By BellaNaija Features
Many Nigerians grew up with their parents encouraging them to study law. Having a lawyer in the family, for many parents, is a thing of joy. The ‘mama’ and ‘papa lawyer’ is a ‘gloating tool’ and an extra shoulder-pad that is usually worn at every function they attend.
For many art students, becoming a lawyer is a dream they nurse and water every now and then. The need to help the marginalised find their voice and create a just world eats deep into their hearts. These children can be found debating at every opportunity, arguing about one topic or another, or talking about how their wigs and gowns will be worn.
For some, being in the art department meant one thing: they must study law. “My story is almost like that of every art student who believes that the best course of study in the art department should be law.” Adeniyi Aderinboye, a practicing lawyer in Abuja, Nigeria, said.
Some chose it because of the passion they had and the joy that comes with serving others, “I chose the profession because of my passion for the practice of law and the joy that being a successful lawyer brings to me.” 32-year-old Pablo Aquesta, who is a practicing lawyer in Jalingo, Taraba, said. It is the same for 28-year-old Jessica Ashaver, a legal practitioner who has been practicing in Lagos for three years, “I choose the law profession for its nobility, the fact that I could serve other people and give them the security and satisfaction that I have their best interest at heart.”
But for some, it is different, law chose them. “Growing up, even during my university days, I never really liked law or lawyers, but I found myself to be one. I would say the profession chose me because left to me, I’d rather be a medical doctor,” 28-year-old A, (a lawyer who wants to remain anonymous) who has his LL.B and BL and has been practicing in Jalingo, Taraba state, says.
Be it passion, nobility or whether law chose them, the most peculiar thing is that lawyers in Nigeria work round the clock to ensure that justice is served in a country that has little regards for them and little regards for justice.
But reality struck.
Just like adulting is not really what many children envisage it to be, the law profession is beyond the wig, gown and the debates many secondary school art students dreamed it would be. It was more.
One moment, they had to deal with the ups and downs that being in the Nigerian Law School presented. For Jessica, it was a rude awakening that being a lawyer in Nigeria is not a walk in the park – a totally different experience from her university days, “Law school was hellish. Being in Lagos campus had its pros and cons. We always had a lot of tasks, deadlines and many other things going on at the same time. It was difficult keeping up with all that and being able to read and make good grades. Nothing in my university days prepared me for that one year at law school.”
For someone like A, law school was the ginger he needed to take the profession serious, “The experience was one of a kind and for the first time in my life, I took my time to really study for fear of failing the bar finals.”
For Unimkong, law school was perfect, “Law school exposed me to a lot and also deepened my knowledge about the law and the country. It met my expectations.” Niyi experience is one he wouldn’t forget in a long time, “I had a great experience learning at the law school and it met my expectations in terms of the lecturers and the ease of learning. It was a fertile ground for networking as we had students from all across the world in one classroom for the mandatory one year program. That experience changed my thinking forever.”
In the next moment, they were jerked towards an unexpected turn. A different world outside the walls of school: Bitter-sweet, eye-opening, harsh, interesting, tough. It was a world riddled with love for the profession, anxiety and uncertainty – mostly caused by poor working conditions, poor management style and low wages. While some lawyers have had an amazing experience so far, others seem to have been flung into a bottomless sea – you could only survive if you knew how to swim or stay afloat. Else, you drowned.
Even though many lawyers are grateful, at least for having a job, A does not fail to note that in many cases, junior lawyers are not accorded the respect they deserve and the good work environment that’ll make them thrive, “The first firm I worked in was a small one with very poor management, which was part of why I left. Everything was very disorganised. The major challenge was the treatment meted out to junior colleagues by seniors, even judges and then very poor renumeration package for juniors who practically run law offices.”
Many lawyers, like A, who have faced mistreatments in their profession, have had to swallow patience and just hope for a better tomorrow.
