I remember my initial years in the practice of law in Nigeria, just a few years ago, my employers would refer to my generation as the ‘lucky’ generation. They said we had the luxury of being treated well. How well were we being treated: I was earning N10,000. This amount was meant to cater for my transport to the office, courts and meetings. The same amount was to cover my clothing and feeding. I was working under a contract, thus, I had a choice to leave or stay. Some years back, the story was different, a young lawyer had no choice, he must bear the pain of being young and helpless, he must be glued to a principal whether good hearted or wicked; whether he had a thriving practice or not; whether he understood the law or not (an excerpt from a lawyer who now has 11 years’ post-call experience at the bar).
Before delving further into the topic of discourse, there is a need to shed light on the key words in the topic- ‘New Wigs” and “Pupillage”.
The term “New Wigs” is used to describe “Young Lawyers”. “Young Lawyer”, in an omnibus sense, can be described as a person with a little year experience in practicing law. Most Bar Associations in the Commonwealth countries and even in the United States of America define “the young lawyer” as a lawyer enrolled to practice, having post call experience of seven years or less or is under thirty-six years of age.
There appears to be no fixed age for a young lawyer, however, it is safe to state that it varies from five to ten years post-call experience and thirty-six to forty years in chronological age. It is doubtful whether this definition can fit in into the Nigerian context.
The term “pupillage” is not plainly spelt out in common dictionaries, however, Black’s Law Dictionary: Centenary edition, gives the following definition of the word pupilus as; “a person under the authority of a tutor”.
Thus we can assert than “pupillage” refers to the period of working under a person, usually a mentor, in order to acquire better knowledge and experience and fully grasp the technicalities involved in an area of specialty.
HISTORY OF PUPILLAGE IN NIGERIA
Nigeria has never had a formal history of pupillage, however, there have been shades of the concept over the years, for a brief period in Nigeria, between 1978 and 1984. A lawyer newly enrolled was compelled by law to be attached to a law firm for five years to gain practical experience before commencing an independent legal practice. Section 1 of the Regulated and Other Professions (Miscellaneous Provisions) Decree No. 5 of 1978 provided as follows:
“As from the commencement of this decree and subject as hereinafter provided, no citizen of Nigeria shall, after been qualified to practice any scheduled profession under this decree, be entitled to enter into the practice of such profession on his own or to practice in partnership or in any other form of association with any other person until after service by such professional as an employee in a recognized organisation for period of not less than five years after being so qualified as aforementioned.”
This section of the Decree was repealed in 1984 by the Regulated and Other Professions (Private Practice Prohibition Decree) No. 34 of 1984. It is not necessary to go into the controversy generated by these two decrees other than to point out that the attempt to regulate the practice of the young lawyer in Nigeria by imposing compulsory pupillage appeared to be a very short-lived one.
Having x-rayed the chequered history of pupillage in Nigeria, we need to state why we are here: compulsory pupillage for new wigs is not desirable.
STILL NOT DESIRABLE
We need to note that Section 3(1) and Section 4 (1) of the Legal Practitioners Acthas provides for who can practice as an advocate and solicitor in Nigeria, he is the person:
- whose name is on the rolls;
- who is a Nigerian;
- who produces a qualifying certificate to the Benchers; and
- who satisfies the Benchers that he is of good character.
The makers of the law in their wisdom did not add compulsory pupillage to the aforesaid requirements. Among many reasons for doing so is that it is not desirable, it adds nothing and detracts nothing from quality of practice.
It is pertinent to state that our legal training is a complete pack as the law students are required to have been attached to a court and a law firm in the course of his training, the intendment of any form of pupillage would have been served by the said attachments to court and law offices.
Days of compulsory and even non-compulsory pupillage in Nigeria are filled with stories of woes because the pupils had no choice or seemed to have no choice. A wise man once said, ‘the day our right of choice is taken away, that day, we stop being men’. For a profession that prides itself as a defender of rights, compulsory pupillage defeats that purpose.
The unregulated pupillage that we had in Nigeria was a disservice to the legal profession. In England where the idea was imported, pupil barristers earn a minimum of £12,000 (the Bar Council minimum) for a 12-month pupillage in a criminal set. A pupillage at a top commercial chambers can pay £65,000. The English Bar Council has decreed that all pupils must be remunerated in the minimum sum of £1000 per month, equating to £12,000 per year, which must be made up of (at minimum) an award of £6,000 in the first six and guaranteed earnings of £6,000 in the second six.
The English system did not exist in Nigeria, and proponent of compulsory pupillage have never suggested it, they so much desire that complete state of enslavement and servitude and want it to be the law. No way!
One may agree or disagree, however, social sciences have established that money is the best motivating factor a human being can get for his labour in addition to job satisfaction. The introduction of compulsory pupillage without regulations on the earnings will drive a lot of young wigs from the legal profession. It is imperative to note that the Nigerian Bar Association have always complained of this very problem that there are few lawyers in the country. Would the introduction of a compulsory pupillage not promote this evident problem rather than suppress it?
In another vein, if we impose a system of minimum earning per new wig, do we then need to consider the earnings of the firms who will pay the new wigs? We may create a state of impossibility. Lex Non Cogit Ad Impossibilia; the law does not compel a man to do that which is impossible.
More so, it is time consuming. In Nigeria, where university education takes about six to seven years and then law school, often times you might have overgrown the age to participate in NYSC, so that may not count. All these you need just to be a member of the noble profession and earn a decent pay.
Furthermore, even the so called senior lawyers who are being asked to mentor the new wigs, are so preoccupied with making money that they do not have time to teach and guide the young lawyers, thus the young lawyers are left in the dark to learn on their own, so of what good is the pupillage to them anyway?
Also, what is the quality of the mentorship where the mentee has no choice? It is not conclusive that the older lawyer is better (though, it is a possibility), thus, the destiny of the new wig is dependent, unfortunately, on whether the older wig is good or has mastery of the law or is ethical in his practice. If the case is otherwise, we may have more crises on our hands than we attempt to cure.
It might have been canvassed that unethical practices abound among young lawyers because they did not go through compulsory pupillage. This is a fallacy of absence of evidence. Rather, for every ten complaints of unethical practices, nine must have trained under an unethical principal.The amount of young lawyers who are guilty of unethical practice for not undergoing compulsory pupillage are also the same with old wigs that are products of compulsory pupillage who are guilty of the same offence.
It would be myopic to assert that a reliable pupillage in itself does not come with its benefits; it however does not necessarily put one lawyer in a better stead than another. There are various masters in the practice of law presently that never went through the vain of pupillage.
Young Lawyers are the legacy of our legal profession, it is important we don’t drive them away with unnecessary compulsory pupillage.
Bolaji is a voracious reader and an idea person, he is interested in International Human Rights, Cyber& Media law, Constitutional Law and Economics Law. He is an undergraduate of the faculty of law, University of Lagos, the National Director, Directorate of Research & Training, LAWSAN and the Editor-in-Chief of the UNILAG Law Review.
Credit: Unilag Law Review