Legal Practice as Performance Art

From the Blog

Legal Practice as Performance Art

Share on

A few years ago, I had my personal epiphany about legal practice and art.

Since legal practice is performance and performance is art, then legal practice and law can be artful, and therefore, art. In short, legal practice = performance = art or law = beauty = art.

It occurred to me that in moments when we, as lawyers, employ our skills so well that we surpass the expected boundaries of competency, legal performance becomes a kind of performance art, and the product of the process of legal performance also potentially yields art.

The appreciation of legal performance is not limited only to lawyers and judges, but to the general public too. It is not for nothing that the stories in movies, tv-series, and streaming series often place their characters in a legal environment. There is much drama inherent to legal matters. For example, a cross-examination executed to a T is a thing of beauty, it’s like watching a great acting performance; as does a contract masterfully conceptualized and articulated, it’s like a beautiful sculpture.

When legal practice is performed at its highest levels, it is pleasing from an aesthetic-legal sense. I consider the following as potential works of ‘legal art’: an oral submission elegantly and convincingly delivered, a successful cross-examination carried out with finesse, an elegantly drafted contract – both in terms of style and substance, a compelling and persuasive written submission that also gives pleasure in the reading, a sale and purchase transaction carried out flawlessly, an articulate, thoughtful and influential opinion.

Of course, as these are matters of legal technicality and mechanics, not all members of the public appreciate it or can appreciate it. But I think we as legal practitioners should be alive how much beauty lies abound in legal practice. If anything, its mere cognisance makes legal practice an enriching, pleasing and at its high moments, an asethetic experience. In seems obvious that legal practice without art is a wholly inferior experience to one that is practiced with it, if not imbued with it.

Every now and again since then, I pull out the idea of artfulness, art and legal practice, to play around for a bit to explore ways to express that fusion in a meaningful way before putting it away. The ideas started to coalesce after I ‘started’ the ball rolling with the From The Atelier initiative of commissioning artists to do artwork for my essays.

I put started in inverted commas because I wasn’t deliberate about it. Curiosity led me down this route. I wanted to see what an artist would come up with after they read my essay. How would they translate that text into a visual aesthetic that resonated with the work in a different media? It was only after I commissioned and collected several artworks that I thought to showcase both art and artist, and came up with the idea of From the Atelier.

In commissioning the artworks and working with some artists, aside from sparking a more serious interest in art and commissioning and acquiring art, I developed a deep curiousity and desire to see what art that deals with matters specific to law or legal practice looks like. I wanted us to transcend the usual and familiar paintings and prints of legal symbols and imagery, which are limited to courtroom scenes, lawyers in wigs and robes in court or strolling about, traditional imagery of Lady Justice, the judge’s gavel and the like.

We need new symbols, new ideas of the law. I want that to come out of engaging with questions like: What happens when we blend law, legal practice and art together and manifest that conjunction? What would it look like? What is that process like for the artist that has to create and express themes related to legal practice, the law and even justice? What would the long-term impact of creating such works be on the national consciousness of our country, on our legal profession? What are new legal symbols and imagery about the law and legal practice?

Those questions and more remain shrouded in darkness because it does not yet exist, or I do not know art as I have described it to yet exist in Malaysia or elsewhere. There is law about art – providing legal advice about art, but not art about law or art-in-law. The lack of such art means there is an opportunity to explore its expression and manifestation without being hampered by the traditional imagery and symbols of law and legal practice. There is an opportunity to form a new narrative in the interaction of art, law and legal practice.

I have three of such legal art projects in mind to explore and engage with those questions.

The first explores the interaction of art and the law. The project’s working name is the Federal Constitution Fundamental Liberties (‘FCFL’) because that’s what this project explores: a visual aesthetic manifestation of each of the Articles that comprise the FCFL. The ‘law’ is represented by the Supreme Law of Malaysia; the law that rules all laws, and the focus is on our fundamental liberties because they give rise to life, art and the art of life. The ‘art’ part of it is in the hands of the artist I have chosen to work with.

