculiar case-it won’t come to trial until summer session. John Taylor was kind enough to give us a postponement…’
“ If you shouldn’t be defendin’ him, then why are you doin’ it ?
For a number of reasons, he told Scout.
 Because I could never ask you to mind me again. Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess. You might hear some ugly talk about it at school, but do one thing for me if you will :you just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change….it’s a good one, even if it does resist learning.
‘ Atticus, are we going to win it?’
‘No , honey.’
‘Then why-’
‘Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,’ Atticus said.
‘Come here, Scout,’ said Atticus. I crawled into his lap and tucked my head under his chin. He put his arms around and rocked me gently. ‘It’s different this time,’ he said.’ This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this , no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.’

The character, Atticus Finch is inspiring and his courage and principles are what  everyone of us must try to  emulate and uphold.The story is brilliantly told.