Ms. Faith Odhiambo at the helm of the Law Society of Kenya (LSK)

Exactly two years ago, I met the 50th President of the Law Society, Mr. Eric Theuri, at his chambers having then just ascended to the presidency. He expressed how much his tenure would depend on consensus building; his leadership style had also then been largely lauded as one that prominently features consensus building and exhaustion of local remedial alternatives before escalating issues to external fora. In the ensuing two years, Mr. Theuri worked so closely with Vice-President, Ms. Faith Odhiambo, who as fate would have it, has now been sworn into office as the 51st President of the Law Society of Kenya—serving as the second female President in the history of the law society!

From the onset of her campaigns for the presidential position, Ms. Odhiambo distinguished herself as the bridge between the junior and senior bar members within the Kenyan legal profession. The credence for her bid to lead and serve the law society was rooted in her track record of pledging and delivering promises. She, for instance, implemented a system of shared public interest briefs between senior and junior Advocates to ensure maximum apprenticeship for junior Advocates, championed a budgetary provision of a masquerader’s kitty in the 2024 budget, and supported the capacity building of members at the branch level. Perhaps more importantly, the President’s engagement with the junior, mid and senior bar heralds a stable and progressive bar in light of her campaign agenda (“PSP agenda”) which caters largely to public sector, corporate-commercial and dispute resolution practice.

The way I see it: Ms. Odhiambo’s presidency underscores the already defined place of women’s leadership and participation in democratic governance within the legal profession. It is unprecedented in Kenyan history that both the bar and the bench were concurrently run by women leaders. As President, Ms. Odhiambo now joins the Honourable Chief Justice Hon. Martha Koome, as well as the recently sworn into office Chief Registrar Hon. Winfridah Mokaya, in spearheading the trajectory of the legal profession at the highest level of leadership within and beyond the legal cadres. The reality of the lack of access to leadership positions, such as these, was previously a dream–not for the lack of talent and hard work but owing to mostly artificial reasons that impeded ascendancy to similar or related offices by capable women.

Given that Ms. Odhiambo has now assumed the demanding duties at the helm of the law society, it is our hope and belief that her two-year tenure will be marked by defining moments: protection of the rule of law and unflinching demands for various factions within government to uphold the Constitution. By doing so, we will attain a stable, progressive bar–bridging the junior and senior bars.

I sat with the LSK President immediately after she was sworn into office, and she set out the trajectory of her tenure thus:

How are the two years of experience as LSK Vice-President and in previous leadership positions within the Council going to influence your leadership at the helm of the LSK presidency?

My two years in Council have been a learning curve and more of a preparation stage to have a self-reflection, examine flaws and keep working on them. Previously when I served as a Nairobi Representative, many people got the impression that I could get things done, I was strong and outspoken. From the feedback I have received and what I have learned these past two years, leadership sometimes means not always getting your way but a struggle to balance between your strong views and carrying the team forward. As a leader, one has to learn how to carry everyone in the team with them, inspire and move along with them. Learn to accept losing the battles but focus on the war which is the most important.

Leaders can always take away key lessons from the eagle which, irrespective of harsh conditions, always maintains the bird’s eye view of looking at things from the top without descending beyond a certain level. The last two years have helped me get to this eagle point because we had two years of working in the Council without getting involved in feuds and wrangles regardless of our differences. We tried as much as possible to push on consensus building, find a way to resolve issues and bring everyone together. The beauty of looking at a working Council is that we can examine ourselves against the expectations of members, introspect on the challenges of each Council member including the vulnerabilities and how much more we need to do to achieve our collective objectives.

Economically, the real-life challenges of the practice of law have affected lawyers in their making of bread and butter. Even dominant law firms that we often assume can sail through the storms have been affected. At the Law Society, we now contend with the reality that the work we do is not merely the general professional services we offer to members but also securing work opportunities for our members, especially the younger ones. Advocates do a lot of work for the national and county governments and yet have huge pending bills. In the current volatile state of our economy, the non-payment of fees directly compromises the profession.

