Changing the way we think about law

01 Feb 2018
Author: Garth Meintjes

EDITOR'S NOTE: Last week the "Law for Change" Student Competition was held in Hong Kong during which six student teams presented proposals for improving the lives of residents. Reprinted below with permission are the opening remarks of PILnet's President Garth Meintjes. More news about the event can be found here.  

Thank you all for helping to make this event possible today. Without your participation, we would not have been able to hold this competition. And without this competition, many of you might not have met each other or had the opportunity to work together on something great.

This competition is about changing the way we think. It is about changing the way we think about law and the role it plays in our societies. When you think about it, the health of our societies is directly connected to the way law works in them. This is a lesson I learned as a boy growing up in apartheid South Africa. The terrible things I saw growing up made me want to become a lawyer.

But as a law student, I quickly realized that not all law is necessarily good law—in the same way that not all lawyers are necessarily good lawyers. Law is a tool that can be well designed or badly designed. And the lawyers who use these tools can be smart, skillful, and innovative, or they can be dull, poorly trained, and unimaginative.

And yet I realized that the way all lawyers think about law is basically the same: We think about law in terms of the interests of our clients. The attorney-client relationship is at the heart of how we practice law. Most law firms have practice areas that are based on the needs of particular clients.

Clients who want to get married see a family law lawyer. Clients who want to buy a house see a real estate lawyer. Clients who want to sue a bad doctor see a medical malpractice lawyer, and so on and so forth.

There is just one problem with this way of thinking. It all depends on who the client is. In many of our societies, whether or not someone gets to be a client often depends on whether they are rich or powerful. 

That is a problem because in societies where only the rich and powerful get to be clients, law does not work to protect everyone’s interests. Over time, such societies will become more and more unequal, divided and unhealthy.

I grew up in such a society and I am probably only here today because I grew up as a white male in that society. And because of that, even though my family wasn’t rich, we had the power and privilege that came from being white in a country where black people were not allowed to vote, where they could be arrested just for being in the wrong neighborhood, and where they could be denied a job just because they weren’t white. The law even determined whom you were allowed to marry.

So what can we do about this problem of who gets to be a client? I think there are two important things that we can do.

First, we should remind all lawyers that they have a responsibility towards their society to help the poor. This is not just a matter of charity but a fundamental way of correcting injustices in our society. By helping the poor, we make our societies healthier, more resilient, and more just. This is the idea behind the concept of pro bono publico, lawyering for the good of the public. By not limiting our services only to those clients who can pay, we practice law for the good of our societies.

Second, we need to remind all societies that lawyers have a right to represent not only the rich and powerful but also the poor and vulnerable. Some lawyers, like me, deliberately choose to make the general public our client. I have four law degrees, have worked for nearly 30 years, and yet I have never had a client who could pay. It is not an easy way to make a living—and it does not have to be an either/or choice—but it can be the most meaningful and rewarding way to live your life.

Many of you are going to go on to do great things in your careers and lives. This competition is only the beginning. The passion and creativity you have shown in designing your projects is truly inspiring. As  you make your way through your degree and then your career, I encourage you to challenge yourself to think differently about how law works and to use this knowledge to truly change our societies for the better.