Legal repute that’s worthy of defending

A good name is more desirable than great riches.

–– Proverbs 22:1.

A good reputation is the most precious asset a person or organization can own in a lifetime. It was so in ancient times, as the author of Proverbs asserted. It is also so today, and shall be for evermore, to quote a biblical phrase, as long as human civilization continues to exist.

In many ways, a good reputation is like good health. Most people and organizations take it for granted when everything is going well. Because reputation fits the description of an intangible asset, most people do not appreciate that it has to be jealously guarded and skilfully managed in the same way as a tangible asset.

It is mostly in times of crisis, when a good reputation comes under serious threat as a result of scandal, controversy or some other unfavourable development that causes a loss of confidence, mistrust or other issues which strain important relationships, that its true value is brought to the fore.

It so happens that a good reputation often takes years to build, but can be easily destroyed in the twinkling of an eye. Such is its fragile nature.

The legal profession is currently grappling with serious reputational issues. If you were to randomly choose a sample of Barbadians from across the social spectrum and ask their opinions of lawyers, it is very likely you will receive some of the most unflattering responses.

A reading of prevailing public opinion suggests lawyers are widely regarded as a questionable bunch whose main interest is getting rich at the expense of clients. Such comments speak to a deep mistrust and loss of confidence in a profession once much admired for erudition and eloquence.

The strong anti-lawyer sentiments were powerfully captured in a comment by a caller to a talk show last week. He suggested that if Prime Minister Freundel Stuart really wanted to leave a favourable legacy, he should get Parliament to pass a law requiring lawyers to hand over to clients the money collected on their behalf within 28 days.

All of this represents the fall-out from a number of highly publicized cases of questionable conduct involving lawyers in their relationship with clients over the years. Just last week, one was disbarred and ordered to repay a client over $600,000, which was not used for the intended purpose.

It is unfortunate that the public seems to be painting all lawyers with the same brush.  Based on available evidence, it seems to be just a small minority who are the source of the problems that have tarnished the reputation of an entire profession.

It is also ironic that a profession known for robustly defending people in the courts of law has not done the same in defence of its reputation in the court of public opinion through more proactive engagement by the Barbados Bar Association. By not effectively putting its case to the public, the association allowed what initially was a risk issue that could be nipped in the bud to develop into a full-blown crisis.

The Barbados Bar Association is responsible for taking disciplinary action against members who flout the rules. Indeed, disbarments occur on the recommendation of the Association’s Disciplinary Committee, as happened last week. The Court of Appeal completes the process by upholding such a recommendation if it is satisfied there are strong grounds for doing so.

The average Barbadian does not understand the disciplinary process as it relates to lawyers. It is the Barbados Bar Association’s responsibility to explain how the process works and identify any challenges it may be experiencing as a result of deficiencies that contribute to what the public sees as inordinate delays in clients getting justice in cases they bring.

Barbados Bar Association president Tariq Khan said last week’s disbarment was proof that the disciplinary system is working. However, he should not take comfort that this development alone will cause Barbadians to have a change of heart. As most people will see it, it was one case where a lawyer was caught and punished but there are others out there who may be doing wrong and getting away.

The Barbados Bar Association needs to recognize that the legal profession faces a major crisis from a public relations perspective. An appropriate response would be to place greater emphasis on improving stakeholder communication through an extensive outreach campaign aimed at rebuilding the fractured relationship with the public. Such an effort, over time, will pay handsome dividends for the profession.

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