Mutula Snr, lawyer to whom every task was taken as work in legal engineering

Then-Education Minister, the late Mutular Kilonzo Senior,  addresses the press over school uniform. [File, Standard]

Thursday, April 27 will be 10th anniversary of the death of Mutula Kilonzo Snr, a prominent lawyer who served as an MP as well as Education and Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister. 

At the time he passed on, he was the Senator for Makueni County. His son Mutula Kilonzo Jnr was elected to replace him and served for two consecutive terms. He is today the Makueni Governor.

I first met Mutula Kilonzo Snr in July 1999. At the time, he ran his law firm, Mutula Kilonzo & Co Advocates, which was one of the most prestigious and lucrative. For a long time, he had been the attorney for then President Moi. Besides, his firm was on contract with most blue chip companies in town.

The law firm was housed at Corner House in the city centre before relocating to Ngong Road where it is situated today.

My appointment with Mutula Snr was for 7 o’clock in the morning. I wondered why a man of his means would be in the office that early. But with time I have learnt it is the less endowed and the idle who wake up late. The wealthy and the successful are up and about very early and sleep late into the night.

Despite his big name and deep pockets, Mutula Snr was down to earth. Told I was at the reception, he personally came for me and led me to his office. We sat on a sofa set where he held casual discussions, not at the intimidating large oak table where he transacted office business.

I had gone to interview him regarding a matter he had handled at the commercial division of the High Court. It involved giant conglomerate, Kenya Breweries Limited and business magnate and politician Njenga Karume.

Over a cup of tea he personally served, I teased him that word had it that his law firm was one of the most expensive in the region. I expected him to blush and deny it. Instead, he replied in a typical hearty laughter he was known for: “Oh, yes. I don’t come cheap. My services are first class so I charge top dollar!”

To drive home his point, he pulled me to the large window behind his desk, pulled aside the curtains and pointed to a jewelry shop across the road. “See that shop over there”, he said. “It trades in items made of gold – that is watches, rings, chains and what-have-you. The items have different price tags depending on the weight of gold in an item: The more carats of gold the higher the price.”

Back at the sofa set he told me the pricing criteria applicable at the jewelry shop was the same for legal services.  

“The quality of legal services determines the billing. The higher the quality, the higher the fee note.”

Another gush of laughter and he said: “I don’t subscribe to the notion of more for less. That is the language of housewives when buying fruits and vegetables in the market: Never in a law firm!”

I asked him whether high charges didn’t put off potential clients or make him lose existing ones.

“Not at all”, he was quick on the draw. “Indeed, my team has instructions never to bargain with a client. Just tell them what the fee is. If they consider it too high, so be it. Let them take a walk. There is some advocate out there more than willing to take their brief for what they can afford or even less. So why waste time bargaining!”


Then I asked what I thought would put him on the defensive: “Doesn’t that portray you as sort of a shylock only interested in a pound of flesh!”

“Not at all”, he replied in yet another bout of laughter: “Look at that cabinet over there”, he said, pointing. “It is exclusively for files on cases we have handled or are handling pro-bono (free of charge). Either they are ones we took up purely on compassionate grounds or were on matters of great public interest”, he said as he refilled my cup. “Much as we charge top dollar, we aren’t profit-hungry capitalists. There is so much we give back to the society for free.”

Then we got to the matter that I had gone to interview him on – the commercial dispute  between KBL and Karume.

It happened that KBL had abruptly terminated a lucrative beer distribution contract with the businessman. The latter protested and sought court orders for restoration of the status quo or Sh300 million in compensation. Karume won the first round with KBL ordered to pay.

I remember the managing editor of the newspaper I worked for at the time and who was a personal friend to Karume coming up with a screaming headline that read: “Three hundred million cheers for Karume!”

It turned out premature to splash champagne as KBL moved to the Court of Appeal. The company engaged the guru himself – Mutula Kilonzo Snr – to lead their charge at the appellate court.

After weeks of heated arguments, the Court of Appeal overturned the decision by the High Court. Now, it was the turn for KBL executives and their lawyer to have ‘one-for-the-road’ in celebration.

I was assigned to do a round-up write-up on the landmark case which is why I went to interview Mutula Snr. I asked him what ‘secret weapon’ he applied to have the court rule in favour of his client.

“No secret weapon”, he told me. “It just happens that while other advocates practice law, I do legal engineering. That is the difference!”

 Single lane

For Mutula Snr, it was always a one-way lane in pursuit of what he wanted, and a narrow gauge one for that. No space for turning back.

On admission as advocate of the High Court of Kenya in 1975, he debated with his cousin and former classmate Philip Waki (today Justice Philip Waki) whether to seek employment or to go into private practice. His cousin was for employment which guaranteed some income every month as they found their bearings and probably veered to private practice. The cousin pursued his chosen path and rose all the way to be judge of the Court of Appeal.

On his part, Mutula was for big bucks and wanted them now not tomorrow, much as private sector couldn’t guarantee it and was more a matter of try and error.

But no stopping him. From his student savings of Sh250 - yes, two hundred and fifty only – he rented a single-room atop a butchery at Kirima House overlooking Jeevanjee Gardens and bought a second-hand typewriter.

His father who would have wanted him employed reluctantly bought him a simple wooden table and two chairs. In the interview with me, he recalled with laughter that the butchery downstairs where his first office was had a larger and smoother table than his!

Not to worry, the young lawyer went on overdrive to attract clients who would pay him top dollar. Granted, legal practice has a lot to do with impression and perception. He knew it didn’t attract loaded clients to be doing ‘route 11’ (that is walking in the streets and travelling by public means). He saved enough to buy his first car – a Datsun 120Y - even before he learnt how to drive! He would leave it in the showroom for a month to first learn driving and get a license.

Lucky break

Word began to spread about the youthful attorney in town. The winds were on his side and his sails full. He changed cars to drive a Mercedes Benz and relocated to the city centre where money was. Then he met one Hosea Kiplagat who was a close aide to President Moi. The President took an instant liking for the young man and took him on board as his personal lawyer. At last, the boy from Mbooni Hills who walked to school barefoot and was bought his first underwear when going to secondary school had engineered his way to sit and dine at the high table!