There is widespread agreement that the legal profession is in a period of stress and transition; its economic models are under duress; the concepts of its professional uniqueness are narrow and outdated; and, as a result, its ethical imperatives are weakened and their sources ill-defined.
Legal practice in Nigeria is often seen by a majority as a profession more rewarding for the affluent, older lawyers and senior advocates of Nigeria (‘SANs’), hence the recurrent migration of young lawyers to non-legal sectors and businesses, for example, banking, the arts, etc. Resultantly, some young lawyers are often seen as dissatisfied and impecunious. Over time, the reason for this dissatisfaction and migration has been attributed to inadequate remuneration compared with industry standards and the economic realities as well as the scarce training opportunities offered by some law firms (if any) in view of continuing legal education (‘CLE’). Should this exodus continue, the legacy of the legal profession in Nigeria may be endangered.
The above allusion varies from state to state as well as among firms in Nigeria. Therefore, it is exigent for a more holistic approach to be made to the legal practice set up in Nigeria with a more enduring practice approach. Consequently, whether you own a law firm or are part of a larger firm, you need to consider your practice as if it were your own business and with the view to creating an enduring brand – a legacy that will outlive you.
It is lawyers who run our civilization for us – our governments, our businesses, our Private lives… We cannot buy a home or rent an apartment, we cannot get married, Or try to get divorced; we cannot leave our property to our children without calling on the lawyers to guide us. To guide us, incidentally, through a maze of confusing gestures and formalities that lawyers have created… The legal trade, in short, is nothing but a high-class racket – Fred Rodell, Professor of Law, Yale University
The above quotations serves to emphasize the all pervasive nature of the legal Profession and the reason why, at least in the United States of America, the acquisition of a law degree was a guarantee of a financially stable professional life. But this was also the case in Nigeria some 50 years ago. So what has happened to legal practice and the legal profession and how does the Nigerian Bar Association fit into the picture?
Freedictionary.com defines “extinct” as “No longer existing or living: an extinct species. 2. No longer burning or active: an extinct volcano. 3. No longer in use: an extinct. Is the legal profession and/or the Nigerian Bar Association in danger of becoming extinct? I submit that if we do not take active steps to combat certain trends, both the legal profession and our great Association are in grave danger of becoming no longer active and thus extinct.
The truth must be told, that today there are two types of legal practice and two types of lawyers: chambers and practices that are run on a professional basis according to sound business principles and which then pay their juniors, associates and lawyers a proper living wage, and those chambers and law firms where the income [whether salary or profit] does not take him home. The first set of lawyers will survive and thrive, the second set will not. Contrary to accepted thinking, I do not believe that the difference in financial standing is solely the result of location of practice. Some say that well paid lawyers can only be found in city based chambers [meaning Lagos, Abuja or Kano] and poorly remunerated lawyers are located in the non-urban areas. In my humble view, the practices of many financially challenged lawyers look just like each other.
They focus on the same practice areas, practice law in the same way, market to the same people, bill the same way, and give clients the same options. Lawyers who continue to practice in 2016 in the same way as they did when they started practice in 1970 or even 1990 and do not offer new services and practice in new ways will fail to grow. They will be just the same as the chambers round the corner or down the street; their services become a commodity just like a loaf of bread or a bag of gari. There is a limit to the price differential between loaves of bread or bags of gari. If we do not adapt we will fail to become adequately remunerated and our law practices will eventually become obsolete. The result is that we will become extinct. There was a time when a typewriter, carbon paper and Tippex were basic office equipment in a law office. How many chambers or law firms still use typewriters and carbon paper today? Only those who are financially challenged.
Even though we still use the cc at the end of our letters [carbon copy], most lawyers now use a computer to print out copies. How many of us still remember LP records? How many still see VHS cassette tapes in use, or a rotary dial phone? These items are extinct. The times are changing and we need to do so too, if we are to remain relevant to our clients and adequately remunerated for the services we provide.
How do we as lawyers avoid becoming extinct? What are the new ways in which we can practice law, and what does all this have to do with the Nigerian Bar Association?
