Gbalazeh, Apprenticeship and the Liberian Legal Limbo

By Nat Galarea Gbessagee

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 24, 2002

In a country wallowing in abject poverty, uncontrollable social, economic and political upheavals, substandard and unequipped schools, and national illiteracy rate as high as 70 percent, one would think that egotistical bigotry and false standards will be subordinated to practicality and concrete national efforts aimed at meeting the immediate needs of suffering Liberians, but, then, think again! In Liberia, and in the minds of most of our so-called learned legal scholars, preserving the same old bigotry of class and false standards that have brought the country to its present knees seems more important than those ordinary Liberians and others now lingering in prisons throughout Liberia, or who have run afoul of the law in one way or the other, and in desperate need of legal representation.

Forget the legal credo or clique, "justice delayed is justice denied". Persons who are unfortunate to run afoul of the law, whether for political, economic, or social reasons, should look forward to getting their day in court whenever Liberia can boast of sufficient "college educated" lawyers from the nation's only law school-a law school which, like the state university hosting it, is saddled with multiple problems occasioned by a lack of sufficient instructors, poor quality instruction due to textbook shortages, unpaid faculty, unconducive learning environment (poor sanitation; no electricity for example) and the lack of opportunity for practicum - to make up for the ever growing shortage of qualified lawyers in the country, not taking into account the unlikelihood of new law school graduates foregoing potential career advances in Monrovia to take up practice in the remotest parts of the country. Ridiculous, isn’t? Never mind! It is not my intention to bore you, but rather to give you some insights into the unfolding drama in Monrovia about legal apprenticeship vs. law school degree.

By now you know the crux of the ongoing debate between former Liberian Chief Justice Emmanuel Gbalazeh and current Liberian Chief Justice Gloria Scott, supported by the Liberian Justice Ministry and the Liberian National Bar Association. Justice Gbalazeh, apparently frustrated by the huge backlogs of cases at various municipal, district, and circuit courts throughout Liberia, and the slow pace of justice in the country generally, recommended at a national reconciliation conference the reintroduction of the Liberian Legal Apprenticeship System - a system whose byproduct includes a huge array of highly respected past and present Liberian lawyers - to train potential Liberian lawyers who have the aptitude but not the luxury of attending law school to handle the backlog of cases in order to give legal relief to persons lingering in prisons under the general legal limbo created by the shortage of lawyers.

Well, as Gbalazeh later found out, many of his colleagues in the legal profession in Liberia don’t find logic in his argument; not even the Liberian National Bar Association that should be a catalyst for transparent justice and fairplay. But the National Bar Association’s position on the reintroduction of the Liberian Legal Apprenticeship System is not new. Back in 1988 (or 1987), the National Bar Association of Liberia opposed a similar proposal by the Liberian Justices of the Peace Association to reintroduce the Apprenticeship System in Liberia. The Bar Association advocated for potential Liberian lawyers to be graduates of law school, especially the local law school, even though the public university that hosts the national law school could not - years long before the 1989-1997 civil war - and still cannot, absorb half of Liberian graduating high school seniors each year even if it wanted to due to lack of space. Imagine what the situation is today in post-civil war Liberia when the standard of living is near appalling, and the re-opening of the university has been problematic due to a host of reasons not intended for discussion in this article.

To her credit, nonetheless, Chief Justice Scott was not as direct as the Liberian Justice Ministry and the National Bar Association of Liberia in rejecting former Chief Justice Gbalazeh’s recommendation to the government to reintroduce the Apprenticeship System for Liberian lawyers as a means of solving the serious shortages of judicial officials and legal practitioners in several political subdivisions of Liberia. Chief Justice Scott, in spite of her apparent opposition, took the matured route of empanelling a five-member committee to study the matter and report back to her, according to news reports from Monrovia. But the Justice Ministry and the National Bar Association were not so matured in their denunciation of reintroduction of the legal apprenticeship system. The Bar Association and the Liberian Justice Ministry outrightly rejected reintroduction of the apprenticeship system for lawyers by warning of “serious consequences” for legal practice in Liberia with the potential of setting back the clock for legal education in Liberia, and undermining whatever gains made since abolition of the apprenticeship system some twenty plus years ago. "We believe then and now that apprenticeship was unfit and inadequate for an efficient legal system, especially so for a developing profession," the Liberian Justice Minister was quoted by a local Liberian daily as saying.

