I see the practice of law as a calling, a calling to serve, to build lives, to edify, to admonish and to revive the defeated. it is like the calling to priesthood or to a religious ministry. While the priest uses the religious books as tools to advance their ministrations, the lawyer uses the law books and knowledge of the law to propagate change, to advocate, to redeem, to construct, to seek justice and to positively impact lives.
A probate judge recently told me in open court that ”I have been practicing for over 30 years and I hope you spend more time practicing because I have not seen a lawyer display so much compassion on behalf of a client. It is one thing to serve and make a living, it is another to serve and touch lives…” To my clients, he said “You have the best lawyer, who has done a wonderful job for you, I hope you know this, because no lawyer out there would do what this man has done for you at this fee, considering all the work that was involved…” This magistrate said this on the record at a wrongful death settlement approval hearing stemming from the death of a two year old girl who was killed by a reckless teenage driver. As one can imagine, the parents were so distraught and inconsolable even after almost two years since the fatal accident.
When I initially met with the parents to take on the case, I felt the irreplaceable loss they had suffered, I was overwhelmed by the depth of their grief, I felt inexplicable empathy and realized that no matter how much money they are to be paid for the death of their toddler, it cannot heal their grief or fill the deep hole of bereavement indelibly scarred into their hearts. No amount of money could substitute for the smile of the innocent child, no amount of dollars could make up for the warm little hugs of their daughter or compensate for the promising years cut short by death. As such, I decided to charge them a fraction of the prevailing attorney’s fee, I discounted my fees by 70%. This act of professional altruism was what moved the judge to effusively thank me, encourage and praise my act of service.
I often feel the gratification of service when I represent indigent clients for free or for ridiculously minuscule fees and yet advocate on their behalf as if I had been paid millions. At the end, these clients are eternally grateful and I see the positive difference my act of service made in their lives. I recall the case of a young lady whose employment was unjustly terminated by a manager of a retail store on some discriminatory grounds. After the termination, the store refused to pay her for the last week of employment, holding on to the paycheck for over 3 weeks and giving her the runaround whenever she demanded her check. When I got involved, I was able to get the employer to overnight the check the same week. At the mediation of the matter, a few weeks later, I got the manager to admit her wrongdoing, apologize to my client face to face and the employer to rehire my client to a much better position with a better pay and pay her for all the wages she had lost while unemployed as a result of the wrongful termination. All this, I did without charging my client a dime because I knew she could not afford the fees.
There was the case of another client locked up in jail for over two weeks without representation. I took on the case for free, visited him in jail, negotiated with the prosecutor to get 3 out of the 4 criminal charges dismissed with no additional jail time and got him set free without collecting a nickel. Although, he and his family had no money to pay for my services, their flattering adulation and their relentless referrals testify to the depth of their appreciation.
However, the act of selfless practice of law is not without its bumps. On some occasions, I have been disillusioned by clients who are ungrateful in spite of how much I did for them without charges or at discounted fees. On these occasions, my human tendency is to stop assisting people who can’t afford my services, yet the spirit within me gears me on, admonishing me that humans are not predictable, that there will always be minorities of unappreciative, insufferable people who can never be satisfied and that I shouldn’t let the ungrateful few derail me from my calling to serve humanity and meet the needs of the needy out there who will cross my path in the line of duty. I get discouraged, but I don’t get dismantled, I move on with caution and hope that I don’t get burnt again.
Yet, in all these, I adapt, I grow professionally and personally. I advance spiritually, I mature mentally, realizing that I was called to be of service through my profession. While I make a living through the same career path, in the process, I am a social engineer, I build lives leaving ineffaceable marks of constructive paths in the lives of my clients, building bridges of hope, channeling rivers of possibilities with tributaries that flow to benefit the next generation yet unborn.
Emmanuel Olawale May 2011