Letter: Some reflections on Caribbean legal education – Part 1

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Dear Sir:

Now that Carnival has passed and we are in the season of reflection and introspection, I wish to return to an issue that arose in early February in Trinidad and Tobago regarding legal education. I refer to the statement by President Weekes which brought on the ire of Israel Khan, learned Senior Counsel, in a letter to the Trinidad Express newspaper published on Feb 2, 2019.

While the president’s address raised certain issues, it is clear from Khan’s response that there are undercurrents at play which are much greater than the words the president expressed. Indeed, the controversy which has arisen on this issue is, in my opinion, the tip of the iceberg when one considers Caribbean vocational legal education in its proper context.

It is reported that in an address to attendees at the President’s Medal Awards ceremony, President Weekes described students at the Hugh Wooding Law School (HWLS), during her teaching experience there, as being dishonest, lazy, had a sense of entitlement and wished maximum return for minimum effort. In contextualizing her statement, Khan referenced her other statement that, “It is clear that these failings of character had been carried over from their earlier interaction with the education system.”

Khan went on to contextualise his critique in the light of his indisputable and impressive teaching record at the HWLS. He stated, “…I have found for each year, there was a very small percentage of students in my two courses who were lazy and like the president I found a significant percentage had a sense of entitlement and wanted maximum return for minimum effort. But in each of these 32 years, I found a minuscule number of students who were occasionally dishonest on unimportant issues. Those students in my two courses amounted to less than 5 percent of the classes.”

Before commenting on these statements, it must be noted that the Hugh Wooding Law School is a postgraduate institution which is run by the Council of Legal Education together with two other Caribbean law schools. It issues the Legal Education Certificate which qualifies it s graduates to be admitted to practice law in any of its participant territories. The programme is labelled as a vocational programme focused on the practical training of attorneys as opposed to the academic training reserved for the LLB. dispensed by university programmes.

I also make the following statements as a tutor and course director at the HWLS for 20 years and as the researcher/analyst of the Council for the period 2006 – 9.

The two points on which both Khan and President Weekes are in agreement are that a significant percentage of students have a sense of entitlement and wanted maximum results for minimum effort. Now, there is nothing wrong with the latter. Indeed, it is strategic management to maximise one’s effort through collaboration and other methods once it is done honestly and ethically. The feeling of entitlement on the other hand, (which is prevalent in higher education, locally and globally) must be anathema to any right-thinking lawyer and member of society.

Like most of my contemporaries in the legal fraternity, I came from a postcolonial era where legal education was a privilege and not a ‘right.’ My education was paid for, to a large extent, by the Caribbean taxpayer to whom I owe an eternal debt of gratitude. It is my duty to serve them and not myself.

The feeling of entitlement of which we speak leads to arrogance statements such as “…because I am bright, I am entitled to pass all exams with distinctions as I used to’ or “I am better than you because I am smarter and brighter.” When such feelings are encouraged in a group, it becomes part of the culture of that group. In the context of where we are as a society, do we really want to encourage such a culture among the future leaders of our societies?

Finally, on this point, let me say this. As a lawyer, I know that I will never know the law and am always learning. A good lawyer is an eternal student, not only of the law, but of life and the society in which the law operates. The arrogance which derives from entitlement leaves no room for personal and professional development. I have always told my students that arrogance and learning cannot exist in the same space. The former will always displace the latter and when a lawyer stops learning, no matter how brilliant he may be, it is tragedy of underutilized potential.

Khan found ‘isolated dishonesty’ to include (and here I use his terms next to mine:

Knowing Khan as I do, I am sure that he was not condoning or excusing the interpretation I have put on his words – but his own words gives us all reason to pause at a time when complaints before the Ethics Committee of the Law Association against attorneys is at an all-time high. In this context, even 5 percent “dishonesty” is too much! I would argue that this rate is much higher based on institutional, systemic structures which foster such behavior. I now wish to address these issues.

To be continued…

Michael Theodore
Retired Senior Tutor II – Council of Legal Education
Candidate for doctor of Education (University of Sheffield)

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