Additionally, we must respond to the growing number of Advocates in the profession. In the past two years, we initiated the mentorship program with institutions like the Office of the Chief Justice of Kenya and the senior Council bar. When we were working on our strategic plan, we acknowledged that junior Advocates of 0-3 years in practice account for 50% of our membership, which holds the bulk of not only the voting block but also practitioners, who if not given a soft landing, can capitulate into the frustration that can negatively impact the quality of life, mental health and the integrity of the profession. The ongoing doctors’ strike is a reflection of what is happening in our economy. Unfortunately, someone would put in years of their life, resources and effort in pursuing a profession, only to find no opportunities to earn a living. We must develop strategies to ensure that legal practice goes through a shift that ensures we serve the public interest but sustainably grow the legal profession.

Therefore, largely serving in the Council has been very helpful because it has helped me understand the challenges at the core of legal practice and the possibilities and opportunities LSK has to address them. Having interacted with members, there is a greater understanding of their primary needs and the solutions they would like to see adopted. These were what guided me as I came up with my manifesto to lead the society for the next 2 years.

How do you intend to be a bridge between the junior and senior bar?

I intend to cement the LSK’s mentorship program. There is the program I mentioned earlier, with the Chief Justice, but we also have the Inua Wakili Series which I propose to develop into a continuous mentorship program that will be more robust in terms of capacity building in the different areas of practice. A lot of senior members of the profession have volunteered to give back by supporting this initiative. We have sent out a notice under the Junior Lawyers Committee seeking mentors to register and we have had quite a number of them who are going to be part of a structured mentorship program that we seek to enforce throughout the year as fresh Advocates are admitted. The other elephant in the room is the payment of Practicing Certificate (PC) fees. In the just concluded Annual General Meeting (AGM), we passed the resolution to reduce the PC fees for members between 0-3 years of practice.

Being the bridge beyond the reduction of PC fees, we must find a way to meet the needs of junior lawyers by ensuring that they have a smoother sail by learning from the experiences of the senior members of the profession. This, I understand is important because we need a way for the senior bar to reach out to the junior bar for reverse mentorship. The junior bar is distinguished for its ideas on diversity, boldness and creativity on how practice ought to be run in the 21st century. There is an opportunity for the growth of the profession given the network that can be forged as all lawyers are equal before the law. We do not want members to have a relationship of only remembering LSK upon arrest; I want a continuous touch of always being in sync with members and growing exponentially to move into various practice areas while at the same time supporting the members in that endeavor.

For a very long time, LSK has always been seen as a watchdog to monitor the arms of government and you have ascended to power at a time when the executive is continuously defying court orders. In light of your PSP campaign agenda, what is the place of the LSK under your leadership, especially within these first 100 days, towards checking the executive excesses?

Our first aim under the PSP agenda is the protection of the rule of law. With regard to the executive, our position is clear: we will stand for the rule of law and the Constitution. Court orders must be obeyed. As Chief Justice Emeritus Prof. Willy Mutunga has previously stated:

 

“Court orders are not suggestions. They are not requests. They cannot be disregarded without consequence”.

Our position has been, even in the previous Council, and one which we will continue to hold, I will celebrate and acknowledge the government when it does right upon the Kenyan people, but when they turn against the Constitution and the rule of law, we will challenge them not only in court but also hold the legislature accountable for the laws it is making. Beyond loyalty to the ruling party, legislators have sworn an oath to serve the Kenyan people.

LSK has also been at the forefront in terms of taking up public interest matters at the court level, but we now need to focus on questioning the role of parliament in taking the right position beyond sitting pretty and singing to the executive’s tune. As an independent arm of the government, we expect to see speakers from both the Senate and National Assembly speaking for the Constitution and the rule of law.

