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Nigerian Lawyers Misunderstand “Learned Colleague”/“Learned Profession”

By Farooq Kperogi

For some reason, many–certainly not all–Nigerian lawyers have been socialized into thinking that only they and their profession are “learned.” That notion sprouts from a fundamental misunderstanding of terminologies. Let me unpack them here for those who’re interested.

“Learned profession” is an old English expression traditionally used to refer to medicine, theology, and law. They 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.

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.” But, somehow, some Nigerian lawyers are still stuck with the old expression—and erroneously think only their craft is a “learned profession.”

“My learned friend”— or “my learned colleague”— is a polite term of address that lawyers in British courts use when they address each other, especially if they are opponents. The term was introduced to enhance mutual courtesy in legal disputations.

Before the term was introduced, lawyers who argued on opposite sides of a case never used to even shake hands in the courts, and often used crude, coarse, unguarded putdowns to undermine each other. So “learned colleague”—or its many variants—is merely a term of courtesy, not an indication or claim of professional superiority in Britain. Many Nigerian lawyers don’t seem to know this.

American lawyers, for instance, 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 self-important Nigerian lawyers tend to do.

It’s like American senators who routinely refer to their colleagues as “distinguished senator” out of conversational courtesy—just as British lawyers call each other “learned friend” or “learned colleague”—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, as if the word were a noun. This would strike Americans, from whom it’s borrowed, as 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. “Distinguished Senator (First name) (Last name)” is as ridiculous as lawyers being addressed as “Learned Colleague (First name) (Last name).”

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