Some examples come to mind; if we are corresponding with potential clients by letters while other lawyers get across to them by email, if we are meeting them physically to tell them the services we can offer while our competitors are reaching them by brochures and websites, it is easy to tell which category of lawyer will get to the potential client first, and which lawyer can reach a wider circle of potential clients. The lawyer who persistently fails to get clients, will fade out of practice, he becomes extinct! Changing the manner in which we practice, can help us move from being financially challenged to becoming adequately remunerated for the services we can provide.
For those who say that financially challenged lawyers exist in small towns like Ogun State etc because of the type of legal practice that is available in such locations, I point to the fact that nearly every small town in the South West part of Nigeria has become a focus for estate developers who rush to acquire land from families and State governments to build housing estates. These estate developers are reacting to a perceived need, i.e. currently available housing for citizens is inadequate and /or of poor quality. Have we as smart but financially challenged lawyers reacted to this need by training ourselves in the aspects of law that grow out of this new area? Examples abound. in a housing estate, who owns the roads, the State or the local authority? Or are they private roads? If they are private roads, whose obligation is it to maintain them, the developer, the estate owner or the State government? What are these maintenance obligations? How can they be enforced? Where a flat is purchased in an estate, who owns the common areas [the stairs etc]? How will they be maintained? What about external walls, re-painting, repairs etc? Who has the obligation to supply services such as water, waste disposal etc and how are they costed and paid for? These are areas of real estate law which are more specialist than straight forward conveyancing, and areas in which financially challenged lawyers can establish themselves as experts.
In the same vein, many State governments are focusing on establishing industrial estates to encourage manufacturing industries in the State. How many of us are conversant with the requirements of the Factory Act before a factory can be established, or the licences and permits required by NAFDAC befoore water borehole / manufacturing outlet can commence operations? It is because financially challenged lawyers have not focused on issues such as these that many of the estates that are springing up in our semi-urban areas have lovely houses but little or no infrastructure.
Blocks of flats in government [and private] estates are never re-painted after construction, the stair wells are not maintained and arguments about who is to repair the burnt out pumping machine abound. Where are we supposed to get this training from? Who can provide detailed knowledge about new areas of law and modes of practice and how it will affect potential clients? By virtue of our being called to the Bar, we are automatically members of the Nigerian Bar Association. We have no choice in the matter. So what should be the relationship between the Nigerian Bar Association and its members? The Nigerian Bar Association expects me to pay annual practising fees, which serve to fund the Association and which entitles me to practice law during the year of its payment. What should I expect to receive in return for this payment? It is my humble opinion that this is an area where the Nigerian Bar Association owes us as its members a duty to assist our professional development by doing more than the present level of providing CLE programmes, where attendance at the Annual or Section conferences is a form of CLE for which CPD credits are awarded. CLE connotes the concept of expanding our knowledge in areas in which we already practice, and keeping us up to date with new developments in those areas. We need to expand our CLE offerings into providing training in new areas of law.
As lawyers, if we do not change to meet the growing needs of the society within which we operate, we will remain financially challenged, and become increasingly irrelevant to those around us. If we are selling services that no-one wants, or at prices which they get cheaper elsewhere, then we are no better than a salesman selling a manual typewriter when everyone is buying a desktop computer.
The Nigerian Bar Association must anticipate and react to change and help its members do the same through the provision of educational and support services which will help us become better informed and more efficient. Some suggested areas where the NBA can assist are:
technology training; online and expanded CLE programmes; programs to enhance lawyer/client relationships; training in new areas of legal practice; expanded mentoring for newly qualified lawyers, to mention but a few.
It is safe to say, that processing information is 90% of what lawyers do. We take information provided by the clients, read it and create a response to it, whether we work as solicitors or advocates pleading cases before the courts. Word processing is the best support tool for this task. Although the majority of lawyers may be conversant with word processing software programmes such as Microsoft Word, Google Document, etc, many lawyers cannot use the software themselves and are dependent on a secretary to open a document, edit it and print it. Similarly email has been around for over 10 years, however some lawyers don’t still know how to access their email; they have their secretaries print it out for them or use business centres for the same purpose.
