Saturday, November 1, 2014

But First, Let's Kill All The Lawyers

"First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." - William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part II, IV, ii 86-87
The damning indictment was made by the greatest playwright in history. Did Messrs Shakespeare truly detest lawyers? "No," a lawyer would argue, "for he's actually making a back-handed compliment to lawyers". And the lawyer may have point, when one considers the context. The line is quoted by Dick the Butcher, follower of rebel leader Jack Cade whose mission is to overthrow the government. Mayhap Shakespeare was lauding the role of lawyers in upholding law and order?

But delve a layer deeper, and this theory of interpretation doesn't sound complimentary after all. The 'law and order' under King Henry VI's reign was one of terror and tyranny - he squandered tax monies squeezed from the poor on lavish luxuries. Consider John Cade's immediate riposte:

"Nay, that I mean to do. Is it not a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb be made parchment? That parchment, being scribbled o'er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings, but I say, 'tis the bee's wax, for I did but seal once to a thing, and I was never my own man since." - William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part II, IV, ii 86-87

Centuries later, nothing has changed. Lawyers consistently rank lowly in public approval ratings, above only politicians and used car salesmen. And mayhap Shakespeare's point ringeth true: that lawyers, through their blind loyalty to the letter of the law, are guilty of protecting the corrupt and privileged, whilst oppressing the weak and impoverished.

Dick the Butcher doing what he does best - butchering

Cutting Through The Legal Bullshit

How many lawyers does it take to fix a light bulb? As many as possible, if you ask a lawyer. Two to hold the ladder, one to climb up and change the bulb, one armed with a First-aid kit and a thumb hovering over the emergency speed dial number, another reading up a thick manual guide on the methodology and hazards of bulb-changing, and someone keeping track of the timer (arguably the most important part of a lawyer's job, since lawyers charge higher fees the longer, and not faster, they take to complete a task).

Law is a labyrinth of archaic procedures and rules expressed in language obtuse to the common folk. That's why lawyers are needed - to sift through words like "verily" and "herein" which are only ever useful for competitive Scrabble. To update the legal vocabulary would mean removing the veil of illusion that law is a mystical art beyond the comprehension of a typical human brain. And lawyers, whose livelihood depends on people's reliance on them, don't want that to happen.

Everyday transactions are inundated with needless bureaucracy. When challenged on the need to engage lawyers on land transactions, lawyers insist that the process is long, complicated and risky. If that is the case, raising public awareness is a step in the right direction. Armed with basic legal knowledge, consumers can then make an informed choice on whether they truly need to engage a lawyer. And when they do engage lawyers, they are then capable of critically assessing their lawyers' quality of service and remunerate them accordingly.

The long-term solution is to simplify the process. Technology is our ally. During the recent biennial International Malaysia Law Conference (IMLC), Malaysia High Court Judge Lee Swee Seng lamented on the absence of an online land registration system which can easily hasten the administrative wheels from months to days. Identification recognition tools, he adds, can help prevent fraud.

Such changes will make land transactions faster, cheaper, and safer. Other countries have marched ahead of Malaysia. The UK government tightly regulates housing. Its official website is replete with FAQs on selling, buying and renting houses, drafted in plain and simple English. Such success stories should inspire Malaysian lawyers. Yet, their typical response is to cross their arms, shrug and say "Don't blame us lawyers, blame the system."

For lawyers: mo' problems, mo' money

Illustration from

Law Is About Liberties - So Let's Liberalise It

One prominent human rights Malaysian lawyer, however, is taking the lead to liberalise the legal industry. Last month, Edmund Bon ruffled many feathers in the legal fraternity when he publicly reveal details of his firm's latest ambitious project. The name "The Collective of Applied Law and Legal Realism" may prove a mouthful for common folks to roll off their tongue, but the project's goal is noble: to launch a mobile app that provides templates of legal documents (for land sale, wills and probate, accident claims and divorce petitions). "This is a public service to improve access to justice," Edmund explains, "It's slightly disingenuous to do something which you know can be done by a non-lawyer, and you're profiting from it."

The concept of "do-it-yourself law" is nothing novel. In the UK, non-lawyers registered with the Council of Licensed Conveyancers can prepare legal documentations for land sale. In Malaysia, it is an open secret that conveyancing firms are manned by a team of clerks, para-legals and runners - the managing lawyer's main task is to 'network' with developers and bankers for work (sometimes, in the darkened interior of karaoke joints). Rockwills, a company that specialises in will-writing and trust asset management, has been operating for years. Patents and trade marks are regularly registered by qualified agents who didn't go to law school and who don't work in a law firm. Many countries are gradually adopting a no-fault compensation scheme to protect victims of motor accidents, industrial injuries and medical negligence, which relieves them from the costly and time-consuming effort of suing the wrongdoer in court.

