“Counsel, how old are you at the Bar?”
That question pretty much sums up what has been a long day at the temple of justice. Yes, it’s you, a fresh wig, a green horn, a courtroom virgin (never mind those few appearances you have racked up), standing before a judge whom it seems to you woke up on the left side of the sheets, subjecting you to those words that do not exactly show kindness to your dignity and ego as a young legal practitioner.
True to those feelings you had been nurturing from sunrise, that day had pretty much assumed the shape of what was going to be a really long one. You had woken up with heavy eyes, much against your will, with that not-so-polite 6.25am “show up at the office” phone call from your boss. (Everyone you know who shares the same call-to-Bar date with you has a boss; starting up a law firm less than a year after earning licence to practice would be seen as a combination of bravery and stupidity.) Of course he knew you couldn’t have possibly had much of a night: there had been those seven hours spent at the state police headquarters trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate bail for a land speculator the day before, and there were those three written addresses which he had instructed you to work on. Well he couldn’t have been bothered. Your eyes were the brightest in the firm and still (relatively) white, so he could summon you at will. He had revealed his reason for the call as soon as you arrived. There had been a mix-up in the diary, and a case which he didn’t know had been slated for that day was coming up in another local government area ninety minutes away; he had only found out via a 5.00am text message from the client. From the tone of his voice, you had already known what that meant.
There had obviously been no preparation on your part, but you knew what to do: go there, take notes and ask the court for a short adjournment. That was pretty much what you were good for anyways at this stage, besides motions and drafts (you had not earned enough trust to conduct a full trial). You had picked up that gown which always gave you away as a baby wig, grabbed the case file and relevant authorities, and set out to the day’s ordeal, but not before taking that selfie in front of the office, for the love of Instagram. Lawyers and intense heat are best of friends no thanks to the attire, public transport doesn’t make it any easier, and the only respite you had gained was three-quarters into the trip when you got a lift in the opposing counsel’s car, praying that your client wouldn’t see you when it was time to alight from that Bugatti.
Being a junior wig meant that you had to wait a little longer before your case would get mentioned, and your body had succumbed to the effects of a long previous day and short night, only stopping short of snoring. Your slumber had been judicially noticed, and when it was finally time to call your case, your response to the judge’s inquiry as to why you made a bed out of the Bar had been “we can’t cheat nature, mi Lord”. There is no way to tell man’s thoughts from merely staring at the face, but what followed had made you realize that your response had been without regard to his mood, and after a torrent of abuses, came the unflattering question you were presently faced with.
This is by no means the first time you had been subjected to the “how old are you at the Bar” question. There had been that kidnap case months earlier, where your boss had been away and you had been berated by the judge at your city of practice for appearing alone in such a sensitive case, particularly given your inexperience, and the accused whom you represented had requested to do the cross-examination herself. There was also that day at a lower court where you had been without your diary, and taking an adjournment had come with a reprimand. On both occasions you had responded meekly – less than a year at the Bar – to much sneering from the gallery, but this time you react differently.
“I don’t know how that question relates to the facts of the case. My Lord”, you reply.
The question is repeated, and your answer is pretty much the same. You eventually respond appropriately after some coaxing whispers from your senior colleagues, but the judge is already incensed, and he is having none of your apologies. An appeal from the older wigs saves you from being committed for contempt, but you are made to stand outside the courtroom for nearly fifty minutes. The judge’s disciplinary measure does a lot to your confidence on the day, and by the time you get back in, nervousness has become a friend of yours. The request for an adjournment is granted, and the client reluctantly pays the much-anticipated appearance fee after feeding you with sob stories of bereavement and business shortcomings. “At least this one paid”, you tell yourself. You remember the client from three weeks earlier, who bolted to the door as soon as he heard “case adjourned” and zoomed off in a motorcycle. It’s a long ride back home for you, as the events of the day get you thinking and pondering whether you are actually cut out for legal practice. Yea, your ego has been battered that much.
You return to the office pretty exhausted, and your boss splits the day’s appearance fee into two unequal parts, taking the larger share. He then chides you of not properly arranging some files in the office, and your mind drifts to the office secretary, who earns twice as much as you do for doing next to nothing. No, you don’t want to think about your salary; that brings tears to your eyes, especially when you consider that the meagre sum doesn’t even flow in regularly. Your attempt at taking a short nap is interrupted by two clients; one who, ignorant of the concept of front-loading, complains about you to your boss for not being vocal enough on the last adjourned date, and another who gets you to draft a Power of Attorney for which you will be getting nothing from either him or your boss (who has since put the cheque in his pocket).
You finally get to leave the office by 5.45pm and on your way home, your phone beeps. It’s Ene, a lady who constantly turned you down during your university days, but now uses your photo as her Display Picture on a regular basis ever since you got called to the Bar. She is “just checking on you and hoping your day was smooth”, though you know it’s because she wants you to assume responsibility for the next couple of Blackberry Internet Subscriptions. You also get that text from Charlie, reminding you of the six thousand naira he begged you for two weeks earlier. You laugh inwardly and shake your head, blaming your formal outfits for all the false impressions. If only they knew how things really were. The first thing you do upon getting home is to do justice to the pile of dirty laundry in your wardrobe. You know better than to save that for Saturday, knowing how unpredictable your weekends could be. Yea, that Sunday afternoon where you had to get to the police station barely twenty minutes after returning from church and negotiate bail for a teenager held for alleged rape is still fresh in your memory. You sink into bed after a bath which you almost skipped out of fatigue, but sleep only comes after a brief reflection on the day, during which you sigh deeply in the realization that you’re up for a long ride through this career path.
Jerry Chiemeke tweets @Le_Bouquineur.