Former House of Representatives member Michael Opeyemi Bamidele is engaged in multi-jurisdictional practice as an Attorney and Counsellor-at-Law of the State of New York. In this article, he examines the plight of young lawyers and the future of the legal profession.
In recent times and as one legal year rolls into another, many conversations among lawyers are centered on the young lawyers and their welfare. This has also coincided with the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) elections wherein many of the candidates seem to be making the issue of the welfare of the young lawyers a central focus of their campaign.
For the young lawyers, today represents mixed circumstances. The legal industry is more exciting and dynamic than ever, with technology bringing about rapid change in the practice of law as well as new opportunities. On the other hand, young lawyers face extraordinary competition for a shrinking number of jobs, and uncertainty about career goals. This writing aims to explore the opportunities and challenges facing young lawyers, how they are being leveraged and addressed, and some practical advice for achieving success and forging ahead together as members of the Nigerian Bar Association.
There is no overstating the importance of those we consider ‘young lawyers’ to the profession. It would matter less what perspective you approach the issue from or what school of thought you belong to, in order to agree that the young lawyer represents the present state of the profession as well as reflects its future.
Many years ago, the Bar looked to its younger generation, the crop of young lawyers, as its future. The young lawyers of the days past are now the stakeholders at the Bar. The future has become the present. The Bar had nurtured its young talents, cut the rough stones into shiny diamonds and had converted the raw school leavers of yesteryears into the brilliant, experienced society shakers and movers who the Bar can boast of today. What is the future of today’s Bar? The young lawyer.
Because of perspective variations, it may be difficult to define who a ‘young lawyer’ really is. The American Bar Association (Young Lawyers Division) for the purpose of its scholarship program defines “a “young lawyer,” as any licensed attorney who is under the age of thirty-six or who has been licensed for no more than five years.” However, for the purpose of this discourse, an all encompassing definition of the term which most people seem to agree upon, and which fits correctly with the Nigerian situation is one below 30-35 years bracket or any lawyer less than 10 years post-call.
It is easy to create a mental image of a young lawyer in Nigeria today as that impressionable young man you saw in his dark suit and bar white shirt while driving past Obalende bridge on your way to work in Victoria Island, Lagos; or that smartly dressed lady by the roadside at Berger bridge in Abuja hurrying to Wuse where her office is located; or even still, as that lawyer who makes an appearance in Court with a senior practitioner. The myriad of mental images that could be conjured when the phrase “young lawyer” is mentioned are endless. I would however be discussing the young lawyer from the perspective which considers the challenges confronting them and as the reflection of what the future of the legal profession holds for Nigeria.
In my article titled ‘Lawyers and National Development’ published in ‘The Guardian’ on Thursday, August 20, last year, I raised a very important question which was directed at the leadership and the senior members of the Nigerian Bar. Again, the question is: “… how does our Bar Association remain relevant to the younger generations of attorneys?” This question brings to fore, the many challenges that the Bar must first understand, and then look to tackle with respect to the future of a rapidly evolving profession and the preparation of those who would be tasked with the responsibilities of taking over in the coming years.
Considering the strategic position of the young lawyers on the professional pyramid, how do we communicate with them? How do we recognise and value what they bring to the profession? And more importantly, how do we convey to them the many significant benefits that participation in the Bar association can provide over the course of one’s legal career? These questions form the bedrock of all that the leaders of the Bar need to understand in order to put the present and the future of the Bar into proper perspective vis-à-vis the participation of today’s young lawyers.
The challenges that face today’s young lawyer in his quest for success in the profession are enormous and the Bar should start answering the difficult questions if there are to be any meaningful legacies left for the stakeholders of the Bar tomorrow. It will be difficult to attempt to thoroughly address all the probable challenges a young lawyer faces in everyday practice. However, some of the most identifiable are highlighted below.
Challenges facing the young lawyer
Unemployment: Every year, the six campuses of the Nigerian Law School churn out between 2,000 and 4,000 new lawyers into the already saturated labour market. We may argue that almost all lawyers find an employment one way or another, but the truth is that most are under-employed. Under-employment of the young lawyers leads to crisis of confidence, financial challenges, disillusionment and possibly a total lack of passion for the profession together with all it portends.
