LAWYERS AND MENTORS: WALE ADESOKAN, SAN ( Mike Awoyinfa’s weekly column)
Wale Adesokan, SAN, one of the disciples of a legal juggernaut in today’s “LAWYERS AND MENTORS” series pays homage to his mentor and master Chief GOK Ajayi. Adesokan shares his recollections of the quintessential advocate and the things he learnt from him which have become a part and parcel of him and shaped his life, such that some people say he acts and talks like Ajayi unconsciously. How far true that is he wants those who knew GOK Ajayi in practice to judge.
For me the real lawyer is the advocate. And if you are going to be a good advocate, your apprenticeship begins when you have been called to the bar. At Law School, they don’t tell you that you need to be mentored. They assign you to go and watch court proceedings, you do court attachment for a couple of weeks, you do law office attachment, but you need mentoring. This road, some people have passed through it. And it’s a profession that thrives not only on seniority but also on precedents. So, people who have passed through the road can give you their experiences to say: “Oh, it happened before. This was how we handled it.”
One of my reading habits is to read the biographies and autobiographies, principally of old lawyers. For me, you can be mentored directly one on one. You can also be mentored indirectly through peeping into what they have written, how they lived their lives. My boss in those days, Chief GOK Ajayi, SAN, would say “nobody goes to court with me when I am going in the morning.” He doesn’t carry his wife, he doesn’t carry any of his children, he doesn’t carry any of his juniors when he is leaving home. He has a stereo in his car, he never played it. He said: “When I am going to court, I don’t want any disturbance.” It was not the era of GSM mobile phones where he could be disturbed with phone calls. Of course he had phones at home and in the office. In his solitude, he is thinking about the case he is going for. That’s the only thing on his mind. He had read the file. He had prepared. Maybe he had even burnt the midnight oil. But for that period, the only thing he wants to think about is his case. He is meditating upon it and saying: “This strategy of mine. Is it going to work? What if I try it this way? What if they come up with this, what should I do?”
Attention to details. Thinking on your feet. Focus. That’s GOK for you. He was such a fantastic man. I was just lucky to have worked under his tutelage. After God, I attribute what I know in law to Chief GOK Ajayi. I joined him in 1990. I did my Youth Service in Jos in 1987 and I was retained at the Law Firm where I did my primary assignment. While serving I wrote applications indiscriminately to law firms in Lagos. Most of them did not respond. The ones that responded said they didn’t have vacancy. I wrote to Chief GOK Ajayi at that time but he did not respond. I wrote that letter in March, 1988. And in July, 1989, a copy of his letter which was sent to my hometown was put in an envelope by my younger brother and sent to me in Jos. It read: “As at the time you wrote, we didn’t have a vacancy. We now have vacancies and we are considering applications that we have in our file. It is now fifteen months since you sent in your application. We don’t know whether you are still interested. If you are still interested, let us know.”
At that time, you don’t get to work with such high profile lawyers unless you go through somebody influential that knows them. It could be either their friend or someone close to them. Even to sign our call to bar forms, some senior advocates would not attend to you because they didn’t know you. So, at the time that I joined him in January 1990, I was the only one in a team of about twelve that didn’t know him nor had somebody that knew him before working in the Law Firm. I came from the blues. It was just God.
I remember him as a fantastic advocate. Practice has changed now. In those days, advocacy was oral. Now, we do a lot of front-loading. What you want to say, you put in a document and send it in advance. We do less of talking now. Advocacy has almost gone. Little or no advocacy again in the courtroom. What people need to do and are now doing is transferring your advocacy into the cold letters, into the written papers that you present to the Judges. So that when they are reading it, you are making them feel the way you want them to feel when you are looking at them one on one and addressing them.
At that time, if you mention Chief Rotimi Williams, you talk of GOK Ajayi. In the same category were the likes of Mr. Kehinde Sofola and Chief Afe Babalola. If you were looking for integrity, GOK Ajayi was number one. He didn’t read newspapers during the day. When they supply him newspapers, all of us would be reading it, even though he is the one that pays for it. When he is going home at night, around 8p.m., that is when he would ask for the newspapers. He would read them along the journey from office to home. Once he gets home, that’s the end of his newspaper reading. He was too busy, too serious-minded to spend too much time with newspapers and engage in frivolities. In the office, he will not tell you not to have visitors but when you see the seriousness of the environment and how busy you are, you will know that you ought to discourage personal visitors. For him, it was a culture of work, work, work. When I joined him, he was 59. We were in our twenties. We go to court in the morning and come back in the afternoon. We normally saw clients from 2pm. Sometimes we are having conferences with clients till 7 in the evening. When we the juniors are tired, he is still as cool as cucumber. He was a workaholic in every sense of the word. He knew how to get out that fine point of the law. That hidden but germane, important point, he knew how to detect it and he got it. He spoke law as if he was the law. He could write forty pages for you and you might not have more than three or four authorities cited in it. The same forty pages, another lawyer would cite, if you like, 50 cases. But you know that every paragraph of what he wrote was law, the way judges and textbook writers would pronounce or declare it. He was simply an authority on law. Even without citing authorities, if you are knowledgeable in law you knew what he wrote was the law. He had so domesticated legal authorities within himself so much so that, for him, they appeared trite, given. So he would be releasing legal authorities as if he was just conversing such that, for him, most principles of law are not such landmarks that he needed to go and back up with cited authorities. Every sentence he wrote, he wrote as if the law was in his belly and he was just bringing it out.
He is remembered for many landmark cases. For example, he was the one on the opposite side of Chief Richard Akinjide’s “twelve two-third” political case of 1979 between Chief Awolowo and Alhaji Shehu Shagari. Of course, Chief Akinjide won but the rest is the history that we all know. He told us of how he won the admiration of Chief Obafemi Awolowo in legal practice. Although he was quite comfortable when he died, he would have been a lot, lot richer if integrity, humility and contentment were not his watchword. (To be continued)