August 8, 2022
Law Movies

In the season premiere of this post, I could not get into dealing with all the areas I mentioned. So, here we go for a season two of the post. Hopefully, the entire series of what law movies don’t teach law students will end with this season.

Oh, pardon me, did I mention that the purpose of this post is not to kill your movie cravings? Far from it, an enjoyable law movie is always worth it. So, add the movie – A time to kill to your list.

This post is really aimed at telling the truth as it is and encouraging law students along the way. In essence, after watching the movies, one always has to remember that the journey to mirroring the great lawyers we see ‘on screen’ is actually undertaken ‘off screen’. Therefore, it would take more than just cramming Harvey Specter’s lines to be like Harvey Specter. And the journey to being the lawyer of our dreams is definitely not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A number of us are still undertaking that journey in fact.

So here we go again, my second expose on what law movies don’t teach intending attorneys or law students –

H.E. Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, President of the Court, on 6 June 2018 (delivery of the Judgment of the Court) S. Exc. M. Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, président de la Cour, le 6 juin 2018 (lecture de l’arrêt de la Cour)

What a judgment is really like

In the movies I have seen, the cases are usually decided by a jury. The Judge simply calls Madam foreperson to announce the verdict. And she stands and says something to the effect of – “in the matter of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus Walt Miller, on the count of murder in the first degree, we the Jury find the Defendant, not guilty”. And bam, the case is closed, finished or if you will, affaire classée.

Ready for a bubble bust?

We don’t operate a jury system in Nigeria. So, the judge is both the trier of fact and law. Second bubble bust? Judgments are often not that short. In fact, they are rarely short unless it is a concurring judgment delivered by an appellate Court Justice. Some are so short that all the Justice says is – I Concur. Yes, “I Concur” is the whole judgment. But that’s just the concurring Judgment of course. The lead judgment is usually detailed and it is expected to be so. This is because the reason for any decision of the Court should not be left to conjecture or speculation – see GABBY STORES (NIG) LTD v. MAGAJI & ANOR (2015) LPELR-40381(CA).  To borrow some words from Karibi-Whyte, JSC on this point “…If judgments were to be delivered without supporting reasons, it will be an invitation to arbitrariness, a rule of merely tossing the coin and the likelihood to result in judicial anarchy”. This principle especially applies to the judgments of trial Courts (High Courts, magistrate Courts etc) since there exists the likelihood of an appeal.

In fact, when delivering judgment, a Court is expected to properly and holistically evaluate the evidence presented by both parties in the suit. The Court is even expected to mention and give reasons why it believes one witness over the other. This is why in judgments we have the ratio decidendi and the obiter dictum. The ratio is the reason for the decision while the obiter are comments made in passing by the Court.

So, it is really not as short as the movies may make it out to be. I have not convinced you beyond all reasonable doubt? Good. Visit any law report and eliminate your doubts. I should add a caveat which is – you could get bored into a snore at your first reading. It’s not strange. The first time I sat through the reading of a judgment, I recall hearing just two lines of what the Court said. The remaining time I honestly struggled to keep my eye lids from embracing one another.

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Annalise Keating in How to get away with Murder

What Cross Examination really looks like in the real world 

Law movies most times don’t reflect how cross examination happens in the real world. In most episodes, the witness breaks down crying in the witness box while admitting to be the real murderer or even a liar. Permit me to ask – like seriously? Who does that? The movie script writer does anyway. In real life, the one I and you are in right now, those things rarely ever happen. Instead, you have witnesses that lie through their teeth as though they are professors in whatever institute teaches lying.

There are others who are honest. And strangely, many of the honest ones don’t swear on the bible when about to commence giving their testimony. They swear on iron and indeed due to the fear of their ancestors releasing thunder, they end up telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

But sometimes, the truth could seem very improbable given a particular set of facts. Other times, the truth could actually implicate the Defendant. This is where the cross examiner usually tries to show that even if the truth is as the witness as stated, he is or could have been honestly mistaken due to one reason or the other. The witness could also have a lot juggled in his memory that his recollection of the facts is not trustworthy. For example, a color-blind witness would honestly be mistaken as to whether the traffic light was green or red when the Defendant sped past it. Similarly, a witness who suffers from dementia could actually have seen the Defendant at the crime scene but how sure are we that her memory loss hasn’t set in again and the Defendant wasn’t only passing by the crime scene without more. After all being at the scene of crime doesn’t mean you committed the crime.

This is why I sincerely doubt that the movies can fully teach anyone to be an effective cross examiner. That is just my personal opinion. Rather a host of resources could help one out. If I were to list a few resources (just as I may have done elsewhere already), they would be the following;

  1. The art of cross examination by Francis Wellman
  2. Cross examination; the trial Lawyer’s most potent weapon by Yemi Osinbajo and Fola Arthur-Worrey
  3. Hints on Legal Practice by Hon. Anthony Ekundayo
  4. The Devil’s Advocate by Ian Morley
  5. Advocacy Hints and Tactics
  6. 10 commandments of cross examination Lecture by Prof. Irving Younger (YouTube video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBP2if0l-a8&t=627s )

The list above is not exhaustive by any stretch of imagination. A lot of Senior lawyers could suggest more resources. I’ll suggest you ask for their list when and if you have the opportunity to do so.

