Nigerian Law School

OBRA LEGAL (A.J OFFIAH & Co. restructured)

One of my first projects as a lawyer was to draft a Motion to abridge Time. I panicked. This was definitely not covered in law school. In hindsight, I should’ve asked for more instructions but, not wanting to look foolish, I left the partner’s office without asking a single question. I knew about Motion for Extension of Time but to abridge/shorten time…?

It took me over a week to draft the motion. After a lot of research I finally produced a document with the same principles of extending time but now praying the court to abridge time. When I handed it to my Principal (Chief, Mrs A. J Offiah, SAN) she smiled and said, “it’s called motion to abridge time.”

Law school prepares you for a lot, but there’s plenty more to do with the actual practice of law that law school just doesn’t cover.

Here are some other things that could be emphasized in Law School and we could learn ourselves in the meantime:

  1. How to listen

In law school, students are trained to listen in order to run legal analysis—they gather the relevant facts, figure out the applicable rules, and use them to analyze those facts. They’re also taught to listen so they can respond or react as is necessary, for example, during an oral argument. What they are not taught is to listen so that our clients feel truly heard and understood.

Often, when a client comes to see you, it’s probably the first time she’s ever shared her story with anyone. This was certainly true for my practice in consumer bankruptcy. The clients were deeply distressed and full of raw emotions. Many felt angry at themselves, their ex-business partners, their spouse, or at the world.

What I learned was that if I moved too quickly into “lawyer mode” and started asking detailed questions about the value of their assets, income, and amount of debt, the clients would often freeze. I wasn’t building empathy. The clients deeply wanted to be felt, heard, and seen.

  1. How to manage the unintended consequences of lawyering

According to a study published by the American Bar Association, 20.6% of lawyers screened positive for hazardous, harmful, and potentially alcohol-dependent drinking. Levels of depression, anxiety, and stress among attorneys were significant, with 28%, 19%, and 23% experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively.

Why? Again, lawyers are in the trauma business, and it affects them too. It’s puzzling that despite these well-documented and well-studied consequences of lawyering, lawyers get zero training in law school on this issue.

  1. How to nurture creativity

As discussed in a Harvard Business Review article, creativity is the most important skill a leader can have. Yet, “80% of Nigerian Lawyers feel pressured into being productive rather than creative”.

Creativity is important because it’s the foundation for new ideas and solutions. Often, law school kills the creativity and curiosity that law students start with. They stop reading for the fun of it, stop creating art, stop writing fiction pieces, stop dancing, stop doing yoga, stop Jogging etc.

Stare decisis also doesn’t help to inspire and spark creativity. You’re taught that there’s only one correct way to do things—to think in binary terms, and to see each case as a zero sum game.

Good lawyering involves finding solutions to difficult problems. The solutions are not immediately apparent, especially in these times of rapid change. Creativity (implementing new ideas based on seeing problems clearly) is crucial for problem-solving lawyers.

  1. How to have a difficult conversation

I once had a client whose mother fell suddenly ill during her bankruptcy. If her mother died, leaving the will as-is, the bankruptcy estate would get all the inheritance. I suggested to her that she speak to her mother about changing the will. The client was understandably upset, not wanting to worry her mother with her financial troubles. She felt ashamed and embarrassed.

I also felt a lot of tension and sadness. Every few days, the client would call, crying, upset, and asking me how she should go about asking her mother to change the will.I had no easy answers.

As lawyers, you’ll likely hear stories you’ll never be able to unhear, and see images that you’ll never be able to unsee. This also means you may need to have very difficult—and sometimes, unthinkable—conversations with your clients. Learning how to meet your clients in their most vulnerable state, learning to meet their suffering with empathy and compassion—these are cornerstones that will help you manage difficult conversations.

  1. When to use alternative methods to help clients

Abraham Maslow said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Lawyers are trained to view every situation through the lens of lawyering, but we rarely pause to ask, “is the law an appropriate solution here?” For example, over the years, I’ve developed working relationships with financial advisors, realtors, financial institutions, immigration of course the Police force. Often, when clients come in to discuss cases, I realize that while the client could file a suit that may not be the best solution. An ADR track may solve the problem. Perhaps the client could schedule payment in installment or monetary compensation or an alternative plot of land.