We have come out strongly to support the Judiciary particularly when there was an attempt to cower the Court of Appeal before it ruled on the housing levy matter. LSK even came out and conducted a peaceful demonstration and we shall continue to that extent if the need arises. We are also sounding a warning against the county governments and will take all necessary actions, especially to our members who are sitting in the county offices where violation of the Constitution is perpetuated. We will continue to laud and stand by the judiciary and judicial officers when they do right by the people of Kenya and uphold the Constitution, but we will accordingly raise hue against judicial officers who we deem have fallen on the wayside and are singing to the tune of the executive.

There is a prevailing issue that even within the courts, there exists rampant corruption to the extent that even access to justice is largely inaccessible. In as much as we have a constitutional provision for judicial independence at an institutional and personal judicial level, what trajectory is LSK going to take to remedy the public perception that certain judicial officers are corrupt?

These next two years, the LSK aims to take on the arduous task of vetting judicial officers. We want to go around the country and collect evidence of the said corruption within the judiciary. We support the judiciary to the extent that not all judicial officers are corrupt. However, the instances of judges and magistrates who are corrupt must be tabled before the Judicial Service Commission (JSC). We have set up a committee and want to present it to members once we settle into office. I want to lead the discourse so that the committee collects evidence which we shall be tabling in the form of recommendations when such magistrates and judges are also applying for promotion. We are going to push for corrupt judicial officers to be uprooted from the judiciary.

Are there certain timelines that you have set up to implement these efforts to uproot the rot of corruption which impedes access to justice?

 

Yes. Within my first 100 days in office, I will have flagged off the committee to embark on this evidence-collecting exercise. More importantly, we would want it to be a continuous committee that is structured beyond my tenure so that those who come after me can take the strict position to only support those who abide by the rule of law. The reason why a judge’s tenure is not limited to political terms of office is because of the expectation that they are neutral arbiters who, upon hearing arguments, can discern and sift the wheat from the chaff and render decisions based on the law. We shall strive to ensure that judicial officers who exercise discretion based on extra hands and pockets contrary to what is provided under the law are removed from those particular offices.

Concerning your work plan having now assumed office, are there certain matters that are going to take priority within the first 100 days as you implement the PSP agenda?

We are working towards Wakili Tower which will be a momentous asset for the LSK members and the Secretariat. Apart from that, we will be working on the integrity of our systems by proposing changes such as moving towards paperless mechanisms and enhancing money laundering regulations especially because lawyers have previously been flagged for related cases. We are setting up these changes and plans are underway given that even the staff members are now in training on how to report and ensure that LSK meets the threshold of a reporting agency.

Other changes relate to the role of Advocates in conveyancing, registration of companies and trusts so that we can report on matters to lock out cartels and quacks who carry out these transactions. We are also going to strive to change the law regulating PC fees as most of the junior Advocates are struggling to meet their economic needs.

My work plan, once consolidated with fellow council members with whom we will work as a team, will soon roll out the timelines for the next two years. The priority areas will have to include a fight against corruption in the judiciary, setting up Huduma Kiosks and involving various stakeholders of the senior bar as well as branch chairpersons sitting with the judiciary to enhance access to justice.

Priority is also going to be on the rule of law to ensure that court orders are obeyed and not treated as suggestions for the executive to respect or disregard. We understand the need for civic education as well which has been completely neglected by the relevant agencies, we will be at the forefront of undertaking civic education.

Looking at the hierarchy of the issues you intend to give precedence in your presidency, what do you foresee as the challenges that are going to define your two-year tenure?

To begin with, we have a government that has actively been seen to lodge a battle against the independence of the judiciary. We will be facing the challenge of fighting to ensure that the judiciary remains independent from the executive which has become fond of roadside declarations through Cabinet Secretaries, the Deputy President and even the President. Our fight against incompetent and corrupt judicial officers will not be a butchered process but we shall take them on when we have tangible evidence of their unfitness to serve the Kenyan people. If a judicial officer is corrupt, we shall follow the due process to avoid witch hunts against the judicial officers who refuse to bow down to the executive.

