Absence At Bar Agm Not All Down To Apathy

(Malaysian Bar pic)From Ibrahim M Ahmad
A senior lawyer’s eyebrow-raising, expletive-laced video post on social media last Saturday must have embarrassed lawyers up and down the country.
The lady lawyer was berating fellow practitioners for failing to attend the 77th annual general meeting (AGM) of the Malaysian Bar that day.
In truth, the Bar’s failure to meet the quorum requirement set out in the Legal Profession Act 1976 is not something entirely new to lawyers practising in this country.
In the nineties and noughties, the legal profession suffered much hardship after surges in admissions saw the lawyers’ body frequently fail to satisfy a previous requirement that one-fifth of its membership attend general meetings.
Conspiracy theorists even suggested that the government at the time deliberately chose to ignore the problem to keep the outspoken body of lawyers in check.
Sanity must have prevailed, because the law was eventually amended to reduce the quorum requirement to 500 members.
These days, however, even that number seems difficult to achieve.  This despite the exponential growth of the profession, which presently has some 21,570 lawyers in active legal practice.
Even so, was the tirade justified?
Ads by KioskedLawyers of a certain vintage tend to eulogise what they call the “glory days” of the profession.
In those days, the Bar,  led by learned and principled men and women, was a close-knit entity, underpinned by a camaraderie the profession has regrettably long lost.
V C George, Raja Aziz Addruse, Param Coomaraswamy, Manjeet Singh Dhillon, Zainur Zakaria, Hendon Mohamed and Cyrus Das were Bar presidents of great distinction who commanded much respect and admiration.
They were, after all, the leading lawyers of their generation.
With all due respect, the same cannot be said of more recent occupants of that high office. To put it another way, the Bar has in recent times lacked personalities capable of drawing in the crowd.
Raja Aziz Addruse was, without doubt, the standout name on that list.
Ads by KioskedLawyers tell of how meetings would shush into pin-drop silence whenever he spoke. Despite speaking in the gentlest of tones, his words would carry across the room like a sonic boom.  His every sentence was an education for eager listeners.
Those were also the days when lawyers stood up without exception for each other, and for the independence of the judiciary. That is a big reason why lessons learnt following the 1988 judicial crisis retain meaning and relevance even today.
Those glory days, however, are now well in the distant past. Three and a half decades have elapsed, and the world, the nation, the profession, and the traits of lawyers have changed drastically.
For one, none of those legal luminaries would have ever spoken profanity.
Watching the clip, one lawyer-friend wondered what Raja Aziz himself would have said had he addressed his fellow lawyers on social media.
Another asked how a Bar led by him would have dealt with Najib Razak’s legal team in July and August of last year.
Ads by KioskedWe live in very different times. So much has changed for lawyers.
The Bar today can hardly claim to be united, and Council has for several years now grown increasingly distant from members.  Significant changes are desperately needed.
The time is right for the Bar Council to step back from excessive involvement in the political developments of the nation.
Instead, the time has come for it to take a real interest in day-to-day bread and butter issues affecting its members.  It is no secret that a vast majority are struggling to eke out a living.
Lawyers have long complained that the traditional vehicles of their practices – the sole proprietorships and partnerships – are outdated and no longer fit for purpose.  How much longer must they wait for newer and more effective models to become available?
Technology has advanced to such an extent that lawyers are constantly left playing catch-up. Many are still employing outdated technology and archaic processes to get work done.
Ads by KioskedOver the years, the Bar Council itself has done reasonably well to incorporate IT into its administration. Lawyers say they could do with some help from Council when it comes to incorporating new technology into their practices.
Council must also change how it communicates with its members and the public at large. That may involve moving away from cold and wordy media releases to more modern modes of communication, and in friendlier terms.
A major threat to the profession these days is the rapid pace at which artificial intelligence is taking over many of the lawyer’s traditional job functions. What must lawyers do to stay relevant?
Modern-day virtual hearings have taken away the privilege young lawyers had of sitting in the same courtroom and hearing how their seniors submit, speak and conduct themselves.
Widespread use of written submissions may have saved much judicial time, but lawyers now find themselves short on advocacy skills.
On top of all that, the increasing use among lawyers of impersonal and non-verbal modes of communication (e.g., WhatsApp) has narrowed the opportunities available for members to interact meaningfully among themselves.
Ads by KioskedShorn of leaders, struggling in practice and lacking camaraderie at the Bar, is there anything left to draw lawyers to attend general meetings?
Multiple other issues abound.  What about the fact that there are now far more practising lady lawyers (12,062) than men (9,508)? How does that affect the dynamics within the legal fraternity?
As far as the conduct of AGMs is concerned, how about decentralising them? What if they were run live simultaneously from different venues across the country? Will that not attract more participation from those outside the Klang Valley?
The attendance of a team of council members at each location would also go a long way to improving interaction with members all across the country.
Of course, punitive measures can also be introduced so that lawyers who absent themselves without good reason are hit with a fine or some other appropriate sanction.
Presently, there is a lack of participation from a vast majority of lawyers even in the election of council members.
Ads by KioskedFor the 2023/2024 term, only 4,581 (or 20%) of 22,236 members returned their postal voting ballots.  In other words, four out of every five members played no part in electing this Council.  Why?
Non-attendance at the recent AGM may not be all down to apathy.
The Bar Council must work hard to restore its connection with, and make itself more relevant to, its base.
The new Council must undertake a more robust and honest introspection, aimed at fostering better engagement with members while addressing key issues affecting the profession. - FMT
Ibrahim M Ahmad is a FMT Reader.
Ads by KioskedThe views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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