I see the FCFL as the starting point of a conversation, a dialectic even, between art and the law. The FCFL protects us from the tyranny of government and by implication a mindless majority or a corrupt government. Without the freedoms that these liberties enable, there is no life, although there may be living. The fusion of law in art is to create a sense of directness and urgency as well as direction to what is important for us lawyers to direct our efforts to protect, in which the judiciary plays the most crucial of roles in materializing that.

The second seeks to engage art as a canvas for a meditation on legal practice.

By that, I mean the lawyer in action, the lawyer performing at his or her highest levels, the artfulness of legal practice, and the product of those labours in print or performance. It is a meditation on what it means to be a lawyer in this day and age. How different is a lawyer if we compared those now with then? What is the disparity in perception between what lawyers do and what the common person on the street believes we lawyers do? How do lawyers in practice in Malaysia themselves feel about legal practice?

The third is probably the most ambitious.

In this one, I seek to use art as a spotlight to throw light on the rest of the populace that makes up the administration of justice. The general public can be forgiven for thinking that the administration of justice comprised only the judges, lawyers, court interpreters, and court bailiffs. That’s what most popular legal television dramas and movies only show in the courtroom.

The project seeks to show each and everyone that plays or played a role in the administration of justice. The ones that the general public would not be aware of. It would include the likes of a judge’s orderly, the prison transportation truck driver, a commissioner of oaths, a legal bookseller, a computer IT technician that maintains the servers for the judiciary, a conveyancing clerk. I don’t yet know where to end.

There are a whole lot of people that go into creating the conditions for enabling justice i.e. the administration of justice. I feel their roles should be brought to light and show how they do their bit, small though it is, yet essential for the administration to function. This is furthest away. I have no idea whether I can accomplish all these projects. They may or may not change along the way.

Aside from these fanciful ideas of mine, there are other Malaysian lawyers who think differently in the same way. They have brilliant ideas about exploring the conjunction between art and law and legal practice. I would like to discuss them but I don’t think it’s my place to talk about others’ ideas conveyed to me in private conversations.

My first project is afoot.

I am working with Hafiz Hajeedar. It is a ten-piece project. A canvas for each FCFL. That yields the first nine pieces. The tenth piece is not yet decided and is subject to further discussion with Hafiz. Our themes take shape which each meeting and conversation we have. You can check out Hafiz’s first, second, third and fourth commissions for me.

My role is as the resource person for whatever he wants to know about the FCFL, the law, etc. and am learning how to curate the exhibition. I am impressed with how Hafiz has been coming to grips with the FCFL provisions. One thing I found enlightening in our conversations was how the Federal Constitution looks and is understood by an artist who is forced to engage with it. His insights are refreshing as they are delicious. With him, I am untethered from the shackles of looking at the Constitution from a purely legal perspective and am given license to see it in other ways.

If all goes well, we will have an exhibition to display the artworks to the general public next year.

But you don’t have to wait for that. If you are a lawyer, a pupil, or someone that does legal work, you can, and should start thinking about how to make your legal performance more artful and your work more aesthetic. Legal practice is like art in the sense that our concerns lie primarily on the process instead of the result. In attempting to be artful in our practice and bring aesthetics to our work, not only will our work eventually be good, but we will also look good doing it.

That’s an artful win-win.

1 thought on “Legal Practice as Performance Art”

Leave a comment

From the Blog

Recommended Readings

How I Came to Read

When it comes to entertainment, reading is my first choice over watching, listening, or any other

An Advocate and Solicitor’s Oath

An oath is an old human ritual.

Do the Best You Can Until You Know Better

Kindness in the legal profession is often overlooked, but a simple manifestation of it can remind
Surreal grasshopper and elephant.

Intuition v Preparation: Trusting the Elephant

We acted for the mother who was claiming custody over her children in a continued trial

Notes for a Talk about Affidavits

An affidavit is a sworn statement of facts. It is about facts, not opinion, not argument,

Flexing My Legal Cred

I know some delight in flexing the fact they are a lawyer at every perceived opportunity,

Experience the art pieces
up close and personal.

Some of the commissioned art are installed in my restaurant called
Ol’Skool Smokehouse here. Visit us to savor them in person.