I was once at a forum where His Eminence, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi (now the Emir of Kano), was a key note speaker. Then he was the Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria. It was at the twilight of the capitalization of Commercial Banks in Nigeria. Mallam Sanusi Lamido made some scary revelations about the structure and strength of Law Firms in Nigeria.
Mallam Sanusi Lamido told the audience that when the CBN was going to enforce the N25billion capital base for Commercial Banks, the CBN knew there would be legal issues and it needed robust legal backing. According to him, the CBN conducted an audit of law firms in Nigeria and the only firm that passed the checks set for the exercise was “Olaniwun Ajayi.” This wasn’t a celebration for Olaniwun, because Mallam Sanusi also put a caveat. He said it wasn’t the case that Olaniwun Ajayi passed all checks; it was just the only local firm that made it above average. Mallam Sanusi said the CBN had to retain a foreign firm to supervise (or did he say coordinate) the activities of Olaniwun Ajayi in respect of the Capitalization. Personally I felt slighted. Not because I would have been in a position to do anything (what do I know) but because he was making a factual statement which nobody really challenged. So the statement remains valid as of today.
Anyway, the above summarizes the state of the present structure of our law firms. But I make bold to say that we have individual lawyers in Nigeria and I dare say, ‘many’ who are equal and even sometimes better than their counterparts from around the world.
In some advanced jurisdictions, law firms boast of thousands of Associates (Junior and Senior alike) and hundreds of Partners. With their strength, they handle multi billion dollars transaction. Back home, in South Africa, law firms such as Bowman Gilfillan in Jo’ burg and Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr boast of about 400 lawyers each. In one of my conversation with a Partner in a leading law firm in the UK, he told me he was leading about 14 partners, 100 Senior Associates and 200 Associated in a transaction which was scheduled to last for 6 months. That is just one law firm and one transaction out of the several transactions in the firm. If such brief was to come to Nigeria, you would probably need 10 law firms to shut down their entire operations, collaborate and work on the transactions.
I am not in any way belittling the top tier law firms we have in the country, far from it. They are doing well and are rightly taking their place in the scheme of things in the economy. The salient question is; should we rest on our oars? Have we gotten to the promised land? Shouldn’t we continue to post the frontiers of healthy mergers of law firms to establish vibrant and sustainable practices?
On the 1st of July, 2004, Aelex came into existence from the merger of four prominent law firms; O. Adekoya & Co., Victor & Charles, Anga & Emuwa and Adegbite Adeniji & Co. O. Adekoya & Co. formed in 1990 was reputable for its practice in Dispute Resolution through litigation and Arbitration. Victor & Charles was widely known for its expertise in Project Finance, established in 1993. Anga & Emuwa, founded in 1990, provided specialized legal services to government, multinational companies, oil and gas companies amongst others. Adegbite Adeniji & Co. was reputable for Corporate Commercial practice. With the diversity of the practice of the firms who merged to become Aelex, one isn’t surprised at the giant strides the firm is presently achieving in the legal and economic world.
I think it is time law firms look inward to consider the option of a healthy merger to boost their productivity, prospect and profit. We have too many law firms around with little or no financial strength. Law Firms need to begin to look at themselves as corporate entities set for serious business. They should begin to look beyond the selfish interest of the promoter of the firm and begin to look into the future.
In order to appreciate this piece, conduct a quiet investigation and identify how many Law Firms in Nigeria has Practice Groups or Departments for ALL aspects of law (telecommunications, real property, oil and gas, dispute resolution, project finance, cross boarder transaction, etc) yet we brandish these practice areas and claim experts in them. At the end of your search, we would begin to speak with a common voice on this.