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Monday, February 11, 2013

the law society of kenya's new dress



A few weeks ago the Law Society of Kenya updated its rules for how advocates can dress while undertaking the auspicious duty of addressing the court, the link above contains the rules in their entirety. On a side note lawyers actually talk like this, in two weeks at law school I have heard 2 otherwise normal girls use the following phrases in common parlance(see how they infected me as if parlance could ever be normal); perambulate and travesty of justice.

This was not something I thought of as news(the dress code not the use of heavy words, that’s news). I heard a lot about it on my Facebook feed but that’s because I have a lot of lawyer friends thanks to that degree then that night it was on actual news. TV news and newspaper news, traditional as opposed to social media covered it. The thing is this new set of rules is a little like the release of a new i-phone: almost nothing has changed, the fact of the news changes very few people’s lives but it becomes such a big deal. A visit to the law society of Kenya website tells us that there are 10,007 people admitted to the roll of advocates, this includes the deceased, the inactive and the struck off. This number is 0.025% of the total population of the country which is probably the same as the population that will buy a new apple product upon release, enough to make a night long line but not so many that the country goes into a min-recession like when Kenya beats New Zealand’s ass in rugby(shout out to the Kenyan 7s team). For some reason though it’s important enough to be awarded a slot in the nightly news and during these heavy political times too.

But lawyers have always had much more publicity than their numbers suggest, there are always a disproportionate number of lawyers in politics when compared to any other profession and this is a truth that holds all over the world. Milan Kundera wrote “Every Frenchman is different. But all actors the world over are similar- in Paris, in Prague, or the back of beyond.” By this I think he meant that certain professions attract the same type of person. The same kind of people become policemen and become doctors and become lawyers and become politicians. The reason there is an overlap between lawyers and politicians is (to my mind at least) the similarities between the two professions. These are two professions where words and how you arrange them matter, to the lawyer a wrongly placed comma could cost him a commission; to the politician the wrongly situated pause could lose him a crowd. One deals primarily in the written and one in the oral but all have to learn how to speak a different language, that of legalese and that of politico. Both of them in addition  and in fact as a necessary intrusion to these public displays of eloquence have to be able to walk into back rooms filled with smoke and the smell of heavy liquor and convince old men to trust them. They have to be on speaking terms with their colleagues who, in public, may appear to be their worst enemies but are the only people who understand the follies and triumphs of the life they have chose. And though it may not be the only true path to attaining a high degree of success in these professions a little moral flexibility never hurt. In addition there is the adversarial nature of the professions, both are about winning and losing, both are reincarnations of the gladiator cages where two people walk in proud and if it’s one of those days one walks out in covered in blood and dirt while the other lies there.

So the question becomes what kind of person would want to be a lawyer. To answer this we could draw a very amateur pop-psychological profile from the type of dress that they impose on themselves and their fellows. An old English saying goes clothes make the man, a decision on what outward appearance best suits you could therefore be a pointer to what inner characteristics you wish most to portray.

2.  …dress…must be modest…and…lend…itself to the dignity of the legal profession

Lawyers think themselves deserving of dignity. There is nothing wrong with this, as you judge yourself so shall others judge you.

4. Advocates, and in particular female Advocates, should refrain from wearing revealing clothing. Common sense and modesty should be applied in this regard.

I can’t really complain about this one. Many men suffer through life with a lot of distractions, there’s that hangover banging away just behind your eyelids, there’s that lie about to catch up with you, there are all the worries about your most recent emasculating incident and you wonder if the lie you constructed for yourself could be believed by anyone. To add to this there could have been female advocates in revealing clothing. Add the adversarial nature of this profession and men would not be doing so well, I think we can see that lawyers are by instinct people of exceeding fairness striving to strip away (this is an unfortunate pun considering the paragraph) any advantage.

5. Male advocates must wear ties at all times… Advocates should not remove jackets in open court or chambers except with the permission…
6.  Female advocates should not wear sleeveless shirts or dresses.

 The next rules are about colours(I thought we would be past this by now, well Martin Luther King Jr. was one of those rare politicians who wasn’t a lawyer.) suits, trousers, waistcoats, shoes, sleeveless jumpers need to be black, charcoal grey navy blue or other darkish colours. These must be pinstriped or plaid in a combination of these colours together with white or cream

I believe these can be lumped together since they point to the same state of mind. First of all darkish colours? This is one of the vaguest descriptions I have ever seen, drinks on me to the first advocate who wears a dark pimp-suit-purple suit to court. These are rules the traditional associations we have with certain clothes. Female advocates can’t wear dresses to court, men must wear ties. This is the kind of dressing that signified seriousness and success in the world during the previous century. Kenyans are anglophillic and lawyers even more so. We still study a system of law left to us by our colonial masters and follow it up with dressing as they prescribed. Never mind that the climes that made this mode of dressing popular were frigid and winter-prone while most of Kenya is tropical. There are professions where people can come to work dressed however they like. The truth about these professions though is that they have emerged very recently in our collective conscious as human beings. Technology experts and advertisers for example. Journalists never really had to dress sharp so they get a pass. However the thing about  old professions is things change slow. Especially one such as law where there isn’t going to be a breakthrough that changes the way things are done forever. In medicine a 33 year old whiz kid could come up with a cure to cancer, in engineering his sister could find a revolutionary new way to build bridges even in politics the effects of technology can be felt in the way it mobilises people and raises funds. Law however is mostly untouched. The major life changing decisions are made by Supreme Court justices the world over. These people have eaten at least half a century’s worth of salt. They rose to the top of their profession in the way it used to be, they followed the prescribed rules and it worked for them, nothing makes you a greater defender of status quo than having benefited from it.

This state of affairs leads to atrophy. Lawyers are not comfortable with change and we probably never will be. Change may after all mean extinction. At the orientation seminar for the Kenya school of Law one of the speakers said that the school will train paralegals and other staff who will “do the actual work.” I wanted to clap, who doesn’t want someone doing the actual work. I could just come and charge fees and have someone do all the actual work. However this also means that you can train someone at much less cost and pay them much less to do the lawyer’s work. With proper training it’s possible for everyone to be their own advocate, some of the fees paid are not necessary, not in actuality, but lawyers like politicians understand the power of perception. Perception creates reality. So what you do to create this aura of impenetrability is present to the public a troop of young, unsmiling men and women in black, charcoal grey, navy blue and other darkish coloured suits. Have the men in ties that fade into the background, have none of the women in dresses because this brings images of sunshine to people. What they need to see is black clouds of foreboding that can only be manoeuvred by one inducted into the rites and rituals of an advocate. The dress code is there to protects us, it’s our very own suit of armour.

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(21) In addition to the foregoing the following mode of dress shall apply in respect of appearance before the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court when sitting in open courts:
a)Wigs shall be optional;
b)Collars which must be plain white, must be worn; and
c)Gowns, which must be plain black, must be worn
I think this one is just because those wigs, gowns and collars are superbly awesome. Also those judges don’t have much time to listen to long winded speeches considering that most of the important work is in written submissions, you try giving an hour long speech in a wig and a gown.

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22. For avoidance of doubt advocates shall not dress down on any day when appearing before any court or tribunal.
A profession that to avoid people taking advantage of it decided instead to kill casual Friday. The sense of irony is strong since becoming an advocate is known as being admitted to the bar. Like all the most seductive of people the law is well versed in mixed signals.