Taiwo Abiodun-Oni, LL.B, B.L.
Today, the Employment and Labour Lawyers Association of Nigeria (ELLAN) held a timely and applaudable web based seminar that bordered largely on issues of welfare of lawyers in Nigeria.
The seminar had an enormous attendance with one of the co-hosts, Sola Soleye announcing at a point that the seminar had reached the mark of 500 attendees. To me this gave a hint on two things; the fact that more Nigerian lawyers have come to the realization that (some are in the process) that the very much adored profession is fast losing its savour and that the time had come to take the issue of the leadership of the professional body with much more earnestness.
Anyone in attendance could attest to the fact that many issues were asked and discussed by the three aspiring presidential candidates in what seemed like both their Presidential Debate and Manifesto Day. Some of the issues discussed in the seminar are reproduced here, even as I make bold to give my two cents.
Remuneration of course was a focal point in the discourse, so much so, that the co-host may have unintentionally asked the same question about remuneration twice even though differently. The candidates were asked if a minimum wage or at least a recommended wage was feasible for the profession at first and subsequently, the candidates were asked if they would support a bill that seeks to prohibit the payment of less than 50,000 Naira as salary for legal practitioners. Without mentioning names, a candidate in all honesty (which seemed like his unapologetic trait) correctly alluded to the non-feasibility of such a bill bearing in mind the differences in jurisdictional cash flow in the many jurisdictions of practice in Nigeria and that setting a particular price in a bill could be counterproductive and futuristically problematic especially with the unstable nature of the naira as well as its susceptibility to inflation. Another candidate in what seemed like a smart but myopic political statement stated that he would throw his full weight behind such a bill but not without alluding to the existential differences in jurisdictional cash flows.
In my opinion, as has been stated many times by many lawyers (mostly older), the legal practice, no matter how conservative and organized remains a business and businesses especially ones privately owned are not and cannot be immune to the forces of market, that is, demand and supply, so therefore, the use of law as means for regulating wages or salary payment may be anathema to the commonsense economic principles. However, if we must regulate law office payment structure, such can be done by an indirect means of regulating the law office itself. Ownership of law firm in Nigeria must go through an accreditation process by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) so much so, that a person or a group of persons who wish to own a law firm but do not meet up the required standards set would not be registered or accredited to float a law office.
By doing the above, the Bar in the popular aphorism ‘kills two birds with a single stone’, that is, it has proactively protected the welfare of a vulnerable and naïve young counsel who would have fallen prey of a meager income and at the same time has helped protect the interest of the law practice by riding out lawyers who for the sake of staying afloat lower the standards of the bar by undercutting fees and engaging in sharp and unwelcome practices. It is possible that this point may be unwelcomed, however, I should state that I believe that the fewer the law offices, the stronger existing ones become. The Bar could even go ahead to serve as a partnership matchmaker for two individuals who have had their individual applications denied. This ultimately would create stronger institutions.
The Bar must through legislation give up the right to take up certain briefs such as non technical legal documentations etc. of a certain financial threshold by making them the exclusive preserve of younger lawyers.
Another salient issue (though seemed trivial) that was asked by the co-host was on the role that law faculties and law teachers had to play in molding and preparing a total young lawyer. Not one of the candidates seemed to have gotten the answer to this question even though I had seen this particular subject as one of the point agendas for one of the candidates. To answer this question, I am thrown back to 500 Level Jurisprudence & Legal Theories class where Prof, N. Udombana had thrown a question at the class; ‘Is Jurisprudence relevant today’? I remember being the only one who was rather bold to unflinchingly state that the study of Jurisprudence had no single relevance to life today not to talk of the legal practice. There are so many other law courses like that. The world is changing and if we don’t change with it, we will be left behind and forgotten in the past.
New areas of law have emerged and some are still emerging and these new areas of law are much more relevant to the practice than the many over saturated and antiquated areas of law. I see no reason why faculties of law, Council of Legal Education and the National Universities Commission still contemplate the introduction either by elimination or substitution for these emerging areas of law to take priority in our legal education. This is the only way our lawyers would get to compete toe for toe with foreign lawyers and firms and our potential clients not go to France or UK for their lawyering needs as one of the candidates had factually noted.
Now, the point I would mention here may not be well received (at the very best) but I must state it anyways. We must reduce the number of legal practitioners in Nigeria and to do this, the Council of Legal Education, the NUC and the NBA must make sure that the quota for each aspiring lawyer at undergraduate levels must not exceed the mark of 50 students per university. This at first glance smirks of cowardice and ‘bad belle’ of the highest order. But, I assure you that, more than 70% of young lawyers in Nigeria are either unemployed or grossly underemployed and this is the reality. As a profession and practice that wishes to stay relevant in Nigeria and maybe the world, we cannot continue to churn out over 7, 000 lawyers per year into a profession that literally has no job(s) for them. That is why I hold the firmest belief that the fewer the lawyer(s); the lower the rate of unemployment, the scarcer lawyers are, the higher the client fees. It is simple economics and undergraduate admission should be the genesis of this revolution.
Thirdly, one of the areas that the candidates seemed to have disagreed on was as to whether the bane of the Nigerian Bar Association was its lack of structure. One of the candidates cited his past service roles in the NBA as evidence for the presence of a structure but that the lack of continuity in successive NBA governments as the problem. The other two candidates held the opinion that the NBA was grossly unstructured and was a waiting disaster. Now, the issue of structure seemed to have reminded me of the constant calls by Nigerians for the restructuring of the country. No one person truly knows its true meaning, However, I would suppose that, with respect to the structure of the Bar Association, one refers to the organizational compactness weighed against its underwritten goals. in my opinion, having attended only one NBA dinner which I had to pay for even after paying practicing fees and branch dues with no accompanying stipend from my boss during my youth service year, I came to the single and unfortunate conclusion that it seemed the NBA only cared about food than any other things. The dinner was topnotch and course meals flowed nonstop. It wasn’t long after that, we got the greatest shock of our lives when we saw the Chief Justice of Nigeria being blackmailed out of office in a way that was clearly unconstitutional. Even a Nigerian law school student could confirm this fact yet, the NBA was mum. It was an unbelievable silence and it was only after a considerable amount of time has passed that the Executives issued a weak ‘sit home order’; one that no one found worthy enough to obey.
It was at this point I knew that the organizational hierarchy of the association was dead and that there was no going forward. Many questions came to my mind. Why is being part of the NBA compulsory? Why don’t we have other Bar Associations like it is done in other climes? Why hasn’t an NBA President ever been impeached for low quality leadership? These were few of the many questions on my mind?
Most of lawyer functions (lease, land sale and conveyancing deeds) have been hijacked by OND real estate agents, WAEC holder stenographers usually lined up in front of the court premises (the same route that the judges drive through everyday) soliciting to render affidavit drafting services, CAC duties are no longer our exclusive preserve, accounting firms and even the non-learned now incorporate companies and file annual and tax returns etc. Only God knows if there would be anything left for lawyers to do in a decade.
To get the structural issues right, then the questions I have asked here must be answered.
In this profession, only classism and unwarranted seniority thrives, nothing else. The time to act is now, the longer we delay, the more confounded are problems become.
SAVE THE NIGERIAN BAR, LEST IT BECOMES TOO LATE…