Inadequate Remuneration: The legal profession has had to grapple with the lingering debate on the remuneration of young lawyers and ways to make it better. Two major schools of thought developed from the debates. One is the school that believes a minimum wage of some sort should be introduced by the NBA by which employers of young lawyers would be mandated to comply with so that the young lawyers will not be driven away from the profession for reasons of insufficient allowances. A prominent voice of this position is J.K. Gadzama (SAN). The other school of thought whose prominent proponents include Prof. Epiphany Azinge (SAN), formerly of the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS) and Adeniyi Akintola (SAN) strongly disagrees with the institutionalisation of a minimum wage within the legal profession citing, among other reasons, the fact that law firms are privately owned and it would be illogical to enforce a minimum wage for private practitioners.
Whichever school of thought you are aligned with, there is a common ground, and that is the fact that most young lawyers are improperly and/or insufficiently remunerated. Both schools of thought agree that this is a major problem for the profession but merely disagree on the methods with which to combat the problem. If, however, we would be able to build a strong legal profession for the years to come through these young lawyers, all hands must be on deck to find creative and lasting solutions to the clearly identified problem.
Lack of Globalised Practice Orientation: All over the world, especially among the big players, law firms are continually structured based on the partnership model. They even go further to merge in order to increase expertise and capacity. This practice is advantageous because of its immense contribution to the multi-jurisdictional strength of many of the foreign law firms. Clifford Chance, Allen and Overy, Linklaters, Baker and Mackenzie, Herbert Smith Freehills, Hogan Lovells and other legal powerhouses are testaments to this fact. In Nigeria however, with the exception of law firms in Lagos and a handful of law firms in other major cities, most practitioners operate as small law firms. This has its own unique advantages and it may adequately serve the purposes of the owners of these small law firms, but the Nigerian legal market by implication is put at a distinct disadvantage to the mega firms who will always have an upper hand in a globalised practice.
The young lawyer is raised, tutored and mentored under this small firm orientation which may not be of great advantage to him/her in the structure of global lawyering in the years to come.
Mentoring: A major challenge for the young lawyer in today’s practice is acquiring proper mentorship. One of the salient reasons why this has suddenly become a challenge is the sheer increase in the number of lawyers called to the Bar every year.
One can argue that the quality of professional mentoring that today’s top practitioners received is no more as easily accessible to the young lawyer as it was in time past.
Albert Einstein said, “Once you stop learning you start dying”. This cannot be truer, especially in a profession where the learning process never ends. Fortunately, the Nigerian Bar Association has continually acknowledged the importance of mentoring for young lawyers, but in spite of these efforts, there remains a significant lot to be achieved in this regard.
Networking: Nearly everyone would agree that in a profession where client engagement and relationship with fellow professionals are key, networking automatically becomes an important aspect of the practice. The young lawyer of today, unfortunately, is not usually found with the requisite emotional intelligence required for this exercise nor has the wherewithal to execute any meaningful network due to the large gulf between the senior practitioner and the young lawyer in the profession today.
Generational Shift and Globalisation in the Legal Profession: The State Bar of Wisconsin, USA issued a report in 2011 on the Challenges facing the legal profession’. This report captured the following: “Patrick Lamb, who writes and speaks about the change taking place in the profession in the ABA Journal’s “The New Normal” blog, observes that lawyers suffer from an incredible lack of interest in understanding the forces that are changing the foundation of the profession. To succeed in this new reality, attorneys need to keep abreast of the changes so that they are prepared to assist, counsel, and advise their clients. Lawyers also must be aware of these challenges so they can take advantage of the opportunities for those prepared for what lies ahead.”
This aptly captures or properly brings into perspective the new order in the legal profession in just a few words.
The Nigerian Bar needs to recognise that the world as a global village is telling on the way all professions are being practiced worldwide. The legal profession is not left out of this globalisation process, neither is Nigeria. Unavoidably, the globalisation of the world economy comes with the demand for efficient cross-border legal services. As the legal profession moves towards a globalised practice, what measures are being put in place by the Nigerian Bar Association to ensure that the average practitioner can follow and tailor his practice towards the new and innovative global trends in the profession? What legacies are being built by today’s practitioners to ensure that tomorrow’s practitioners would be able to favourably compete with their counterparts on the global stage in the few decades to come and at every turn in history?