Powerful new technologies allow one person to do what many people were required to do. Today commonly available software exists that combines word processing, maintaining a calendar and maintaining a list of phone numbers, information and emails for various persons. This software can be synchronized onto a Smartphone so that client contacts are available wherever the lawyer may be.
A New Kind Of CLE: Training lawyers in the business of lawyering, a full time occupation in which we compete with other professionals for the funds available to our clients. A man building a house needs to perfect his title deed, pay his architect for the house drawings, pay his engineer for his electrical drawings, pay for building plan approval and then pay his builders, workmen and suppliers for the materials used for construction. In most cases, paying the lawyer for the perfection of the title deed is possibly the least in his order of priorities. This is because unless the client has a criminal case, which involves the loss of liberty, the work lawyers do is not taken as important by the client. We are the ones being asked to wait for payment of our fees, or to continue to work by providing legal representation on a credit basis. To overcome this, we as lawyers have to increase our professionalism when dealing with clients. Clients need to understand that when we are practicing law, we are running a business, and to help us do this, the Nigerian Bar Association should provide training for lawyers in modern concepts of law firm management that mirrors the business needs of the clients. If we do not run our practices in the same manner in which our clients run their business, we will loose relevance and become extinct.
Lawyers need to integrate business principles into lawyering. Time is of essence for most business clients. A dirty, untidy or cheap looking office will not attract large fees.
Presently the majority of complaints against lawyers brought to the Nigerian Bar Association either at Branch or National level involve complaints about money and fall into two categories; the first is a dispute as to the fees charged for a transaction which the lawyer has retained, while the second relates to client funds received by a lawyer on behalf of his client and not paid over. If the Nigerian Bar Association wants to enhance the status of lawyers in the society and so remain relevant to its members, it could expand its CLE programmes to include training courses aimed either at reducing the possibilities of professional misconduct or at reducing its adverse consequences. Training in new areas of legal practice Law is changing on a daily basis. As new concepts emerge, new obligations arise.
Even in the semi-urban environment, State and Local governments are amending and enacting new laws and bye-laws on an annual basis. These new legislations may create obligations, offences and penalties. The first financially challenged lawyers who become conversant with the workings of the new laws, and with good marketing skills [writing papers to analyse the new laws or speaking on their impact at the local Chamber of Commerce meeting] will soon become the experts in these areas. From financially challenged lawyer to adequately remunerated lawyer in two or three easy steps! The Nigerian Bar Association at Branch level should be providing information in new laws passed within their jurisdiction to their members on a regular basis.
Older lawyers constantly complain about declining standards in the profession. How can this be rectified?
Once the new lawyer is called to the bar, he is on his own, especially if he cannot find employment and has to establish his own chambers. This is an area where the Association owes an obligation to the new entrants to the profession to support them in exchange for the annual practising fees which they are expected to pay. Free advice in setting up an office should be available at Branch level and will encourage younger lawyers to remain connected to the Branch and to the Association.
The economy has changed over the years and we as lawyers need to adapt to the new times if we are to regain the standing, both financially and in the society which lawyers enjoyed in what we fondly referred to as ‘the good old days’. In those days lawyers were respected pillars of the society, while today many lawyers are close to poverty level. To return to those days, we need to re-invent ourselves, market ourselves and make our services invaluable to the communities in which we live. If we do not, the legal profession as we know it today stands the risk of becoming extinct. Already estate agents have taken over the whole sphere of landlord and tenant work, and all that is left to us is recovery of possession cases [litigation].
We have heard about the services that other Bar Associations provide to support their members in their legal careers. If the Nigerian Bar Association is to remain to its responsibilities and relevant to its members, apart from its obligations to maintain the Rule of Law, it has to provide services that will enhance the status of its members, and enable all lawyers, whether we work in the city, the towns or the villages, to earn a living wage. Setting a minimum wage for lawyers is not the answer. If the Nigerian Bar Association can assist the senior lawyer to earn more money, by providing support and advice in both exploring new areas of legal practice and using modern technologies to provide legal services in a cost efficient way, the senior lawyer will have more disposable income to pay higher wages to newly qualified lawyers.
Isaac Opatewa, a legal practitioner, writes from Lagos.