Indeed, these are the arguments for and against the reintroduction of the apprenticeship system for Liberian law practitioners. Let's now examine the merits and demerits of each argument. First, let's consider the underlying variables (merits) in former Justice Gbalazeh's recommendation. Gbalazeh noted that the Liberian judiciary is not adequately represented throughout Liberia because of the shortage of lawyers--both qualified (and semi-qualified). On this score alone, it means people outside Monrovia will have little or no access to county and district attorneys, magistrates, county solicitors or public defenders, and perhaps justices of the peace, and a whole range of other legal practitioners. It also means that local government officials could at will arrest and detain any persons indefinitely without any available course of redress to the persons affected. A disgruntled soldier or vigilante could also easily become plaintiff, judge, jury and executioner without any form of legal restraints or legal recourse for the victims.

A second variable is that even under the best of circumstances, basic civil liberties will not be protected in the absence of "qualified" lawyers - qualified in the sense of competence at Liberian jurisdictional legal precepts, procedures, and case laws - providing legal representation to persons in legal trouble. A simple deduction is that persons seeking legal redress don’t have the luxury of time. Time is of the essence to anybody in legal trouble, whether the trouble derives from false accusation or willing participation in a crime, as any unnecessary delays could lead to the curtailment of the person’s civil liberties and freedoms of movement, association, and sometimes speech. Moreover, a law degree doesn’t come by easily. It takes a four-year college degree to enroll in law school, and depending on individual circumstances, graduation from law school could take up to four or more years. Should persons currently in prison or in legal trouble in Liberia therefore wait for the next eight or more years for legal representation due to the present shortage of lawyers in the country or, is Gbalazeh correct that reintroduction of the apprenticeship system will help reduce the impact of the shortage of lawyers? You do the math!

A third variable is the availability of law schools and colleges in Liberia. First, does Liberia now have sufficient colleges to absorb the number of high school graduates each year? If so, that's a marked improvement because when I graduated from high school in the late '70, Liberia had only two or three non-theological four-year degree granting institutions, and the largest and only public university could not absorb every graduating high school senior for lack of space. On top of the shortage of colleges, there was, and I believe still is, one law school in Liberia, operated by the lone state university located in Monrovia. Or are there enough colleges and law schools in Liberia today to accommodate all interested students? I think not! So what’s the basis for opposing legal apprenticeship and requiring law degree as prerequisite for legal practice in Liberia when the country has only one law school, and not enough colleges to absorb all high school graduates who want to go to college, let alone law school? Is such requirement realistic, or is it a false standard intended to perpetuate the monopoly and elitist class culture of a select few while subjecting the populace to "legal jeopardy"? Or should we tell our Liberian brethren in legal trouble, "You are entitled to counsel, and fair and speedy trial but sorry not enough counsels at this time so please bear staying in jail a little longer!"

In the Gbalazeh proposal, nonetheless, we can at least deduce some merits and demerits in the argument. But can we deduce any merits or demerits in the argument of the opponents of legal apprenticeship? I submit, humbly, “No”, unless the National Bar Association and the Liberian Justice Ministry can provide more evidence than they have done so far. According to reports in the Monrovia daily, The News, Liberian Justice Minister Koboi Johnson said, "...apprenticeship was unfit and inadequate for an efficient legal system..." He also said Liberians, perhaps law degree holders, "...should be opposed to the idea of reverting to or suggesting the re-introduction of the apprenticeship system which will further compound an already complex situation in our judicial system”. And Liberian National Bar Association President Marcus R. Jones warned of “serious consequences if the recommendation by the former chief justice is accepted."

But is such argument sufficient? Are we as a nation and people willing to sacrifice the legal rights of our citizens on the basis of philosophy and not concrete data that will prove that reintroduction of legal apprenticeship will cause irreparable harm to the integrity and practice of law in Liberia? Wouldn’t it be prudent for both the National Bar Association and the Liberian Justice Ministry to state with clarity and certainty how reintroduction of legal apprenticeship is likely to cause "serious consequences" for the legal profession in Liberia, or how it will “further compound an already complex situation” in the Liberian judicial system? Should we take at face value that the two institutions are correct? Or must they be challenged to produce empirical data in support of their claims. I think they ought to be challenged to produce empirical data in support of their claims, especially when in the case of Liberia, most prominent law firm owners, lawyers, judges, and so forth are graduates of the original legal apprenticeship system or Blackstone and LaSalle Extension schools since there were no law schools in Liberia before the 1960s. In fact, some of the law professors who taught law to and mentored most of the current advocates against the reintroduction of legal apprenticeship in Liberia were graduates of legal apprenticeship. So how qualified are our so-called “college educated” lawyers if they say the persons who taught them law were not qualified by virtue of their apprenticeship system of education? Or did the apprenticeship-educated lawyers ceased to be qualified only after they had taught law to the “college educated” lawyers? Ironic, isn’t it?

