LLA Series: There’s Media Attention If You Need It, But You Don’t

A view point of media attention in relation to a lawyer (whether legal aid or not) and why you shouldn’t do filing in full open court attire.

Legal Aid

In the legal profession, there are lawyers that enjoy courting if not chasing after media attention. Its their viagra; without it their getting up ends up rather flaccid. (‘Getting up’ is the technical term for all preparatory work to produce a piece of legal work; it means all the research carried out, documents prepared, letters written, etc.) There are those that abhor any attention. Finally, there are lawyers that are generally ambivalent about it. I fall into the last category.

I don’t mind the occasional name mentioned in the media but I dislike my picture turning up. I’ve long felt it excessive for a lawyer to dominate the media spotlight. A lawyer is not the case, just a participant to it. If anybody’s image needs to be published it should be the litigants. After all, they are the parties to the legal proceeding, or high profile financial transaction – the star of the event; without them it would not happen. As a lawyer, we merely advise and act intelligently on client instruction. The only situation agreeable situation is if the client had serious impediment that prevented him from properly expressing himself.

In this way I am inclined to the tradition British approach as contained in Boulton’s Conduct and Etiquette at the Bar where ‘there appeared a section entitled ‘touting, advertising and publicity,’ and the message was, for barristers, ‘none of the above in any circumstances’ (the quote is from Keith Evan’s ‘The Language of Advocacy’, page 31).

Regrettably, due to the ubiquity of American legal dramas on Malaysian television and satellite television we are often exposed to the brashness, the prancing about in court, and the bold and accusatory media appearances and statements of American lawyers. I feel it has come to a point where some think this is how lawyers should naturally conduct themselves – dominating media coverage and being partisan. I encourage the English/Continental approach where lawyers are generally inclined towards restraint and a low profile in the media (although they seem to be moving towards American showmanship).

How Not to Pose for the Media. Never look at the camera! Fail! | Sourcepic: The Star

How Not to Pose for the Media. Never look at the camera| Sourcepic: The Star

There are numerous pictures of lawyers in the papers who so obviously appear as if they ‘staged’ the shot i.e. either ensuring an appropriate serious expression, pose or hand/arm gesture when they are advising their clients outside the court room, or pretending to not be aware of the camera whilst giving generously providing excellent 3/4 profile of their face or ‘action’ shots, or the worse, posing with client with a big smile on their face while facing the cameras. What I came to learn is how practised, subtle and smooth some of them are at these media appearances.

Once I did a case that attracted a fair bit of media attention. Thankfully there were several lawyers on board with some more practised at dealing with the media, so I managed to slip away when the flashes came a calling. But once during the case, I was almost caught unaware. One of the lawyers said he wanted to speak to the client and discuss the next course of action. I went along thinking we were going to seriously discuss strategy or something significant but thought it strange that we were heading out the front door (as opposed to the side door) of the court to do this. It occurred to me that if we really wanted to do that then we should go to a quiet corner in the courtroom instead of outside where a horde of reporters and photographers were waiting for the money shot. By the time I caught on, it was too late. I was already out of the courtroom with the media savvy lawyers who immediately fell into deep and serious conversation yet somehow were positioned for optimal exposure to the media. Thankfully the media horde was surprised by our unannounced appearance and allowed me a few seconds to quickly back track into the courtroom before the cameras came a flashing!

Chekkit! LoyarBurokker Amer demonstrates how to do a media shot skilfully. Observe the full frontal shot but averted gaze | Sourcepic: The Star

Chekkit! LoyarBurokker Amer demonstrates how to do a media shot skilfully. Observe the full frontal shot but averted gaze | Sourcepic: The Star

An old chestnut is also the ‘filing shot’ where the lawyer dresses up in full open court attire (stiff collar, bib and robe) to file a Writ at the filing counter. It looks very impressive to the layman, but let me say this right now – any lawyer who does that is a loser. Firstly, rule 30 of the Legal Professional (Practice and Etiquette) Rules 1978 provide that, ‘an advocate and solicitor shall not wear bands or robes in public places other than in Court or whilst travelling to or from Court.’ The registry is not a court. Secondly, you do not need to dress like that to file it. You can go in slacks and shirt and the filing will still be accepted. So doing that is OTT (over the top). Thirdly, top senior lawyers do not do silly things like that. They keep their showmanship where it matters – in court and for the judges.

I discuss publicity in respect of legal aid because there are those who feel they can only take up cases if there is a certain amount of publicity and are aware there are opportunities in this area as well. Their justification is that they need the publicity so they can get future work. Since they are not paid they have to maximize their returns on a case so to speak. Though I think it a wrong reason for taking up a case, we all have our reasons for doing what we do. For myself, so long as the lawyer does the case competently, then that is the priority. If he can squeeze anymore out of his legal aid case, then power to him.

I also point this out because many think that there is little possibility for media attention in doing legal aid cases but I have found this not to be true. It really depends whether you are sharp and perceptive enough to develop an issue that may be of legal or national interest and be brave enough to take up the challenge.

One legal aid case I did not long ago attracted a lot of media attention though I had no such design. It was a case concerning several charges of sodomy pursuant to section 377B of the Penal Code against our client. Though I could have approached it as a straightforward mitigation case, after discussing the case Amer (my co-counsel) and I felt that a constitutional challenge could and should be taken against that provision having regard to constitutional developments both domestic and foreign.

After the initial report in the local newspapers, much to my surprise, I received several calls from international media organizations and interest groups about the decision. I didn’t know there was such an interest overseas concerning the criminalization of homosexuality. But you live and learn.

So while the possibility of media attention is there – I think you don’t really need it if your priority is to help people. That should be sufficient reward in itself. After all we can learn from the entire experience and feel good about helping someone in need. To demand fame and adulation on top of that for voluntarily help someone impecunious is to try and take more out of the situation then we give and stains it with a mercenary feel.

Rule 48 of the Legal Profession (Practice and Etiquette) Rules 1978 provides: An advocate and solicitor shall not take steps to procure the publication of his photograph as a member of the Bar in the press or any periodical.

Rule 60A of the Rules provides: An advocate and solicitor shall not furnish copies of any document filed in Court, before the hearing of the matter in open court, to the press and shall not in any event furnish copies of any document other than documents read in Court.

The other source of rules governing lawyers in relation to publicity are the Bar Council Legal Profession (Publicity) Rules 2001.

Fahri Azzat has successfully managed to avoid being photographed for any of the cases that he represents and intends to continue doing so. However, he understands that video footage of him was recently caught and aired on NTV7 where he along with LoyarBurokker K. Shanmuga are seen grinning like a cheshire cats despite losing the application. He prefers to practise his cases quietly and without media fanfare. He has also never appeared at the filing counter to file a Writ in open court attire.

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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 20 March 2011. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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2 Responses to LLA Series: There’s Media Attention If You Need It, But You Don’t

  1. "Though I could have approached it as a straightforward mitigation case, after discussing the case Amer (my co-counsel) and I felt that a constitutional challenge could and should be taken against that provision having regard to constitutional developments both domestic and foreign. ”

    Exactly. I?guess it's time to discuss this!

  2. siewchinteo

    Fahri – i'd rather a lawyer who dresses up in full garb and have his pictures taken than one who is completely under the radar whilst dumping his clients in a funeral pyre and throwing the ashes into the river, so to speak.

    And i am sure Amer Hamzah averted his gaze as his way of avoiding the media-shot, so to speak :)