Young lawyers must support their chambers
Respectively, the solution to the problem of poor earnings by young lawyers goes beyond the putting in place of any policy that guarantees payment of an additional few thousands of naira. Rather, the answer is in young lawyers supporting to build their law firms as institutions and assisting with all their energy in the provision of reliable, sound and adequate legal services to the clientele of the firm.
In essence, young lawyers should be set to render service that is very unique and in a very unique way. The vision should be to assist their chambers or firms to establish a practice where professionalism would be the driving force, where red-tape mediocrity would be replaced with speed, honesty and devotion. Such law firms are in turn, better positioned to reasonably reward juniors who are key drivers of growth.
However, in achieving this goal, there are a few challenges which constitute bulls that must be taken by the horns. These are actually negative behaviours which young professionals should not imbibe.
First, honesty is still the best policy. The level of honesty required is higher than a formal honesty which would be satisfied where seniors fail to come into the knowledge of the goings on. Rather, it borders on utmost good-faith, and the litmus test for determining its breach is whether a particular action or attitude offends the individual’s conscience and the spirit of the relationship or employment. One cannot undercut one’s boss and request to be empowered. We are quick to compare earnings with our UK colleagues, but we never compare ethical soundness.
Related to the integrity issue is the matter of commitment. It is a fact that young lawyers’ level of commitment in Nigeria needs to almost double what it is now for the kind of success that we envisage. More commitment would need to come in terms of deployment of time, ideas and effort at supporting seniors to position the firm.
Roles of team spirit
Thirdly, there is need for young lawyers to demonstrate a strong team spirit. Being part of a team is the number one quality that employers desire in workers.
Young lawyers should also be creative and offer ideas that could help grow the firm’s business. They need to be on the lookout for ways to increase revenue, profits, productivity and efficiency. The more you do to help your firm, the more valuable you become to the firm.
In the highly saturated legal market, young lawyers also need to set themselves apart by doing something beyond the call of duty. Do something that will give you added recognition, such as write an article for a law publication, or be a speaker at a conference. Volunteer to lead a special project, task force or charity drive to showcase your ability to take on responsibility”.
Young lawyers must outperform
Finally, young lawyers should strive to outperform expectations by going well above the minimum requirements to get the job done. In this regard, one cannot but say that this can make one indispensable as a highly motivated person who consistently delivers more than expected.
By following these guides, young lawyers can enhance their own value, thus improving the supply component as earlier identified.
Coordinated strategy is required
On its part, addressing the demand component by increasing the opportunities for employment, development and remuneration of young lawyers requires a deliberate and coordinated strategy. This strategy requires, for its success, the cooperation of not only senior lawyers, but also the government and its agencies, as well as the organized private sector. This tripartite strategy can best be achieved using the platform of the NBA as a launch pad for the collaboration.
The first key player on the demand side are the seniors. Undoubtedly, Seniors in a firm play key roles in affording their younger colleagues decent remuneration and a generally conducive work environment which meets the reasonable expectations of the juniors in terms of employment conditions. In this regard, it is strategic to open discussions on a few professional matters which are sine qua non to seniors in a firm being able to make the juniors who are just coming into the career to be happy and to build a successful career.
Communication as a tool for fighting dissatisfaction
The first is communication. Putting a firm together is like a marriage, it fails where people keep their disappointments or perceived dissatisfaction about others to themselves. Instead, it is good to structure and facilitate discussions so that there is a common understanding of the important issues facing the firm and from which a clear strategic direction that addresses those issues can emerge with the support and commitment of the body of the practice including the young lawyers. This is vital and potent to both crisis management in the firm and marketing too. This is the secret of managing day-to-day challenges and also managing change, thereby turning mountains into molehills.
The second area is at the team work level. Seniors need to have a “business plan” setting out objectives in regards to young lawyers, clients, people, and profits and how the young and old lawyers are to manage these over the life of the plan. All the plans must be integrated: each young and old lawyer’s objectives must accord with those of the group or team or better still, the firm. This is a major challenge! Most “and Co.” have no basic book keeping person and it is deliberate!
The firm’s policy on staff recruitment, appraisal, remuneration, promotion and related matters need to be formulated to cater for the present and the future. Seniors need to empower young lawyers and position them to give their best. Seniors traditionally have always insisted that this is a twin-issue; it has to go with putting the right man on the right job. It cannot be any other way. These are not the issues to be addressed on an ad hoc basis as they arise but one on which a clear guideline is needed if we are committed to handing the business over to the younger generations. Seniors have to set conditions for contractual relationship. These will take care of purchases, leases, rents and so on. The need to have a pre-determined standard on these issues cannot be overemphasised.