As a developing country, we must endeavor to utilize every available talent or human resource to assure maximum growth and development. For instance, If it is okay for new law school graduates with little or no military training or military science experience to take up legal advocacy roles in the Liberian military services with conferred military ranks such as 1st Lieutenant, Captain, Major or Colonel, shouldn’t it also be okay for military personnel involved with military adjudication to have access to legal education whether through legal apprenticeship or barracks-based legal clinics? Wouldn’t it be more logical to provide legal education on a flexible schedule and easily accessible to trained military personnel and self-taught Liberian judicial workers such as justices of the peace, magistrates, solicitors, court clerks, etc.? Or do we expect non-law school educated military advocates and self-taught judicial workers to take long leave of absence from their places of assignment throughout Liberia and travel to Monrovia to attend law school? Wouldn't it be best to sanction nationally accredited legal apprenticeships, legal clinics or correspondence schools in order to accommodate persons in every segment of the Liberian society desirous of legal education? Does it make any sense to require every Liberian lawyer to have a law degree with one law school in the country?

So what's really the issue at stake here? Is the issue that of legal apprenticeship being bad, or is the issue that of a group of law school educated lawyers trying to preserve their domination and control over the legal profession in Liberia? Certainly, legal apprenticeship can’t be that bad as every form of learning demands a practicum or on-the-job-training and orientation for proficiency and measurable productivity? In the legal profession in particular, no matter how brilliant a new law school graduate, he or she is assigned a mentor on the job for professional guidance. In essence, a law degree is not an end in itself, but a stepping-stone to professional growth and development as with degree in any other profession. We must recognize and appreciate this truism.

Besides, did it ever occur to the Bar Association, the Justice Ministry and other opponents of legal apprenticeship then, and now, that the Apprenticeship System could be reintroduced with qualifying standards and certification goals set jointly by the Bar Association and the Law School to admit apprenticeship graduates into practice? Would it hurt if the standards were set such that persons participating in clearly delineated and recognizable legal apprenticeship programs be required to sit and pass a national certification examination spearheaded by the Liberian Judiciary and the Bar Association as criteria for admission into legal practice at prescribed levels within the Liberian legal system? Or is law school degree now more important than ensuring transparent justice and the quality of persons admitted into law practice in Liberia? I hope not because we could be threading on the same false standards, arrogance, and bigotry that have reduced the Liberian nation and people to naught!

You see we in Liberia have always had an ongoing class warfare disguised as public standards. At some point, it was not okay to wear African attires at public functions; now we can! It was not proper to speak local African languages and dialects in public; now we can! It was not okay to play football (soccer), or to sing and dance to cultural songs or music by local Liberian musicians in public, now we can! Overtime, many of the false standards that plunged the Liberian society have evaporated, but it seems the 30 percent of the Liberian population that has some form of formal education is not ready to let go of its domination. We seemed to have elevated “book learning” to be the sum total of education when it is not. Classroom instruction or "book learning" is not education, but rather a by-product of education. Education encompasses learning in the classroom, learning on the job, learning from our parents, friends, peers, and members in and outside our community, learning through self-reading and experimentation, and learning by way of acquiring new skills and processes from non-traditional sources. So those who see academic degrees as a summation of education and competence are fooling none other but themselves.

We will do well as Liberians to distinguish between academic degree or "book learning" and education, between education and qualification, between experience and competence, between talent and capability, and between false standards and practicality. Otherwise, we will continue to undermine our own national socio-economic development goals and aspirations, and prolong the suffering of our people. And this is where we seem to be heading in the current debate about legal apprenticeship and law degree. Why should it matter at all, for example, for a legal clerk with three to five years practical work experience with a major law firm or court to get a law degree when he or she is already competent and well versed in legal jargons and procedures, and can perform the essential functions of the job with little or no supervision. Doesn’t productivity and competence count over a mere college or law degree devoid of practical experience? In the example of the legal clerk, wouldn’t it be prudent to offer the clerk credentialing or refresher training opportunity through mandatory apprenticeship or law courses rather than requiring he or she to obtain a law degree?

