Advocating the return of honour to the legal profession (Part 2)

Furthermore, a powerful intelligence is dangerous when coupled with dishonesty just as diligence is wasted without a sense of justice. A person with only the external dimension or only an incomplete proper internal dimension is at best a poser and at worse, a fraud.

The focus and emphasis in recent times on the external dimension is unsurprising given the highly materialistic and consumerist cultural and moral environment in which we find ourselves mired in. Though the latter is a result of the former and related, they are distinct. This requires a brief definition before proceeding further. A materialistic culture is one that prizes the accumulation and possession of wealth, image (one’s physical appearance) or fame. A consumerist culture is one that encourages the notion of absolute possession, disposability and a lack of responsibility to society.

We are all materialists and consumers in one respect but we should not give ourselves over entirely to it. Both these cultures when left to operate without restraint dictate that any accomplishment, quality or feature be defined in quantitative and monetary terms i.e. terms that can be purportedly measured, quantified and ascertained with a degree of finality and authority, and reduced to a price tag. Qualities or features that cannot be so done are ignored. The implication is that they are unimportant in the scheme of things. This is perhaps one reason why lawyer associations in the Commonwealth, not just in our own country, place so much emphasis on the external dimension – it is easily measured and convenient. Are you 18? Have you got a degree from a recognized university? Have you completed your chambering period? Have you passed that laughable ethics test (as if one’s ethics was a static instead of a dynamic quality that can be so easily measured by assigning marks)? These easy questions are irrelevant where it concerns one’s worth and ability as a lawyer.

The questions that should be asked and demanded answers to are, for example, is he someone that would not succumb to the temptation of corruption? Is he generally honest? Is he someone that can maintain a client’s confidentiality? Is he someone who takes pleasure in reading, in thinking, in resolving people’s problems? (You cannot be a lawyer of any worth if you have no interest in reading. As an aside, I met a lawyer who once boasted to me that he was ‘not the reading type’. He claimed that his ability lay in his advocacy. I, of course, expect that he never had the good fortune to come across Cicero’s ‘On the Orator’ who argued that unless the speaker has attained the highest state of knowledge ‘otherwise what he says is just an empty and ridiculous swirl of verbiage.’) Is he dependable under great pressure and stress? Is he someone who actually cares for a client or interested in them for the merely for financial remuneration he intends to squeeze out of them? Is he an honourable person?

Surely, these are the important questions because they have a direct bearing on one’s true worth and abilities as a lawyer. What is more, these questions are the ones that allow us to explore, consider and try to meaningfully evaluate the internal dimension of the lawyer or would be. But often they are left unaddressed or even ignored. For a further discussion on this where it relates to the admission of lawyers, please see my essay ‘Reflections on Moving from an Occasional Mover.’

It is easy to understand why. The internal dimension is hidden and so less easy to perceive, difficult to comprehend if not understand, harder to evaluate usefully because of its dynamic and unquantifiable nature, and impossible to reduce to a price tag. To say he is a ’78/100′ in terms of ethics is meaningless. To say he is now an ethical person is also meaningless because that can change. Though the situation is not easy, neither is it impossible. The latter should not justify the current ignorance of the internal dimension. That lawyers are in the news for running away with client’s money, breaching the confidentiality of clients, destroying material evidence or court documents, cheating, colluding with the other party to defraud their respective clients, and much more should prompt those with influence in the admission of lawyers to the profession start focusing and intensifying their consideration of the internal dimension of the lawyer and would be. An urgent and rigorous consideration of a person’s internal dimension should be carried out towards a person’s admission to the Bar especially in this modern day and age.

I make no claims to having thought of any significant or meaningful suggestions but I do have an idea for further consideration, discussion and hopefully development – the revival of one of the most prized features of a lawyer, as represented by Cicero, Thomas More and their writings; as characterized by Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, by Sydney Carton in Charles Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and even by Horace Rumpole in John Mortimer’s Rumpole series; and contained in Alan M. Dershowitz’s ‘Letters to a Young Lawyer’ – the concept of honour. Lawyers were well thought of even during Shakespeare’s time. And we are not impoverished in examples of our own: we had the late R. Ramani, the late David Marshall and our best known example, Raja Aziz Adrusse.

In days when the practice of law was a noble and honourable profession, generally a lawyer could take another lawyer at their word, an agreement can be done with a handshake in the fullest confidence that they can rely and depend upon their fellow brother or sister at law to their word or agreement. The proof of their trust was in their word, in the very fibre of their being and practise, not on some fancy piece of paper. If that lawyer failed to carry out their duty, they would own up to it and take responsibility for their failure. They would not leave it to their insurers. They would not deny wrongdoing until their liability was inevitable. They would rather succeed in dishonour than fail in honour.

Let me give you an example from my own experience. My firm was retained to sue a law firm in Melaka for negligence. What happened was that this law firm received instructions from Z to represent him and four other defendants, one of whom was our client. Upon and without verifying Z’s instructions with the other defendants, the partner of the firm, who was a well known senior lawyer in Melaka, instructed his legal assistant to enter consent judgment on behalf of our client (along with Z and the others). They neglected the terms of consent so the plaintiff understandably commenced bankruptcy proceedings against them and our client. Our client who was a senior manager in a conglomerate was served with a bankruptcy notice and naturally became upset and sued them. When we wrote to the firm to inquire on their appointment and instructions from our client in relation to the consent judgment they actually confirmed that they had none. When we sued them and tried to commence negotiations for an out of court settlement, they insisted that it was not their fault but Z’s fault. The law firm still thrives but this is what I mean by succeeding in dishonour. There is no dishonour in admitting one’s mistake and atoning for it.

And a lawyer did not have to be intimate or long standing friends with another for them to trust each other implicitly – their brotherhood at law was enough to establish such a relationship. I would like to think that the concept of honour had some role to play in this. They did this because honour of their profession demanded that they stand by their word and take responsibility for their actions. If they cannot trust their fellow lawyer’s word, they could not expect a member of the public to trust theirs. Those that stand ready to betray their own would only be too ready to betray others, and ultimately themselves.

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Posts by Fahri Azzat

Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 18 June 2009. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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