“Unpaid or mistreated young lawyers do not have options. We can only decide to leave the law firm, but most of us fear that the next one may even be worse. And that would be tantamount to jumping from frying pan to fire. Most times, all we have is patience, which, they say, is a virtue.”
Jessica, who works in Lagos, had a similar experience, “I was paid N60,000 at my first job and was required to work for at least 9 hours except on Fridays when we closed earlier. My salary couldn’t comfortably cater for me as I had to spend out of it for transportation to work, feed and do some other things. The firm was a small one with two staff and it wasn’t really a comfortable work environment. We didn’t have most of the resources that would enable us to perform ultimately. I would say it was almost an abusive work environment and the management was run in a laissez-faire style. It was very poor.”
While some lawyers lamented the poor working conditions they were subjected to, others have counted themselves ‘fortunate’ to be able to work in a conducive environment.
“I started off on a good note and I count myself lucky for this. In my first job, I was paid a reasonable fee for my level of experience and I tried to live within this salary budget. In addition, the firm offered me an accommodation in the principal partner’s quarters. I was just out of NYSC and could barely draft a legal document without errors. It was actually a learning ground for me. The management style was professional. The office has a Head of Chambers who oversees the smooth running of the office and it had some Head of Departments, a functional library, secretariat and an accountant. We also had access to free health care because the firm partnered with a hospital in town.”
For Niyi, things definitely got better, “Immediately after my NYSC, I started with the law firm of JB Daudu SAN & Co in Kaduna as a Junior Associate. The firm is into litigation and also combines corporate practice. I am presently with the third law firm since my call to the bar and most of the changes has been because of relocations.”
It was the same for Unimbong.
“The work environment in the first law office I worked was quite conducive. We had competent support staff and access to work materials substantially. There was enough furniture and other office equipment that made practice easier. I was not paid any specific amount at the end of the month. This is because I was not offered a permanent employment there. I only practiced until I was due for mobilization to serve under the NYSC scheme. However, I was entitled to some allowances based on how money comes into the office and it was quite very comfortable for me because of the cost of living in the town. I was required to work from 8am to 4pm from Monday to Friday. The office had just 3 lawyers – the principal, a senior colleague and I. The management style was simple, it was mostly mentorship through which we were groomed.”
If there is one thing all these lawyers have in common, it is that they all believe that lawyers, in Nigeria, have to be treated better.
One common factor in this profession is the “poor welfare package, this is speaking for the generality of lawyers in Nigeria. Another challenge is the work hours. Most law firms do not having closing hours and some juniors have to stay in the office as late at 10pm, in some cases waiting for the principal to call it a day. Young lawyers should have a work-life balance,” Niyi says.
Unimbong has similar experience, “The major challenges faced in practicing law in Nigeria ranges from the welfare of young lawyers especially for us who are still young in the system, to various policies which tend reduce the role of lawyers in some processes. For instance, the service of a legal practitioner is no longer required to register a business name. There are many other policies of such nature out there. There are also many untapped areas of law that can be harnessed for the development of law but our location and exposure is a challenge.”
These challenges do not end here. Many lawyers are also being stifled and given little or no environment to spread their wings and fly. “Most law firms in Nigeria are not well structured, it mostly revolves round the Sole Proprietor. Young lawyers cannot aspire to become a partner in a firm they have put in many years of service. That is why you see small law firms springing up at every nook and crannies of the town and it is not helping the profession,” Niyi says.
A agrees with Niyi when he says, “I had huge expectations and most of all, I thought if I worked hard, I would get what is due to me, but it does not work that way. I have come to realise the harder we, young lawyers, work, the greater the rewards of our principals, not us.”
Jessica is no different, the law profession wasn’t what she thought it will be. “I expected way more than I see now when it comes to financial rewards, I was really disappointed. Career-wise, I didn’t have the satisfaction previously but now I can say I enjoy what I do. My financial expectations have not yet been met but it is better than when I started,” she says.