Even the fundamental pillars of litigation is not spared from being shaken. The defendant's right to confront and cross-examine the accuser has been softened to shield youthful and vulnerable witnesses from further trauma in criminal trials. During the IMLC, a Federal Court judge remarked that the day is nearing where lawyers will put forth legal submissions via Power Point presentations, aside from relying on oral advocacy and dry written text alone - this makes perfect sense when depicting complex corporate structures, crunching financial formulas and simulating engineering models.

Society is constantly evolving. Likewise, the legal industry should not stay stagnant. Lawyers dislike reforms because they fear such reforms will break their 'rice bowl'. On one hand, their fears are unfounded: reforms bring about new opportunities (competition and data privacy), and spare lawyers from attending to mundane administrative chores so that they can focus on higher value work. On the other hand, their fears are self-inflicted: lawyers arrogantly think that their industry is forever insulated from the changing tides that afflict every other service industry (bankers have to cope with regulatory changes and create new financial products; engineers have to grasp new technology; accountants have diversified their expertise over tax, insolvency, consultancy and even IT forensics).

If other professionals can adapt and evolve, why can't lawyers?

The legal crusader Malaysia deserves... but not the one it needs right now?

Photography by Saw Siow Feng

The Bar Gives Back - But Is It Enough?

To be fair, Malaysian lawyers have done a lot of good in upholding the civil and political rights of citizens. Since 2007, the Bar Council has organised three 'walks of justice' on matters close to the heart of a liberal democracy - independence of judiciary, freedom of assembly, and abolition of sedition laws. Pakatan Rakyat, the Opposition coalition, boasts an array of seasoned lawyer-activists, including the late Karpal Singh and Sivarasa Rasiah.

But are lawyers, as a whole, doing enough good for society? That remains to be seen. Misbehaving lawyers seem to go unpunished. In 2007, a videotape was leaked showing senior lawyer V.K. Lingam apparently speaking over the phone with senior judge Ahmad Fairuz (who would later be elevated as the Chief Justice). Lingam gloated lengthily on his high-level discussions with prominent businessman Vincent Tan and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad to 'fix' the appointment of judges. Then, a photograph of Lingam vacationing with former Chief Justice Eusoffe Chin in New Zealand surfaced. In 2008, the Royal Commission of Inquiry concluded that the videotape was authentic, and recommended for action to be taken against the conspirators.

The Bar Council confirms initiating disciplinary investigations against Lingam. Other than that, the Bar remains tight-lipped on the progress, almost as if hoping the entire affair would be swept under the rug. Since it calls the integrity of lawyers into question, the public has the right to know more. Justice delayed is justice denied. Lawyers, of all people, should know this best.

This leads to suspicions that there exist a 'honour among thieves' code in the legal circle - that lawyers uphold an unspoken promise not to 'rat' each other out when they lie, cheat and negligently messed up their client's case, or even if they do, they would go easy on each other. The Bar Council's disciplinary process is heavily stacked with lawyers (the decision-making Disciplinary Board consist of 15 lawyers and 1 judge, whilst the fact-finding Disciplinary Committee is manned by 2 lawyers and 1 layman). To improve independence, the composition should be tweaked to have less full-time lawyers, and more judges, laymen and non-practising lawyers.

Therein lies the hypocrisy of lawyers - they are quick to champion for change in the political sphere, yet slow to remedy the defects within their own domain which threatens their livelihood and reputation.

The judges may have been culpable of terrible sins in the past. However, they have now taken great strides to improve and innovate. The backlog of old cases have been cleared, new cases can be heard within a year and an increasing amount of lawyers from private practice has crossed over to the bench to inject quality and diversity.

Lawyers, still cocooned in their own bubble, are now playing catch up. In many developed countries, lawyers are required to collect a minimum number of Continuous Professional Development (CPD) points every year by attending legal courses and workshops. At the 2012 Bar Council AGM, the majority of attendees voted against the motion to implement CPD. This bears testament to the willingness of Malaysian lawyers to develop and grow.

"This can't be New Zealand, Your Honour. Do you see any hobbit holes? I don't."

But First, Let's Kill All The Lawyers

Many facets of society - and their underpinning laws - are broken and in dire need of fixing. Sadly, most lawyers are quite content to swim with the flow of injustice. Some do nothing out of complacency, some out of ignorance, some out of selfishness.

Public access to justice needs improvement. Archaic dysfunctional laws need amendment. Corrupt lawyers need to be disbarred, if not jailed for contempt. It is not enough for lawyers to blame the government, the system or the parchment of lamb skin. Lawyers have a moral responsibility to save the people from tyranny. They should not be afraid to unravel an imperfect legal structure, layer by layer, and build it from scratch. They should not just sell a layman a piece of legal advice that will feed his needs for a day; instead, they should teach him about law so that it will feed his knowledge for a lifetime.

If the state of law harms society, lawyers must lead the charge against it. But if they chose to stand in the way of social justice and progress instead, that's when people can be forgiven on agreeing with Messrs Shakespeare that the first thing to do is to kill all the lawyers.


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