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Lastly, lest I forget. If I may add, the strategy you see in the movies where the lawyer argues with the witness under cross examination is not very advisable. I don’t think you should try it even in a moot competition. The aim of cross examination is really to control the witness’ responses. As a cross examiner, you want answers that support your case theory or narration of the facts. And arguing with the witness does not achieve this. In fact, in the average Nigerian Court, it is difficult to imagine that the Judge would be able to write down the quickly spoken words from your angry or argumentative exchange with the witness. Mbanu, the Court is not a typewriter. Besides evidence is to emanate from the witness and not the Lawyers – so your argument with the witness no matter how persuasive, does not eliminate or override whatever the witness has said in evidence. So please calm down on attempting to go all Annalise Keating on a witness in Court. Hope you got my point.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The difference between knowing law and knowing the business of Law

Law movies don’t teach the business of law. Law School doesn’t teach it as well. I’d explain. While in school, law students are taught the various principles of law. Yet little to nothing is said about how business works throughout the 6 years of learning. In the end, skillful lawyers are trained. Expectedly, they graduate with sufficient knowledge of the law. But it is hoped that they would proceed to set up and run efficient law practices. Yet they were never equipped with basic business skills. This leads to one result; we currently have Lawyers who don’t make the best business managers. I could be genuinely wrong but this is my current observation and I surmise that it is a simple result of the lack of business skills or training.

That said, it is noteworthy to mention that nearly every skill has a business side or part to it. A trained hairdresser needs to know how to attract clientele and grow revenue for her hairdressing shop. Else she could sit hungry with very skillful fingers that could wow even Mrs. Aisha Buhari’s scalp. A funny individual who wants to go into the comedy business must know his onions and that business sphere as well. Same thing applies to the rave of high-income skills we hear about on the internet these days. And in the same way, this applies to law as well. The skillful lawyer would only be able to derive maximum commercial value if he can employ his business skills. This means he should have some measure of business skills in addition to his legal expertise.

You may contend that the law is really a vocation or calling and business skills have no place here. I will invite you to view the reality which is that law practice has largely evolved into being a business like any other business. I agree that there is the vocational part to legal practice; where the law is a calling and the lawyer is the conscience of society and voice to the voiceless. This part remains unhurt and is entirely fundamental. I even believe that effectively managed and profitable law practices can better fund Law based initiatives aimed at societal improvement.

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To take a cue from other climes, the world’s largest law firms are efficiently managed businesses. In fact, in the United Kingdom, law firms are listed on the stock exchange and members of the public can own shares in them. This is possible due to the UK’s Legal Services Act of 2007. I might not currently argue that we need the large-scale changes introduced by the UK Act in Nigeria.  

But my point is this; imagine that a law firm of that magnitude exists in Nigeria and dedicates just a fraction of its profit towards running a pro-bono program aimed at decongesting our prisons, we may achieve much more. So, better and bigger law businesses could mean more funds for driving public interest initiatives. A clear example is Hogan Lovells.  In the 2021 financial year, the law firm grew its global revenue by 12.9% to $2.6bn largely due to its transactional practice.  But more importantly, the law firm runs a dedicated pro bono department that has been operational for 50 years and the department still continues. Talk about law business and impact.

So that I don’t veer off the point. Let me state it again, Law movies don’t really teach students the business skills relevant for running a profitable law practice. Law books may not teach them either.

Photo by Tony Tran on Unsplash

Self-Development is unavoidable

Lawyers tend to be workaholics. Even the movies show this in some bits. You know the signs – they range from keeping late nights to courting dark coffee and the obvious sleep bags under tired eyes by morning. We know the drill. From the University Faculties to law school as well. The truth remains that the reward for hard work is more work and there lies the temptation. The slippery one that I think has capacity to approach any lawyer and overcome him.

It is the temptation to just keep churning out work without considering the quality of work being churned out. I have posited in a previous piece that there are always two things to learn at every point – how to get things done and how not to get things done. When a lawyer has gotten grips on some fundamental parts of the lawyering job – he could stay at that plateau; just churning out work and more work without a deliberate attempt at reviewing and improving the quality of work delivered. This is what the movies don’t teach. Our favorite character in the movies never talks about going back to school for a master’s degree or undertaking a certificate course. But self-development and improvement are a must. In our profession one has to keep learning or get phased out. Our fav tv lawyer doesn’t stand that risk. But lawyers in actual practice do.

In sum and like I said earlier, law movies are great. I enjoy them. We all should enjoy them but, in the end, remember that the journey to mirroring the great lawyer you have seen ‘on screen’ is actually undertaken ‘off screen’.

For now, please get out another box of popcorn and binge on another blockbuster law series. T for tenks and sure, don’t mention.

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Written by Nkobowo Frederick Nkobowo LLB

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