SIR: Last Monday September 21, Nigeria’s Supreme Court formally admitted another batch of lawyers into the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). But this was also probably the most little-celebrated SAN investiture in the history of the award, no small thanks to the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA).
Just a few days to the induction ceremony, the association announced it was forbidding advertisements in any medium of mass communication to congratulate the new SAN inductees. It specifically warned the new SANs to prevail on their friends, family members and acquaintances not to place any such advertisements in the media.
The NBA, in condemning the practice it said had “gone on for years”, added that it infringed on Rule 39 (2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners in Nigeria, promulgated in 2007.
Rules of Professional Conduct are an important – and interesting – feature of legal practice in every jurisdiction, particularly those that have their origins in the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition such as the United Kingdom, the United States and the member-countries of the Commonwealth. The rules are “interesting” because they reflect that unique character of most modern professions, especially law: the ability of practitioners to regulate their own conduct, including setting standards for those who practice the profession and disciplining erring members.
Rule 39 (2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners in Nigeria is the Rule against “Improper Attraction of Business”; it is subsumed under Section E of the Rules, which governs advertising and client solicitation by Nigerian lawyers. Rule 39 (2) is further divided into five sub-sections (a-e), which inter-alia admonish a lawyer in Nigeria not to engage or be involved in any advertising or promotion that “…is inaccurate or likely to mislead; is likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession, or the administration of justice, or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute; makes comparison with or criticizes other lawyers or other professions or professionals; includes any statement about the quality of the lawyer’s work, the size or success of his practice or his success rate; or is so frequent or obstructive as to cause annoyance to those to whom it is directed”.
While this multi-layered rule patently tries to fulfill its duty of regulating how Nigerian lawyers advertise their practice and solicit clients, the NBA (or, presumably and more appropriately, the Body of Benchers in Nigeria) misses the point when it also deploys the same rule against friends, family, acquaintances and even clients of the new SANs.
The legal profession enjoys self-regulation in most jurisdictions around the world precisely because its practitioners commit themselves to protecting the public from the excesses of lawyers or all others involved with the legal profession, or in the administration of justice (i.e. judges.) It stands to reason that in protecting the rights of members of the public, lawyers – or those charged with regulating the profession –cannot then proceed to violate same. This is precisely the sad result the directive clearly achieved.
As one assumes the intent was to act in the true spirit and scope of the profession’s rules, those who regulate Nigeria’s legal profession should have directed all lawyers – and lawyers only – to refrain from taking paid spaces in the mass media to congratulate those being honoured.
Banning all adverts placed by non-lawyer members of the public to congratulate new SANs affect the constitutionally-guaranteed rights of people who do not belong to the legal profession and have thus not impliedly agreed to abide by the rules that govern how lawyers practice their profession.
The NBA, Body of Benchers and all those charged with regulating the legal profession in Nigeria and enforcing the rules of professional conduct should rightly be concerned with ensuring practitioners uphold the rules and standards therein. However, legal regulatory bodies in Nigeria must come up with more creative, effective and constitutionally-sanctioned ways of tackling the issue, rather than trample on the constitutional rights and privileges of those the rules are meant to protect in the first place.
Akeem Soboyede Esq;