TAIWO.I. ABIODUN-ONI, LL.B, B.L
There is the popular aphorism; ‘Jack all of trades, master of none’. This aphorism is probably the fons et origo of the need for persons within the academia and professional practices to specialize in one area of knowledge. Knowledge could be dangerous, in fact in medieval Korean society, persons most knowledgeable at state affairs were always the first target for any coups or regime change. You cannot know it all; you certainly shouldn’t do it all.
The Nigerian Law and Accounting practices are probably the most flexible of all professional practices in Nigeria as it requires no break of procedural sweat before one sets up a practice, all that is needed from the proprietor is the right amount of self introspection and sentimentally; divine guidance. However, it is not every day one gets to see a Law practice or Accounting practices attain the peak of capitalism, i.e. to be run as Multinational Corporation. While it may be possible for the Accounting practice, it certainly looks impossible for law practice in Nigeria because the Rules of Professional Conduct quite myopically (in its normal fashion) prohibits the practice of law in Nigeria as a corporation. While this is the position of the subsidiary law on paper, I must jest that it is all bark and no bite.
Four Accounting Firms currently operate as a multinational corporation in Nigeria; Enrst & Young, KPMG, PriceWaterhouseCoopers(PWC) and Delloite. None of these four firms are indigenous and quite interestingly, some have their global outside Nigeria, in the USA and some in the UK a country whose practices are very persuasive to Nigeria’s. Very recently, the accounting firms were the subject of criticisms for perceived inactions in the years leading up to the financial collapses of the retailer BHS and Carillion in the UK, their role in the collapses has led the UK Financial Reporting Council in agreement with the Big 4 to decentralize accounting practices forthwith with a deadline set at June 2024.
What does decentralization mean? Decentralization in the simplest of terms refers to the spread of power away from the center to local branches or constituent parts. This is quite ironical because, this is something the United Kingdom’s as a government isn’t very good at.
Operationally, that is, within the presupposition of accounting, the decentralization of the Big 4 refers to the following:
That audit practice governance would prioritise audit quality and protect auditors from influences from the rest of the firm that may try to divert their focus away from audit quality,
That the total amount of profits distributed to the partners in the audit practice does not persistently exceed the contribution to profits of the audit practice,
The culture of the audit practice prioritises high-qualityaudit by encouraging ethical behaviour, openness, teamwork, challenge and professional scepticism/judgement and
Auditors act in the public interest and work for the benefit of shareholders of audited entities and wider society.
An aggregation of the above, point to one thing; it points to the drive to sanitize the accounting with particularity to the auditing practice. Better stated, Her Majesty’s government is much more interested in the protection of its economy and the continuous viability of many companies than in the taxability and profit margin of a few four firms. This is quite sensible, being that the accounting profession is a service profession which the deals with the economic life-force of the world and this service if haphazardly or irreligiously done will lead to untold spiraling consequences.
The call of the United Kingdom’s government is exemplified in the saying ‘the chicken is being called home to roost”. This however is the least of my concerns. My primary concern is how this would affect law practice in Nigeria. At this point, I would have really wished for divinity to bestow the gift of clairvoyance on me so that I could take a sneak peek into the affairs of the future. Sadly, my human thoughts are however given as follows:
It is no news that following the indecisive nature of the Companies and Allied Matters Act, the many recent regulations of the Corporate Affairs Commission and the many governmental directives on the ‘ease of doing business’, many of the services which prior were the exclusive preserve of Legal Practitioners have been wrestled away and vested in Accountants. We now share the piece of the very small pie. A sneak peek into the websites of the Big 4 firms reveals the brazen use of the words ‘Legal Services’ or euphemistically ‘Advisory’; the former needs no introduction while the latter is a rather cunning way to circumvent the open brazenness in the usurpation of the legal practice.
The Big 4s now advise and incorporate companies for their clients. Application for expatriate quota, technology transfer, patent rights, advisory on mergers and acquisitions, energy law practice. corporate governance evaluation, regulatory tax compliance, to mention a few are the many legal services that these accounting firms have now usurped and it feels like the only thing required from a lawyer is the ‘seal & stamp’ for authentication of the documents.
Quite worrisome, I have heard from my Chartered Accountant twin brother that Accountants have many times represented clients in arbitration proceedings, who knows what legal service is next.
According to Nairametrics, the earnings of the Big 4s in 2019 totaled NGN 7.53 Billion (Seven Billion Five Hundred and Thirty Million Naira). Statistically, only 20% percent of that money came from auditing (its traditional service) while 80% came from advisory and consultancy.
I doubt if any four law firms in Nigeria made a turnover half that amount in the same year. The big question now is, what does the decentralization policy mean within the context of the Nigerian market?
The chances of the UK decentralization policy having any effect in the Big 4s subsidiary firms around the world is unknown, as a matter of fact, if many countries are following suit, there are high possibilities that the Nigerian system would lag behind. However, one thing that remains sure within the Nigerian context, is the fact that if an operational separation on the operations of the Big 4s is ordered in Nigeria, auditing services which seems to be least focused on will have to be distinguished from the legal services or advisory roles that these Big 4 plays. The effect of this is that the roles become much more transparent and therefore a bit more difficult for the Big 4 to practice law.
I have heard intending Presidential hopefuls discuss how lawyers are losing briefs to EFCC and Accountants and it is at this point that we need the resilience, unity and sagacity of the Professional body to ride on this decentralization policy to bring back our jobs, lest our only source of relevance would be our rubber stamping. There is need for the review of the corporate governance code for private companies, there is also need for the NBA to liaison with the Nigerian Financial Reporting Council and may be with the General Council of the Bar to lay strategic legislations that will out rightly ousts the powers or privilege of any non lawyer body to practice law in Nigeria. Accountants must remain Accountants and Lawyers, Lawyers.
If anyone jeeringly retorts that the ‘sky is big enough for all to fly’ we must respond with ‘not from our point of view’ We must remain selfish as an association if we must remain relevant and shed the current ‘endangered profession’ status.