Mike Igbokwe, SAN, a successful lawyer and mentor quietly making his mark in advocacy, advises up-and-coming young lawyers to take their pupillage seriously because this is where the foundation for law success is laid.
“You can never underestimate pupillage for a lawyer,” Igbokwe says emphatically, as I interview him via ZOOM from his hotel room in a location abroad at the height of the pandemic, to share his legal practice experience for my forthcoming law book. He continues: “Whether or not you want to practise law, you must go for pupillage. Not just mere pupillage. You must go for thorough pupillage under a seasoned lawyer. Go to where you will be very busy with legal work, because each assignment given you to do gives you some legal experience or the other. And experience can only come from what you do regularly or what you are exposed to. If you go to work with a very busy lawyer, within a short time you will know so much that your colleagues would be asking you for legal advice to solve some of their legal problems. However, if you go to a law firm where you are not busy, you will not learn enough and be able to do a lot within a short time. It will take a longer time to learn. That is why you see a lawyer, for instance, who has five or seven years post-call experience, but his competence and ability are not as good as a lawyer who has just two years post-call experience that worked under a seasoned and busy lawyer. The one with two years’ post-call experience has been lucky enough to have worked with and under a seasoned and a busy lawyer where he got exposed to and did a lot of things within a short time. Of course, it comes by dint of hard work, diligence and industry plus a teachable or humble spirit—the spirit of learning.”
Igbokwe is among the Senior Advocates featured in my forthcoming book, “COURTROOM & LAW FIRM STRATEGIES—Senior Advocates Share Their Practice Experiences.” He pays tribute to his pupil master, H.A. Lardner, the astute senior advocate of blessed memory who taught him things they don’t teach in law school.
I served my pupillage under Mr H.A. Lardner, SAN, and I learnt a lot from him. I learnt legal tactics, professional ethics, hard work, integrity, humility, the need to prepare well for cases and so many other things you do not find in textbooks. He taught me some of the secrets of success in law practice, which if I start mentioning would run into several pages. It is like going to ‘war.’ You do not reveal your weapons and strategies to your ‘enemy.’ I learnt a lot that I would not have learnt in Harvard or Oxford. That is why I say you cannot underestimate the power of pupillage when it comes to being properly groomed and positioned to be a successful lawyer. It is only when you work with such people that they show you some of those secrets, if you are willing, able and ready to learn; because some lawyers may have the opportunity of working with such seasoned lawyers, but they do not take it seriously and they come out not as good as their bosses. I must tell you that six of us who were working under Mr. Lardner, SAN at the same time became Senior Advocates of Nigeria mainly because of what we learnt from him and built on. We have Mr. Jimoh Lasisi, SAN, Chief Tony Idigbe, SAN, Mr. Babatunde Fashanu, SAN, my humble self, the late Clement Obi Okwusogu, SAN and Mrs. Dorothy Ufot, SAN. When I clocked 60 years in November 2019, I presented a book titled, “The Trajectory of Excellence in Legal Practice: Insights from Legal Experts,” which contained write-ups by 37 Senior Advocates of Nigeria depicting how they attained and had been sustaining success/excellence at the Bar. It is a must-read by any lawyer aspiring to attain and sustain excellence at the Bar because he would be able to see and learn from how the legal experts rose to where they are today.
Mr. Lardner, SAN was a lawyer that in his days you would not see any serious land matter that did not have his name. They used to bring cases that had been lost or mismanaged at the High Court or Court of Appeal to him to ‘repair’ on appeal. In those days, the early eighties, Mr. Lardner, SAN used to appear in the Supreme Court which was then in Igbosere, almost every Monday and Tuesday. He was always in the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal then at Bourdillon Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, for either a motion or a substantive appeal. He was very, very good in appeals. I must say that that rubbed off on me because when I joined him, the policy in his chambers was that the most junior lawyer would be appearing in court with him, since being a SAN he could not appear alone in courts. So, I was appearing with him and became stronger in appeals than in trials in my early days as a lawyer because I started getting exposed to law practice by him from the appellate stage. In land matters, he was exceptional. In Criminal law, he was exceptional. He was well-known. He was one of the best we had in this country in his time. He was a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, who spoke impeccable Queen’s English, mainly because he studied in England. He was trained by Chief G.B.A. Coker, who also had a good record as a junior in a law firm before he branched out. He was a very nice man, a highly detribalised Nigerian. He would not look at you based on your tribe. He would look at you based on your competence and industry. He was a kind of man that if you were able to prove yourself in law practice, he would not stop you, but he would expose you. He would give you the opportunity to be exposed to a higher level of law practice, unless you are not ready. Within six months of working with him, I had started handling appeals on my own. How did it happen? I went to court with him. The name of the case which I cannot forget is Ogboye versus LEDB. We lost the case in the High Court and he instructed me to file a notice of appeal against the judgment and conduct the appeal. That was how I started my work and experience in appellate matters. I did all the needful with the guidance of my seniors in the chambers who showed me precedents. Six months from joining him, I wrote my first appellate brief under him.