The tool of trade of this profession is a good library. Although, seniors’ bank accounts may not support any huge investment in this area at one fell swoop, they shoud however, put it behind their minds that the practice is not a subsistence one. Seniors owe juniors a duty to build up the library and practice gradually.
As a person who grew up in the countryside, I know the difference between subsistence farming and cash cropping.
Beyond the library, seniors also need to make a systematic arrangement to provide the much needed infrastructure that will position the firm and make for efficiency and effectiveness. The obvious areas are; space for physical growth, communication equipment, alternative energy supply, air-conditioning equipment and other modern facilities that will assist in timeous response to clients requests and obligations. Where available, technology makes a crucial difference to the way our clients see our service, and also helps to facilitate international visibility and competitiveness. Perhaps, sacrificing some amount to procure needed access to technology, in return for a higher figure in the books of the firm in the future may be a good strategy to goal attainment in this area. It is getting increasingly difficult to separate quality from technology, technology from practice and practice from quality and quality from income. What has not been earned cannot be paid out.
The foregoing issues do not suggest that these issues are panacea for all the problems that may not let seniors remunerate young lawyers adequately. The suggestion is that these should improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the firm while maintaining (and probably improving) the motivation and commitment of young lawyers to make a career.
Seniors must provide quality leadership
The underlying consideration is the role that a senior will need to play in the firm in the competitive environment like the Bar in the immediate future. The first part of that role is that of an owner and senior and these carry the responsibility of participating constructively in the building of the firm.
The second part of the role is the operational one of carrying out the work and here it has to be recognised that in a professional firm, operational management is a part of doing the work.
Finally on this point, seniors must seek to provide quality professional leadership within their firms.
Having dealt with the role of seniors, I now proceed to the second and third groups of contributors on the demand side, these are government and its agencies as well as the organised private sector. There is no gainsaying the fact that growing or expanding law firms that enjoy good patronage and otherwise have a reasonably sized portfolio are more likely to employ more lawyers, including beginners. Conversely, firms with declining fortunes have few or no openings to absorb new wigs.
Deliberate policies by government to retain for its agencies and parastatals only law offices which have shown some seriousness in training and development of young lawyers could also provide incentives for improvement of the welfare of new wigs.
Addressing the challenges of unemployment and poor remuneration in the legal profession has to be linked with the access to competitive briefs by law firms. As a rule, this should not be a subject for policy intervention in a free market economy as obtains in Nigeria. Ordinarily, the balance sheet of a law firm depends on the competitive advantages brought by the firm to the marketplace of business. These include the personal exposure and lately, business ‘connections’ of the lawyer, which have a direct bearing on the client base of the firm. Other determinants are the method and areas of practice, the proven intellectual skill, as well as the competence of the lawyer. It is for these and other reasons that it appears that the legal profession is stratified along the lines of top fee earners, medium fee earners and those struggling to eke out a living.
However, the expediencies of tackling rising unemployment and the appalling working conditions of many young lawyers justify a departure from a strict capitalist outlook to some form of what one can, for want of a better description, describe as a ‘welfarist’ approach. In this regard, it is proposed that perhaps the NBA can serve as a platform to provide strategic partnership between government and its agencies, as well as the organised private sector on the one hand, and law firms on the other. The goal is to encourage these important sources of legal business to patronise, for legal services, those firms that commit to absorbing and retaining a certain number of law graduates over a period of time. This is not to say that the firm will be bound to continue to accommodate lawyers who are unable to prove their mettle. Rather, during the period of internship, the young lawyer is exposed to different aspects of legal practice and allowed to horne his skills. The support provided to the firms on the scheme in terms of instructions can be relied upon to provide opportunities for training as well as a regular stream of income to sustain the firm. After all, one of the fundamental objectives of government is to provide reasonable opportunities to secure employment for the teeming populace, including the hundreds of lawyers who are churned out of law school every year. And if partnering with law firms can assist in some way to meet this obligation, government ought to be favourably disposed to giving it a trial.
The same argument applies to the organised private sector, which, could view this as part of its corporate social responsibility to work strategically with firms that contribute to the reduction of unemployment and underemployment in the country by favouring them with briefs to sustain their practice.
One believes that the adoption of a holistic strategy as proposed here, which encompasses options to improve the demand and supply angles will go a long way in addressing the challenges of the dire circumstances of young lawyers in private practice in Nigeria.
-Adekile, a lawyer, is the Managing Partner of Royal Heritage, Lagos.