Having worked for a few years in litigation, in OBRA LEGAL (previously A. J OFFIAH & Co.), I’ve learned that “winning” a litigation case rarely restores the client whole. Often, they’re still bitter because the underlying conflict remains unresolved. The client may still be bitter about the dispute she’s had with her business partner or her ex-spouse, for example

  1. How (and why) to build your conflict management skills

In law school, we are taught about the law and the procedures necessary to navigate the legal system.

What we are not taught about is how to deal with the various personalities—the passive aggressive people, the yellers, the screamers, with their different idiosyncrasy. We’re not taught how to manage the discomfort that often accompanies conflict. Unless you’re fortunate enough to take a class on negotiations or something similar, there’s no training on how to de-escalate a conflict, how to find win-win solutions, or how to understand the needs of the other party.

  1. How to be resilient

There’s a growing body of research which suggests people have different capacities for bouncing back and surviving life’s difficulties and traumas. This ability to bounce back is known as resilience.

Fortunately, research also suggests that resilience is something you can learn—it’s not an innate skill. Factors that can enhance resilience include, optimism, confidence (self-efficacy), effective problem-solving skills, a sense of meaning and purpose, flexible thinking, impulse control, empathy, close relationships and social support, and faith or spirituality.

  1. How to run a law practice

Law school teaches students about “the law,” but not how to make a living practicing it. There’s no class on how to get clients, on networking, or on the business end of running a law practice. This is unfortunate. As much as lawyers like to think of themselves as professionals that frown upon having a frank conversation about how to build a financially successful practice, the reality is that the only way we’ll be able to continue to do our work is if it’s sustainable.

Law students would benefit from a foundational understanding of how a business works. Courses could include: economics, finance, management, marketing, and organizational behavior.

  1. How to manage your personal finances

More law schools may consider offering courses like this in the future, but until then, law students can take matters into their own hands by taking out books on financial planning or following financial planning and business blogs while in law school.

  1. How to nurture an internal sense of success and self-worth

Most lawyers get to where they are because they are high achievers. Often, they’re at the top of their class. They’re successful, and they are driven.

These external yardsticks can be useful drivers, but when taken to an extreme, they can also can be toxic. When law students become used to looking externally for a sense of self-worth and satisfaction, it can become difficult to create those feelings from within.

I’ve worked and spoken with so many lawyers who feel as though they’re only as good or successful as their last win—they struggle with the sense of constant success and failure. This expectation that we be perfect (a pressure which seemingly comes from every direction), in an environment that encourages aggression, can lead to chronic stress for many lawyers.

Meditate. Take time for self-reflection. Keep a journal of things that went well every day. Whatever it takes, make time to improve your ability to create your sense of self-worth internally. Lawyering is a tough career, and the more you can do to keep yourself resilient, the more successful (and healthy) you’ll be in the long term.

The legal profession is a demanding one, but it is possible to have a balanced life and a fulfilling career—it just takes a bit of personal care and a lot of preparation. The more young lawyers prepare themselves for the multiple facets of a career in the legal industry, the better equipped they’ll be to not only help others, but to have rich, healthy professional lives themselves.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. This is insightful.
    The other day I read a post by a fresh graduate from law school saying the difficulties and trauma experienced while studying.
    If these are taught, perhaps it will help them but while in school and in practice.
    Nice one Barr. Ik Onuoma.

  2. Funny enough….most of all these things you mentioned were overemphasized in today’s Ethics class by our lecturer. So I think it might have more to do with the campuses than the entire law school in general. All in all…great write up.😊

    I stand for NLS Kano though.

    • Great article
      Also great point Bernice i thought i’d respond to your statement personally as i like to try or test new things. Who knows we may see each other at next year’s call to bar. I am currently in the lagos campus, hows the kano campus? Are u enjoying it

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