Given the recent developments in the practice of law, there is an arising shift towards venturing into dynamic areas of law distinct from the traditionally well-settled practice areas. For instance, areas like technology and artificial intelligence viewed as niche areas are shaping cross-jurisdictional transactions. How is your leadership going to encourage innovation in the legal profession while aiming at promoting a foreign demand for Kenyan lawyers?

We want to see how we can work with the investment community to bring networking opportunities to our Advocates, but we also need to investigate the taxation regime as defined by the legislature. The increased taxes in Kenya have made investors shy away from investing in Kenya where the returns are unsustainable for Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) which touches on the possibility of the transactions in Kenya.

In terms of Public-Private partnerships (PPPs), we hope to see how we can work closer with the Treasury and train more Advocates in terms of the niche area. For AI, we want to see how we can work with tech-based organisations, and also push for new changes in the law in light of this and other new areas of specialization. We need to embrace new legislation to grow AI as a niche area for those who are looking at having virtual law firms offering online services.

Is it my understanding that we are going to see more relaxed regulations in terms of the practice of law for virtual boutique law firms? If so, how will the LSK initiative be coordinated to fit other stakeholders’ plans to, for instance, move beyond the paperless filing of court documents?

The Kenyan judiciary has stated that the goal within the legal system is to move towards a paperless system by June or July of this year. The challenge I have had as I meet various parties is that in as much as courts are claiming to be virtual, they still request Advocates to avail physical documents. We want to train our Advocates to embrace the 21st century and move digitally. We have seen some larger firms investing heavily in the internet and allowing their staff to work from home because they can access files and attend courts virtually. We will also see how many more services we can integrate on the LSK virtual platform to regulate the masqueraders and quacks who have access to such virtual platforms.

On the issue of regulation, we have witnessed the LSK’s active role concerning its mandate on the regulation of lawyers who have already been churned from the law schools. Yet, we have challenges at the law school level where the quality of legal education appears to be plummeting and raising concerns as has been noted severally with the Kenya School of Law. What is going to be the place of LSK in ensuring that the current legal education system prepares the lawyers for the 21st-century legal market upon admission to the bar?

We will be working very closely with the Council of Legal Education (CLE) to support more robust legal training. Some subjects such as technology and the law ought to be reflected in the curriculum so that the new entrants into the legal profession will be working towards supporting those who are already in the market. We are making concerted efforts to fight against the attempts by the parliament to water down the legal education system.

My role as a law lecturer at the University of Nairobi has helped me to think of an Advocate that I would like to hire. For us to get our lawyers to excel in practice and academia, we need to partner with international organisations and educational institutions to better understand the global expectations of the modern lawyer.

How have your personal experiences influenced the kind of a leader you have become, and what kind of leadership style do we expect to see in the implementation of the PSP agenda?

I have had the advantage of having a good upbringing by my father and mother who took particular interest in the significance that education plays in leadership. I have had close interaction with junior lawyers from which I have appreciated the mental health issues arising from toxic workplaces and poor pupillage experiences. The challenges of running law firms, working as an Associate at a firm while starting a law firm and horrible experiences such as sexual harassment at a workplace are close to my heart. The LSK must be firm in addressing these issues being faced by its members.

What is your message to the LSK fraternity on the action points that LSK must actualize to inform a better future for its members?

We are looking at how to support members’ growth into practice and see how to change the law to take into account the needs of the junior bar. I thank all the members for having faith in Faith given that this journey was predicated on the need to stabilize the society. I invite all the members to pick up all the working tools and get to work as LSK belongs to all of us. I will be calling unto members whenever we need to demonstrate on the streets and file petitions against injustices to fight for the rule of law and independence of the judiciary. These next two years will be a continuous joint effort to focus on a society that owns its home and protects the junior bar which is the future of the law society. We hope that we continue to be a society that feels the heartbeat of the challenges that all the members are going through and supports them every step of the way.

 

The interview was conducted by an editor of this publication who is set to begin his Master of Laws (LL.M.) at Harvard Law School this fall. dnyaga@llm25.law.harvard.edu