The changing terrain, new LSK President must navigate to win

Faith Odhiambo (right) is the 51st President of the Law Society of Kenya. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

This column congratulates Faith Mony Odhiambo for being elected the 51st President of the Law Society of Kenya.

This is a huge achievement for the 40-year-old who I am told speaks Arabic, Italian and French in addition to Dholuo, English and Swahili!

She becomes the second woman in LSK history to hold such a post after Raychelle Omamo. With her election, both the bar and the bench are led by women, a feat we must celebrate. I remember reading an article about her energy and drive when she was elected Vice President.

Ms Odhiambo will need these two virtues but must add to them wisdom, tack, and immense courage. She takes leadership of the bar in one of its difficult seasons. As the number of lawyers has increased, opportunities for income expansion have contracted.

This especially impacts the “rank and file” practitioners, which is where the bulk of lawyers operate, and arises from several reasons. One is the large number of entrants into the profession which reduces the per capita work available.

The ensuing cutthroat competition means the fees clients are willing to pay have diminished! The economy has also been contracting, reducing the level of economic activity that requires legal support. Most critically, nature of legal practice has become more sophisticated, slashing the space for routine legal practice substantially. Related to the latter is the consistent takeover of areas that were traditionally reserved for the law by other professionals including accountants and property professionals. Quacks are also feasting on legal work!

When I was admitted as an Advocate 35 years ago, more than 70 per cent of legal practice was accident compensation, conveyancing, especially security perfections for banks, and routine litigation. Any lawyer with a basic law degree could excel in these areas.

Not only has the conveyancing market relatively shrunk, but most banks hardly pay fees worth mentioning for routine securitisation. Accident compensation practice died with United Insurance and similar entities.

In litigation, the slow progress of court cases, despite the increase in number of judges, has prejudiced this area as an income earner for lawyers. Granted, the changing character of legal practice has also opened new areas for lawyer engagement. Unfortunately, this space has been corralled by the imaginative, innovative and well-resourced lawyers.

The average lawyer has been unable or unwilling to enter the new and emerging areas and been left to fight over the crumbs available in traditional legal practice. Lawyer misconduct is at an all-time high. The high cost of living has especially hurt lawyers who must, in line with the dictates of their profession, invest in tools of trade including the right attire.

This is the terrain that Ms Odhiambo must operate in and respond to. Apart from these trade union issues that will require lobbying to protect the zones reserved for lawyers’ bread and butter, including pushing for enhancement of efficient operations at courts and registries, she must please the numerous LSK constituencies defined by age, politics, and class all of whom have different demands on LSK leadership.

Outside member issues, she must navigate the State-Bar relationship with courage tempered with wisdom. The Law Society has a history of speaking truth to power and requiring the state to protect and promote the rule of law in all its manifestations.

While the days of naked and oppressive despotism are over, the state is more sophisticated in its misuse of power and oftentimes abuses power within what are ostensibly legal processes.

How the new President balances combativeness with a “let us reason together” approach will determine her success at the helm. Finally, the Law Society has been a leader in law reform over the years. Kenyans assume that with the passage of the 2010 Constitution, the days of law reform are over.

On the contrary, this is the time to be hawk-eyed as Parliament routinely passes laws that offend the Constitution. The Constitution remains largely unimplemented.

The new President and her team must therefore not be so busy and overwhelmed by trade union issues that they forget that protecting and promoting a constitutionally compliant Kenya is a debt they owe to the nation. It is what will keep the LSK relevant to Society.

-The writer is an advocate of the High Court