Legally barred - The plight of apprentice lawyers
When she was a child, every time Shobita was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she would reply: “a lawyer”. And, valuing her passion, Shobita's father—a primary school teacher—left no stone unturned to fulfil her dreams. She graduated from a private university in 2015; unfortunately, however, she soon found there was more to becoming a lawyer than completing her studies.
There is a legal obligation for a law student to complete a six-month apprenticeship under a senior lawyer with at least 10 years' experience of practicing law. As she did not have personal connections, it was difficult for her to find a senior lawyer to work under. When she did manage to find one, the experience was not a happy one.
She relates that although there is a legal obligation, there are no strict guidelines prescribing what apprentices will learn from their seniors. “This is why seniors usually teach juniors at their sweet will. My senior used to pay extra attention to those who had connections to famous lawyers or were backed by lawyers' families. Meanwhile, students like me won't get that much consideration in spite of having good results,” says Shobita.
Like Shobita, a number of apprentice lawyers also allege that their seniors are not willing to take them along to court and instead try to keep them busy with administrative or clerical tasks. “I know it's a guru-disciple relationship, and I am ready to do anything for him with due respect, such as typing, dealing with clients, or even making tea for him. But, it is really unfortunate if they keep us only for such tasks and don't take us to court at all, despite us having all the qualifications,” says Saiful Islam, another apprentice lawyer, practicing at Dhaka Bar. “The apprenticeship is supposed to give us 'hands-on experience'; but if we get less attention to practise in court, how are we expected to really learn?”
As part of the next step, law students are supposed to sit for a competitive enrolment examination conducted by the Bangladesh Bar Council, the statutory autonomous body of the government constituted under the Bangladesh Legal Practitioners and Bar Council Order, 1972.
“But the problem is, although the Bar Council is supposed to complete the enrolment process of the applicants in the district courts each calendar year, in reality it takes two to three years to complete the process,” says Shobita.
For example, Shobita attended her enrolment examination in 2017 and is still eagerly waiting for the results of her written exams to be published. “I continue to be a burden on my father who still has to bear my accommodation costs in Dhaka. Till I get my results, I cannot even apply for posts of law officers in different corporations or banks,” she adds.
Tousif Ahmed, another apprentice lawyer, practising at the Dhaka Bar, says he goes to court for his senior on a regular basis, collects files and dates of the cases, submits them at the courts, helps his senior prepare notes and in administrative work, but at the end of the day, his senior hands him only Tk 50 or 100, as remuneration.
“You know very well that Tk 100 is not even enough for our daily transport fare to go to court. My friends and I are accustomed to eating only one or two small snacks for lunch, although we run from one court to the other all day. Nothing can be sadder than the fact that, despite having a graduate degree,we have to ask for pocket money from our parents at the age of 28,”rants a frustrated Tousif.
“Ironically, sometimes we feel so privileged when we see that many apprentices are not even paid nominal sums, because their seniors say 'you have come to learn, not to earn'. Our seniors earn Tk 50,000-60,000 from a single case, but they hesitate to give us Tk100 or Tk 200!” he exclaims. “What are we supposed to live on?”
These factors—the indefinite delay in publishing results and low remuneration—discourages most of these apprentice lawyers from continuing the pursuit of their dream profession. “We feel really bad when we see our friends living content lives with secure jobs while we carry a sign that says 'graduate unemployed' at the age of 28-29,” says Shourov Mitra, an apprentice lawyer, practising at Brahmanbaria Judge Court. “If we could have foreseen our futures, we would not have chosen to be lawyers.”
Moreover, a large number of the apprentice lawyers allege that in court, some seniors do not treat them as junior colleagues or show any respect. “Yes, there are obviously good seniors, but the overall culture is one of condescension,” says Sumon Khandaker, another apprentice lawyer. “Even, the clerks sometimes address us as “Shikkhanbish (apprentice)”.
