By Caleb Adebayo
Peak among the challenges facing the legal profession in Nigeria is the fact that there is gross unemployment of lawyers, and their welfare is generally poor, with no one looking out for their wellbeing while they look out for the well-being of others. Another is the fact that the legal profession in Nigeria has failed to catch up with and adapt to changing trends in the profession. It is lagging behind with obsolete practices and laws.
That is why seeing section 86(1) of the draft Bill before the National Assembly irked me. The section requires that all new wigs from the effective date of the Bill shall undergo mandatory two-year pupilage in the firm of an experienced legal practitioner in active practice or a law firm with requisite facilities. It is even more curious because this section provides only two sub-sections, the second of which does not explain or elaborate on the procedure for the scheme. There is a clear lack of thought about what this process will entail for the Nigerian legal profession. It is a tactless provision with no regard for the real future of the profession.
The Bill being proposed intends to add a two-year period to the training of lawyers, a period in which there is no provision in the Bill as to whether the young lawyers will be entitled to payment, a period within which the lawyer cannot start his own firm, a period that essentially hamstrings the young lawyer. Even the United Kingdom has a five-year total period for a person to qualify as a lawyer; three in the law school, one for the Bar Professional Training Course and one year pupilage, after which a person can practise freely as a lawyer. This is for a country rated as one of the ten best places in the world to practise law; a place where the average entry level lawyer earns an equivalent of N19 million annually. The United States, which tops the chart on the best places for lawyers to work, operates a7-year system where the aspiring lawyer earns an undergraduate degree in whatever course then proceeds to Law school, and writes the State Bar to qualify as a lawyer.
There is no pupilage of any sort, yet they field the best lawyers in the world, and still make the biggest bucks. Should we then not take an intrinsic view at our legal education systems rather than fault the young lawyers for their seeming woeful performance? With respect, these foibles that are harped on in defense of pupilage present a terribly flawed argument as the inadequacies are not even limited to the young. I have seen Senior Advocates make unforgivable mistakes both in legal processes and orally in court. For the young ones, we can blame inexperience. What excuse do we have for the latter?
Since I have come down this path, it is necessary to point out that the Nigerian Legal Education system in my opinion has failed. From the undergraduate institutions, the curriculum is a theoretical mishmash of unnecessary first year courses and half-baked lectures with notes dating as old as 30 years. Added to that is an uncanny and inexplicable need to frustrate the students with terrible grades, and conform them to a particular way and manner of thinking, ensuring the notes and texts of the teachers, no matter how obsolete, are reproduced in the exams.
These students arrive at the Law School and have to ditch this anachronistic and bland knowledge for the procedural part of legal practice. They are put under pressure to learn all about the law in ten months. The law school, yet again, prides itself on giving students terrible grades, perhaps believing it to be a testimony to the prestige of the system, a bleeding irony. The students finish, are called to the Bar, and are welcomed into a legal profession that tells them: “Here, it is not as you were taught in law school.”
So, does the legal education system really prepare lawyers for anything or it simply passes them through repeated hurdles of banal academic activity with nothing to show for it? Can we then blame the students? I think the Council of Legal education needs to do a re-assessment of the curriculum for undergraduate law studies, to abridge the time, and make it more procedural, mandate mock trials, internships and structured mentorships for law students with lawyers and judges in their areas. There is also a need to sync the curriculum of the universities with that of the law school so the students do not have to encounter a culture shock every time they get to the Law School.
The law firms also have a part of the blame. Many law firms, in the bid to make money and win cases, have seemingly lost touch with their duty to raise the next generation of lawyers, so internship programmes are neglected, with some even refusing to accept interns altogether. Senior lawyers are too busy to engage with the young ones, answer their questions and put them through. How then do we expect the young to grow? The solution to the dwindling standard of the legal profession, I daresay, is not pupilage. It is re-working the educational system to provide solid, practical, all-round education and mentorship for the lawyer while he is still a student, so that by the time he comes out, he would have had law office experience, court experience, worked directly with senior lawyers or judges through mentorship and engaged in mock trials that would build his advocacy skills.
More outrageous is the provision of section 87 that mandates all lawyers to contribute to a fidelity fund, for damages that in no way concern them. I am wondering if it is the lawyer who is unemployed years after being called to the Bar, the lawyer who earns 15, 000 naira a month or the one who is working with no pay who is expected to pay practising fee, and still contribute to a fidelity fund. I was expecting to see a Fund for indigent or exceptionally brilliant students who want to attend the Law School and cannot afford it, something that senior members of the Bar will contribute a certain sum to annually. Or, a fund to provide for free Mandatory Continuing Professional Development for outstanding young lawyers, something that will ensure merit is rewarded and everyone can have access to a law degree regardless of financial background, something for the good of society. But, perhaps as someone said, the law profession in Nigeria is one that looks out constantly for others, and never its own. That provision in section 87 should be tossed out without a second thought.
It was Jean Jacques Rousseau, Swiss-born philosopher, writer and political theorist who said ‘Good laws lead to the making of better ones; bad ones bring about worse.’ In my opinion, the Legal Profession Bill is bad law as it is, and should be overhauled to reflect the needs of today’s young lawyers, and not just feed the egos of a few.
Adebayo, a Lagos-based lawyer writes via [email protected]