We must recognise the big role technology would play in the future of the legal profession and as such, create new opportunities for young lawyers. The trend in the near future will be of legal careers being technologically driven. This trend will in turn lead to more efficient and probably less costly legal services. As a result, we need to equip the young lawyers from their very entry into the law faculties, so that they can match global competition. For example, the snail speed at which litigation is usually practised will give way for a more efficient and technologically driven system. We definitely must find solutions and continue to move past the era where cases are litigated for over a decade.
On the internet nowadays, High tech companies already take advantage of online services that help clients to create their own legal documents. One can only imagine the evolution of this aspect of legal practice in the next decade or two.
Solutions and recommendations to the Nigerian Bar Association
It is the belief among those who are regarded as ‘young lawyers’ that many young lawyers are ready to explore the new legal initiatives but are not given the opportunities. Many also carry the impression that the Nigerian Legal System today has not and is not doing much towards helping young lawyers.
The Nigerian Bar Association is, therefore, called to duty to awaken the Council of Legal Education, the Body of Benchers and the stakeholders of the legal profession at large to the realities of this raging issue to ensure that the future of the legal profession in Nigeria continues to look bright rather than the dim realities that have been identified.
The stakeholders in the profession also need to consider both arguments on either side of the debate for better remuneration of young lawyers, and to come up with a lasting solution to the menace of insufficient remuneration. Failure to do this will leave the legal profession in a brain drain situation whereby our best young lawyers are sucked into sectors that have little or nothing to do with legal practice in so far as the ‘price is right’.
Mentoring of young lawyers needs to be reinforced as a major cardinal program of the NBA. More programs should be organised to create a melting pot where both old and young practitioners can better interact on the platform of the NBA. The law firms that have been strategically involved in mentoring of law school students and young lawyers should be applauded and even more law firms should be encouraged and supported to get involved.
In the law schools and the universities, skills such as critical reading and thinking should be taught and the students should be tested on these. Making extensive use of the current applicable technology, other skills such as legal analysis, effective research skills, oral and written communication, fact investigation and collaboration are skills which, when taught or merged with the existing curriculum, instill a confident approach to the practice of law. The young lawyer rather than graduating from the law school with a head full of statutes and principles can also be trusted to have garnered enough skills to help in maximising and utilising the raw knowledge of legal principles.
There is a Yoruba proverb loosely translated to mean that the wisdom of both the young and old contributed to the building of the ancient city of Ile-Ife. Communication should be enhanced among the senior and young lawyers. This will enable either party to learn from each other. In order to achieve this, more avenues need to be created by the NBA where the older and the younger members of the Bar can mingle and better interact.
In order to meet up with globalization of legal practice, firms should be encouraged to embrace the structures used by the most successful law firms worldwide, merge where necessary and move towards a more technology compliant practice as these are the only ways Nigerian firms would be able to favourably compete with their counterparts globally in the future.
The practice of law has gone beyond seeking court appearances and advocacy. In order to survive, therefore, a young lawyer should seek to carve out a niche for himself after getting grounded properly. Networking, technology awareness and ability to see beyond the narrow confines of law are now some of the most necessary tools for the young lawyer.
What new skills will lawyers need in the coming decades? This is, rightly, an important question of late, and for good reasons earlier enumerated. Law firms are questioning the preparedness of new graduates and new wigs; the stale curricula of the law faculties and the Law School are being spotlighted. The profession is struggling to re-orient to an unknown future.
A recent roundtable discussion hosted by the Guardian (UK) and held in association with The University of Law, on the state of legal education in the UK revealed that ”the more economically globalised the world becomes, the more it needs globalised legal services, which means more career opportunities for law graduates willing to work in other countries and across jurisdictions.”
In addition to gaining multi-jurisdictional expertise and qualifications, continuous training and personal update will be some of the greatest assets and lawyers must develop their skills throughout their career, in a fast-changing, increasingly globalised world, where legal education and training must evolve as the demands of the world around it changes.
The young lawyer of today must be properly equipped to face the challenges of tomorrow. The stakeholders are hereby called into urgent action to save the future of the legal profession. The Nigerian Bar Association must also realize its central role in properly charting a course for the practice of law in the future through the empowerment of the young lawyers. They have a tremendous opportunity to shape the future of our profession, and the time to act is now.
The young lawyer represents the realities confronting the Bar today and, more than anything else, embodies the future of the profession, together with the unfolding global trends. Considering this strategic placement of the young practitioner in the pyramid of legal practice, it would be very appropriate to hold the young lawyer as the mirror of the Nigerian Bar.