Thursday, October 28, 2021

‘Young and inexperienced lawyers’ rushing to open law firms

One way to look at the issue is that, possibly motivated by deep desire to roll a nice set of chrome wheels before they can even claim a respectable number of scalps on the legal battlefield, young lawyers are engaging in a profession-retarding practice that the legal fraternity is gravely concerned about.

The strength of such concern is that in his maiden speech as Attorney General at the official opening of the legal year, Abraham Keetshabe, felt strongly about this issue to give it pride of place. Of his priorities, Keetshabe mentioned “the regulation of legal practice so as to address the current challenge of young and inexperienced lawyers who have just completed pupillage and straightaway open a law firm.”

Another way of looking at the issue is through the same lens as a senior lawyer at the Ministry of Justice, Defence and Security. The latter’s contention is that young inexperienced lawyers who spread their wings soon after pupillage do so out of practical necessity. According to this source, law firms are taking advantage of a saturated market to exploit young lawyers, paying them as little as P3000 a month. The source compares pupillage to the Graduate Internship Programme which enrolls university graduates on an experiential training programme that some have slammed for merely providing the government with cheap labour. It has been alleged that whereas they should be trained in line with their academic qualifications, some interns end up working as glorified messengers and paper-pushing secretaries.

In the case of young lawyers, most reportedly prefer to work for the government than in the private sector where they are underpaid on reasoning that “we are training you.” The source lawyer raises questions about the quality of the training itself which he contends exists in all but name.

“Law firms don’t even have a structured training programme, which means that the young lawyers don’t benefit from the pupillage,” says the source, adding that official processes give the pupil masters a lot of power because they are the only ones who can confirm to the regulatory authority, the Law Society of Botswana, that the pupillage has been successfully completed.

Interestingly, the practice of young and inexperienced lawyers who have just completed pupillage straightaway opening their own law firms is not new. The ministry source says that at a time that the market was still small and nascent, older lawyers did the very same thing themselves.

“Then there were very few lawyers who didn’t have to compete for clients. Over the years, the number of lawyers has been increasing at a very high rate and the result is that market is now saturated,” says the source who posits the theory that the fixation with pupillage is merely a ploy by the old guard to protect their financial interest. “They didn’t have to do pupillage themselves which was only introduced when the Legal Practitioners Act went into force.”

Even more interesting is the fact that as unemployed law graduates walk the streets, those who are employed by the government are considered a scarce skill and paid scarce skill allowance. Always having been controversial, this policy will present a vexing challenge down the road if the government decides to declassify lawyers as a scarce skill cadre. Such declassification would affect judges but in terms of the constitution, their benefits (which include scarce skill allowance) cannot be taken away.

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