In Nigeria, where law students could pay as high as 6 million Naira in total as school fees, lawyers are heavily under-paid. In 2018, Daily Trust told the story of 31-year-old Aisha Dolapo Ajekigbe, a young lawyer who got an offer of employment with a salary of N15,000. In 2019, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting told the story of Andrew Bello who was paid 630 Naira as his one-month salary in Lagos.
Do you know what’s shocking? “Hiring and firing of lawyers are basically oral, and there’s no written agreement. So we live at the mercy of our principals.” A says. Niyi confirms this when he says “Many junior lawyers don’t even have employment contracts in the law firms where they work.”
How then can lawyers grow in this career that seems to offer them so little? “Except you are fortunate to be in a busy jurisdiction or a good law firm, or in rare cases, both, such prospect of career growth is non-existent,” A says.
Unimkong brings a fresh perspective, “The prospect of career growth for young lawyers is bright. It all depends on the kind of office, mindset and environment that young lawyer finds himself.”
In the wake of this heart wrenching situation, one would expect that the Nigerian Bar Association would strive to bring an end to the mistreatment of young lawyers in Nigeria.
“The association, in my opinion, has failed woefully in its role in protecting the interest of its young ones. All the association cares about is collecting yearly practicing fees and local dues from members. I would not know of any effort made by the association because I have not seen any,” A says.
Unimbong has a different opinion, “There have been many attempts by successive administrations of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to improve the economic conditions of young and mid-career lawyers. The issue is the acceptance and compliance with same by members of the association especially those who employ lawyers. There have been annual general conferences where these issues have been raised and deliberated on.”
So, what is the solution to this?
Unimbong has the perfect idea, “What can be done to protect lawyers from maltreatment or underpayment is to have a standardised wage structure enforceable by the bar across all branches in the country. It can also be made a condition precedent for acknowledging any lawyer or group of lawyers who want to open a law office.”
“I have heard of a law firm that shuffles first year employees between all the departments in the law office so they can be mentored in each aspect of law and then finally choose the one that best suits them. This is a very good practice to me as you get to be mentored and familiarise with more than one or two aspects of law. I know of law offices that go the extra mile to make the work environment conducive for their staff,” Jessica says.
“The Nigerian Bar Association should push for more regulations in the manner law is practiced in Nigeria. Law firms need to be structured in a way that they can attract the right clients to pay their lawyers well. Except for firms in the major cities in the country, most of these law firms too are struggling to keep the business going. Lawyers should have insurance that can cover their health and maintenance bills. This will help in cushioning the effect of the unfair working conditions they face in the course of their practice.” Niyi says.
That settles the pay wages. But what about the mistreatment of lawyers in Nigeria? “Law firms that mistreat lawyers should be blacklisted.” Jessica says.
Do you agree?
But while we’re at it, what can lawyers do to salvage this situation and ensure they are paid their dues – especially when they have worked for it.
For A, the best thing is to avoid being a lawyer in Nigeria, “My advice would be for them to avoid practice if they can, but if they really want to, then they better sit down and plan out a roadmap to assist them because without such, one would be lost in legal practice.”
Jessica has the same opinion, “Be prepared for a lot of obstacles but if you’re properly equipped and resilient, you would succeed. As a young lawyer or even a senior lawyer you should keep learning and acquiring more knowledge so as to stay relevant and also grow.”
Niyi does not believe that the law profession, in Nigeria, fetches much money, “If your only motivation is to make money, don’t bother to study law. I mean, we all want money, but the reality is that for legal profession, the money doesn’t come immediately. Just like seed, you have to nurture it to germinate, then you reap bountifully.”
For Unimbong, change begins with junior lawyers, “My advice to those who want to practice law in Nigeria is that they should see it as a very noble profession. They should follow the tenets of the profession. They should also see it as a professional business where they represent all manner of persons as professionals. Acts that tend to cheapen the profession should be eschewed. There should eschew all forms of sharp practices that will bring their reputation and that of the bar into disrepute. The quest for money must be checked in order not to be found wanting.”