Many apprentice lawyers believe that their problems would be solved if the enrolment examinations were held every year and the results were published within the shortest possible time, in keeping with a verdict by the Supreme Court last year. The verdict highlighted the Bar Council's inability to perform its responsibilities properly, including failing to “conduct the enrolment process of advocates properly”.
A year later, the situation does not seem to have improved significantly.
Attorney General Mahbubey Alam, who is the chairman of Bangladesh Bar Council, argues that the delay in the process of enrolment lies with the proliferation of law students graduating every year. “Most of them are not even getting a real education, and are simply collecting certificates from private universities,” he says. “As a result of the huge numbers, we have to first take a MCQ quiz, through which only 5,000-6,000 students out of 20,000 are selected. After that they sit for the written exams, the scripts of which are checked twice by the judges. The Bar Council does its duty immediately after the exam, but we cannot always pressure judges to check the scripts quickly. The rate at which private universities are selling certificates, we cannot enrol a lawyer without checking the scripts strictly,” he adds.
There were also allegations of corruption of some Bar Council employees. “At times, the office employees earned millions from the applicants in exchange for promises to pass them or change the scripts. In light of those allegations, a new enrolment committee has been formed, consisting of -- one judge from the appellate division, two judges of the High Court Division, Attorney General and a member from the Bar Council. This committee alone is conducting the MCQ, written and viva exams, which is why it takes some time,” he adds.
However, when asked about the frustration this delay creates among the students, he remarks that the profession of law is a profession of frustration, uncertainty, hope and aspiration. “I don't know what the problem is. They can continue working. Also, apprenticeship is a privilege, as they are getting the opportunity of working under a senior to get the certificate. But, nowadays, students don't want to work under their seniors,” he states.
While apprentice lawyers no doubt appreciate the opportunity to work under seniors, many do feel the need for reform in the system of remuneration. However, they have not been able to demand such for fear of losing their apprenticeships. Ram Chandra Das, convener, Apprentice Lawyer Forum, suggests that there should be a minimum grant for apprentice lawyers to tide over the waiting period.
To compare, recently, the Kerala government has sanctioned grants of Rs 5,000 as monthly pension for lawyers with less than three years' practice at the Bar and an annual income of less than Rs 1 lakh.
A number of apprentice lawyers also state that there should be a system of accountability for what is taught and how, so that they do not end up spending years on end simply working as clerks. They also note that if their seniors would treat them with some respect and affection, they would perhaps be less frustrated with their current financial status.
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua, a Supreme Court lawyer, agrees that the current state of affairs for apprentice lawyers is deplorable. “Although we have faced similar challenges in our time, there should be reform in the sector immediately,” Barua argues.
Questioning the accountability of the seniors, Barrister Barua also comments that senior lawyers are not interested in pushing for reform. “Since everything is blurry now, the students cannot ask for anything and the senior can dismiss them easily. But if there's a formal contract or a definite law, they would be accountable for what they teach the apprentices and would also refrain from taking in as many juniors as they want, without the proper facilities,” he adds.
On the other hand, Senior Supreme Court lawyer S M Rezaul Karim argues that giving remuneration to the juniors is absolutely at the discretion of the seniors. “No one can raise questions about this, because they are at a training stage and not entitled to work. You cannot create any law or policy mandating this, because seniors are not a government organisation. Besides, there are many seniors who get only one or two cases a month. The number of senior lawyers who earn on a regular basis is very low nowadays,” he claims.
Attorney-General Mahbubey Alam believes that if someone looks for immediate financial security, it is better not to come to the legal profession. “Here, the possibility of financial improvement in the first five-seven years is very low—and that's why solvency of an applicant matters. This is unlike other professions. They have the options to apply for the judicial service commission or corporations as law officers.”
It is true that the apprentice lawyers do gain valuable practical knowledge through their apprenticeship—but at what cost? The concerned authorities should also consider what the juniors are receiving in return for their efforts, and if they are ending up discouraging budding lawyers who have the dream, but not the means, to pursue law as a profession.
Names of the apprentice lawyers have been changed to protect their identities.