Now, lest I be misunderstood, I value education in the general sense, and I do have a college degree, but I consider college degree to be a steppingstone to personal development and advancement rather than a measurement of one’s qualification and competence for efficiently executing a job task. Competence and efficiency come about from experience gained by performing the same or similar job tasks, and not because of the academic degree(s) one has. That is the distinction I have attempted to make throughout this article. Like former Chief Justice Gbalazeh, whose academic credentials, competence and experience are not disputed by his desire to see the Legal Apprenticeship reintroduced; I do not believe that the reintroduction of the apprenticeship system is an affront to those Liberians who have worked very hard to earn their law degrees. What the apprenticeship program will do is to recruit and train talented individuals with legal aptitude, but who never had the opportunity to go to law school, to help reduce the backlog of cases before the courts by ensuring transparent justice and fairplay for all concerned.

After all law, like writing and medicine, is a result-oriented profession that abhors mediocrity. I just can’t understand the fear factor or the harm the reintroduction of the legal apprenticeship will do to the Liberian legal profession because any potential legal student, practitioner, or apprentice will have to be poised, familiar with legal jargons and procedures and courtroom decorum if he or she wants to succeed. Most contemporary Liberian professionals in journalism, law, architectural design, public administration and regional planning, cartography and housing design, energy management, electricity, plumbing, water and sewer management, diplomacy, medicine, teaching, finance and accounting, geology, mining, and military science to name but a few entered these professions through some form of apprenticeship before pursuing a college degree. Even I first entered the world of journalism through a journalism apprenticeship-training program at the Ministry of Information, as did most Liberian print, broadcast, photo journalists with advanced college degrees today.

As a nation and people, we must not only admire the level of development and opportunities in the most advanced societies, but we must also learn the methods by which these societies developed. For instance, here in the United States, a country with no shortages of grade school, colleges and universities, accommodation is made for persons who for one reason or other could not attend or finish high school, to take and pass a national high school-equivalency examination, the GED, for admission to college. The GED provides an opportunity for any persons, no matter how old or young, to attend college without need for the kind of false standards and artificial barriers created in Liberia where anybody who desires college education must first complete a 12-year day or night high school routine. No consideration or accommodation is made for people in various time sensitive vocations such as the security and social services, or persons involved in other aspects of life for whom the 12-year night or day schedule may not be a good alternative. After all, the road to education is not unidirectional but multi-directional. It shouldn’t really matter as to where and how one obtained an education, but whether the education obtained can be translated into quality output and competence.

Interestingly while Liberia, with a literacy rate of only 30 percent in a population under four million, is opposing legal apprenticeship, the U.S., the world’s only superpower and foremost economic giant continues to promote a flourishing 65-year-old Registered Apprenticeship Program offering apprenticeship training in at least 820 professions, including legal secretary, computer programmer, electronic-organ technician, rocket engine and motor mechanic, dental ceramist, television director, teacher aide, commercial designer, pharmacist and nursing assistants. The U.S. apprenticeship program is facilitated under The National Apprenticeship Act and overseen at the federal level by the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Apprenticeship Training, Employer and Labor Services/Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training, and at the state level by various State Apprenticeship Agencies.

On top of that, U.S. colleges and universities offer Legal Assistant and Paralegal Programs, and graduates of these programs not only command high salaries but are usually the frontline personnel at most legal offices throughout the U.S. with varying complex roles and responsibilities depending on years of experience. The Certified Legal Assistant (CLA) certification is nationally recognized in the U.S., and seeks to measure the knowledge, skills, and competence of practicing or prospective legal assistants and paralegals. Liberia could emulate such example. Moreover, most U.S. companies and government agencies also recognized correspondence or extension college degrees and certificates. So if a country as advanced as the U.S. can recognize extension college credentials and can offer apprenticeship to legal secretaries without harm to the legal profession in the U.S., what are the "serious consequences" to the legal profession in Liberia that the reintroduction of the legal apprenticeship will facilitate?

Furthermore, why is it necessary for Liberia to set standards that far outweigh or exceed its social, economic and political development? Why set false standards when we can set realistic standards to improve competence and productivity while benefiting a majority of the Liberian people? I think former Chief Justice Gbalazeh is right to call for reintroduction of the appreciation to serve the legal needs of the majority of the Liberian people. Abolition of the legal apprenticeship may have been borne out of an ambitious goal to make legal education accessible to all. But the goal has fallen flat on its face as Liberia still has one law school and one state university located in Monrovia. Moreover, apprenticeship, legal or otherwise, will always be necessary to accommodate various segments of society. Hope Chief Justice Scott will find sufficient examples in this article to aid her in making an informed decision regarding the legal apprenticeship vs. law school degree debate.

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