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Barefoot lawyer to USA

By Nicole Namubiru

Ugandan ‘rebel lawyer’ wins global accolade for putting community service ahead of money

At the Barefoot Law offices in Kampala, the phones – both landline and mobile almost never stop ringing. As I waited to speak to Gerald Abila about the award he recently won from the American Bar Association in recognition of his work, he spent a while speaking on the landline.  I later learned that a man in Kaliro District in eastern Uganda needed legal advice on a property succession issue for a deceased man who never left a personal will. The family of the deceased had come up with two potential successors and administrators of the vast estate but the elders according to the tradition required one who wasn’t listed among the two chosen by the late man’s family.  The man needed help because he was getting frustrated as to how to handle the issue. This is what Barefoot Law lawyers do on a daily basis under a facility dubbed, ‘dial-a-lawyer.’

To an average Ugandan who barely has any clue about how legal issues work, Barefoot Law offers free consultation services pertaining to legal matters and they do labour to explain it in lay man’s language through the various internet-based platforms. This is done on social media – Facebook, Twitter as well as Skype. Skyping time is usually done on Monday evenings from 4-6 pm. This is done after making an appointment with the lawyer. On Facebook and Twitter it’s is a minute by minute activity.  Abila says Barefoot Law’s motive is to break down legal information for a lay man and make the law more accessible to the ordinary person. They try to make it as basic as possible, hence the name “barefoot.”

This name to them signifies the simplicity of how they do their work. It represents a philosophy. Abila won the global accolade from the American Bar Association (ABA), one of the world’s biggest professional organizations aiming at serving to improve the legal profession, by eliminating bias from law practitioners and enhancing diversity. He was cited among the “Legal rebels” – lawyers who are trying to make a difference in the global legal society. This award is given to only ten people on an annually – 100 lawyers have claimed in the entire world since ABA started in 1878.  Being the first Africans to win the award, the achievement certainly puts Barefoot Law in international limelight.

This award came as a surprise to the legal fraternity and left all the Barefoot Law workers extremely humbled. “It feels like a reward for our service delivery,” says Micheal Kwizera, the head of strategy and operations. Abila adds; “Though Barefoot Law has won a number of accolades in the past, this one still stands out.”

Abila longs for a Uganda where more people with talents and knowledge would get to their fellow human beings without expecting monetary benefits. He says, “Not so many Ugandans may have the money to pay for these services but if someone can extend services to them free of charge, many lives would be truly changed.”

“Don’t go in for money to get things done, get started and the money will come.” Their main drive as a legal entity is not money but service. Barefoot Law is an indigenous organization with most of their projects self-funded – all the workers are volunteers. Each contributes 10% of their personal earnings from their jobs in order to keep their organization running. For instance, Abila is a lecturer at Kampala International University (KIU), and he also works at a city law firm.  They supplement their contributions with some funding from two partners; the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC), and Women of Uganda Network (WOUGnet).

Americans impressed

The American Bar Association has about one million lawyers, nearly 400,000 members and more than 3,500 entities, working to encourage excellence in legal practice. They have a magazine entitled, “ABA Journal” where “Legal rebels” are profiled. These are people cited as outstanding in the legal world across the globe.

Abila will be profiled in an upcoming issue of the magazine. The gentleman, who strongly urges citizens to read the Constitution like they read the Bible, says; “the Constitution should be one of those things that all people must read. It is very vital for everyone to know what the Constitution of their country says.” He stresses that as ignorance of the law is not a defense, we do not have to fall prey due to ignorance.

The Barefoot Law website is a huge resource. Apart from the Constitution, other documents posted there is a guide to employment and a template of a will that can be downloaded and printed for personal use.  In addition, the organization has developed a smart phone application dubbed “Barefootlaw” through legal advice is availed with options such as ‘Ask a lawyer,’ legal documents, pro bono, among others. This application is functional on android phones but is yet to get on windows and IOS software.

They have a plan to roll out an initiative to link clients to lawyers. “We need more partners to effect this as our services are free of charge,” says Abila. Their diligent IT team is also working to improve service delivery to people who may not have smart phones or may not have access to the internet.

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