Nigerian lawyers like to say their profession is the “only learned profession.” That’s both ignorant and ahistorical. They also think the term “my learned friend”–used in British courts as a form of address by lawyers on opposing sides of cases–is a validation of their claim that their profession is the “only learned profession.” Again, that’s wrong.
By Farooq A. Kperogi
I am writing this column from Madrid in Spain where I am attending an academic conference. Because of my crowded schedule here, I have not had the chance to thoroughly read and digest the judgement delivered by the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, so I won’t be able to make an informed commentary on it. I expect to be able to do that by next week when I am back at my base.
Nonetheless, a comment I read on Facebook about the tribunal inspired this column. Dr. Raji Bello, a versatile, polymathic medical doctor from Yola, wondered on Thursday why lawyers, including Senior Advocates who have reached the acme of their careers, routinely make elementary procedural mistakes that invite the censure of judges.
“It is often said that a good surgeon knows when not to operate. Is there anything like that in the legal profession–like a good lawyer knowing when not to go to court? While I have come to understand that things are more open to interpretation in the social sciences (like law) as compared to the natural sciences, I still get baffled whenever a judge dismisses a case by reminding the petitioners of a basic technical rule or provision of the law. I then usually ask myself, shouldn’t the lawyer have known this?
“Like the fact that a pre-election matter should not be brought up after the general election, a plaintiff lacking locus standi in a matter, or that only a past criminal conviction could be used against a politician, not a civil one? With my ‘unlearned’ scientific background, I assume that a lawyer should be able to advise a client beforehand, for example, that look, you lack the locus standi to petition about the primary election of a political party other than yours, so let’s not go to court over that.”
Nigerian lawyers have succeeded in bamboozling Nigerians into accepting the ignorant falsehood that the legal profession is the “only learned profession” in the world. But the notion that law is the “only learned profession”—which exists only in Nigeria and nowhere else in the world— sprouts from a fundamental misapprehension of terminologies.
“Learned professions” is an old English expression that was used in the Middle Ages to refer to medicine, theology, and law. Teaching was later added as the fourth learned profession. These careers were called “learned” because of the disproportionately extensive intellectual preparation required to qualify to practice them, particularly in relation to the other vocations of the time.
“Learned profession” never ever exclusively referred to law at any point in history in any country. Most importantly, though, that term is now obsolete. The Middle Ages, also called the Dark Ages, ended between 1400 and 1450, that is, nearly 600 years ago. Why are Nigerian lawyers stuck in the terminology of the Dark Ages?
In contemporary English usage, any vocation that requires extensive specialized training is called a “profession.” In other words, “profession” has now replaced “learned profession.” If we were still to use the archaic expression “learned profession,” many professions would be called “learned.”
The standard definition of a profession now—or what people in the Dark Ages used to call “learned profession”—is any field of study that requires at least a university degree, that has a well-defined and enforceable code of ethics, that policies entry and exit into its ranks through licensing, and that serves the public good.
So, in addition to medicine and law, the modern sense of “professions” includes such careers as accountancy, auditing, architecture, engineering, pharmacy, veterinary medicine, nursing, etc.
Interestingly, teaching and theology no longer quite fit the definition of a profession because there is no licensing requirement to be a teacher, a clergyman, or a clergywoman in Nigeria. It’s different in other countries, of course. In the United States, for instance, primary and secondary school teachers need a degree and a license to teach.
Similarly, lawyers who earned a law degree but don’t practice law—or who have a law degree but failed to go to law school— aren’t regarded as “professionals” or, to use their favorite Dark-Ages adjective, “learned.”
The notion that the legal profession is the “only learned profession” in the world grew out of the sophomoric ebullience of undergraduate law students in Nigeria who were awestruck by the opportunity to study law. You would expect that as they grow older, they would outgrow this wide-eyed infantilism.
Unfortunately, many of them are still wedded to it, and most of them who mouth it endlessly are those who have almost zero understanding of logic and argumentation, who make embarrassing procedural errors in court filings, and who have not the slightest hint that they are actually ignorant of the history and meaning of the expression that they wear as a badge of professional pride.
A related expression Nigerian lawyers misunderstand is “my learned friend”— often rendered in Nigeria as “my learned colleague.” Nigerian lawyers think the term is a validation of their misunderstanding that the legal profession is the “only learned profession” in the world.
But “my learned friend” is merely a polite term of address that lawyers in British (and Commonwealth) courts use when they address each other, especially if they are opponents. The term was introduced to enhance civility and mutual courtesy in legal contests. It is, of course, the truncated form of “my friend on the opposing side who is learned in law.”
A British gentleman who isn’t a lawyer but who chose to represent himself in court once wrote that the lawyer he argued against addressed him as “my learned friend.” That means British lawyers, unlike Nigerian lawyers, don’t understand “my learned friend” to be a linguistic marker of professional superiority.
This is consistent with what an old British lawyer by the name of Bhagwan Dass Ahuja wrote in a June 17, 2022, article titled “How Lawyers Argue a Court Case: The Phrases of The Complete Lawyer.” He wrote: “Even if you have known the opposing counsel as a family friend, even if he is old enough to be your father, even if he knows nothing of the law, he is still your ‘Learned Friend’.” In other words, you don’t have to be a lawyer to be called “my learned friend.”
Before the term was introduced in Britain, lawyers who argued on opposite sides of a case often used crude, coarse, unguarded putdowns to undermine each other.
So, “learned friend”—or its many variants—is merely a term of courtesy, an invitation to conviviality, not an indication of professional arrogance. It also helps lawyers to avoid calling the names of people in court. Many Nigerian lawyers don’t seem to know this.
American lawyers, interestingly, don’t call each other “learned friend” or “learned colleague,” nor do they call their profession a “learned profession” or, worse, the “only learned profession”—as some puffed-up Nigerian lawyers tend to do.
“My learned friend” is similar to how American senators address their colleagues as “distinguished senator” out of conversational courtesy—even when the colleagues may not really be “distinguished.” The Nigerian use of “distinguished senator” obviously owes lexical debt to America since, in any case, our democracy is modelled after theirs.
However, only Nigerian senators capitalize the first letters in the expression, make it an honorific, and prefix it to their names, such as “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name).” In fact, “distinguished” has now become a standalone title, treated as if it were a noun, and used as a form of address. This would strike Americans, from whom it’s borrowed, as rather quaint and comical.
In American English, the phrase typically occurs this way: “I disagree with the distinguished senator from Georgia” or “The distinguished senator from Oregon made a great point,” etc.
In other words, “distinguished senator” is only a phrase, not a title, and is typically used in a sentence to politely signal disagreement or agreement during parliamentary debates. “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name)” is as ridiculous as lawyers being addressed as “Learned Friend (First name) (Last name).”
I like Dr. Bello’s choice of words to describe his knowledge base in relation to lawyers: “‘unlearned’ scientific background.” That’s an interesting lexical paradox that unintentionally pokes fun at the empty epistemic conceit of Nigerian lawyers who say only they are “learned.”
Science literally means “knowledge, learning, application,” and is derived from the root word scire, which means “to know.” If a scientist is “unlearned” because he isn’t a lawyer, I leave you to guess who is the ignorant one.