By Nwoye Chinonso Emmanuel
Right from childhood, it was my dream to be a legal practitioner. I remember having a conversation with my uncle at age 10. He was very impressed by the fact that at such a tender age, I had a sort of conviction as regards what I wanted to be in the distant future, which happens to be my ‘today’.
Becoming a lawyer entails five years of intensive studies in a university, one mandatory year at the Nigerian Law School, and one year of compulsory service to the nation (that is of course if one is privileged to find oneself below the belts of age 30). The import of the above is that it takes not less than seven years for a person to train and eventually qualify to be a lawyer.
I was called to the Nigerian Bar on the 20th day of October 2015, with my enrollment number being above 96,000. This means that as at my call to the Bar, there were more than 97,000 lawyers nationwide already. Since no fewer than 8,500 more lawyers have since then been called over three different call to bar ceremonies, it is safe to conclude that Nigeria presently have over 105,000 lawyers, scattered across various locations in the country and indeed the globe. This figure creeps up on a yearly basis and is somewhat conservative.
Of this population of lawyers, nearly 1,500 lawyers have since risen to the highest distinction, to become Senior Advocates, a statistics that is less than 1% of lawyers. Think about the number of persons who require the services of a lawyer and also willing to pay the requisite price for same, you would agree with me that only a handful of persons are, out of the millions of persons there are, in this country.
The above statistics is not where my interest lies, they would only help to appreciate and analyse the issue on ground.
From my observation, many a Nigerian Lawyer is very broke. Being broke simply means being in a state where one’s income is not adequate enough to cater for basic daily needs. In my first year as a practicing lawyer, I appeared in Magistrate Courts a little too often. I saw men in their 40’s and 50’s, appearing in Magistrate Courts, either for the plaintiffs or for the defendants, seeking to recover premises on properties whose rental values are in paltry sums. I wondered how these men feed their families and take good care of their children. I also wondered what went wrong.
In Abuja where I currently reside, there are law firms that pay lawyers N20,000, N15,000 and even as low as N10, 000 monthly. The reasons these firms adduce is that new lawyers are required to pick up jobs to gather experience and probably starve to death in the course of so doing. I wonder if the above stated sums can cover the transportation expenses of a person in a month, how much more feeding and clothing. These are realities that no one seem to be addressing. We pretend like everything is fine whereas the painful claws of poverty have been on the rampage in the lives of lawyers from time immemorial. Young lawyers are the worst hit by this. It is the reason a young lawyer would take paltry sums for huge services. Minute by minute, day by day, underpaying lawyers is cresting itself as the new norm.
One thing I remember clearly in my six basic years of training to become a lawyer, is the way it was drummed into our subconscious, how much pride and ego a lawyer should carry himself with, how much of a noble and dignified profession law is. Little wonder, law students are often disliked by people in other faculties in a typical university. This piece does not also seek to puncture the assertions as regards the nobility of the legal profession.
Sadly, no one explained to us that the pride and ego we carry would be questioned by existing economic realities, especially like the present day recession which Nigeria was thankfully able to slide out from even though the real effects are still let loose. No one also told us that being broke and unable to pay bills is a huge threat to our nobility and that of the profession as a whole.
Can you still carry high shoulders when your take home cannot secure a quarter of a bag of rice, with groundnut oil and tin tomatoes that is assuming that one chooses to stick to rice alone? How much more buying a new pair of shoe and appearing neat, then of course payment of rent. These are economic realities no one taught us to brace up for and handle. We were given the impression that once we know substantive and procedural laws, everything would fall into place on their own accord, no wonder lawyers fall for diverse temptations just to keep body and soul together. It is at this critical point that many lawyers slump into the hope that one day, a single brief would guarantee repositioning. I could go on and on but it is not in my character to highlight problems without hinting at a solution.
No one can exactly blame a law firm for throwing change at their lawyers, after all we operate a free market economy so firms sometimes pay from the little they admit to earning. Moreover, firms are not government controlled and as such, dictating how much to pay lawyers may not be entirely feasible. We would therefore see a solution in all or any of the following propositions and nuggets:
Lawyers should be taught financial education. In addition to the much pride and ego lawyers are trained to have, it is important to incorporate financial education into the basic training of a lawyer both at University and law School level. Money answers to set down rules and regulations and lawyers are not exempted from this knowledge. One can know all the substantive and procedural laws, filing and moving of motions in courts and even prosecuting a case from start to finish, but without adequate financial knowledge, one would spend a lifetime, hoping for that ‘one brief’. If by the mercy of providence it shows up, it would be squandered. This would be a topic for another publication. The Nigerian Bar Association should also do well to incorporate it in their series of seminars, since a man is a slave to what he does not know.
As Lawyers, we must learn to package our services and make it attractive enough for someone to want to pay for. Bill of charges should always be prepared and sent to clients in writing either by post or by electronic mails. Receipts should also be given to clients for transactions as well as adequate record keeping in neat files and not torn ones. It would reduce greatly, the inhumanity of seeing legal services as something not worth anyone’s payment. From the little earned, it is also important to maintain a clean wardrobe. The clothes do not have to be too many, the few have only got to be extremely neat. The same goes for our shoes. Appearance is an integral part of packaging. Our knowledge and pride must match our income because at the end of the day, if what we know does not put food on the table, it is a corporal punishment and intellectual affliction. All lawyers know basically the same thing still, finances vary greatly.
The Nigerian Bar Association can come up with a minimum charging standard which a lawyer should be penalized for if he falls below it. That way, charges can become standard. The era where people buy properties for N100, 000, 000 (One Hundred Million Naira) and would rather pay a lawyer N20,000 (Twenty Thousand Naira) only to prepare relevant documents, should be far behind us.
Lastly, as lawyers, we must learn to take more risks and be more adventurous. We must stop limiting ourselves to only certain areas. Many a lawyer is very stiff. If it is not going to court, then the interest is minimal. There are household names in the legal profession that are also business tycoons. Nothing precludes a lawyer from having a sound business idea and developing same to profitability without undermining the integrity of the profession.
In summary, the reality is that there are no jobs on ground. Recession is biting harder, law firms are not helping matters. One cannot become more than what one dreams of. Perception is key. Our perception to money and success must be good enough, so that the pride and ego we have imbibed, would be fanned, not by the mere fact of being a lawyer, but how much Joie de vivre and bliss our pockets enjoy. If it is not making money, then it is certainly not making sense.
Written By Nwoye Chinonso Emmanuel, [email protected], 08061298747