The legal profession is about the only profession that can make you super rich and wretchedly poor. Becoming either poor or rich does not really depend on your academic prowess. Therefore, the fact that you won the best graduating student in your set at the University or the entire 16 awards during call to bar having graduated with first class adds little to your success. I am not by this discouraging anyone from being the best academically. I am only trying to encourage those who have come out with pass from law school to remember the late Chief Gani. For those who graduated in flying colours, as you are looking at the likes of Prof Ajogwu SAN and Fidelis Oditah QC also consider that brilliant poor lawyer who argues eloquently and writes elegantly but dresses like a pauper. It all adds up to one thing. Your training takes you farther than your qualifications.
Enough said, have you considered that there are many brilliant poor lawyers around? Have you ever had to interact with a very intelligent but poor lawyer who leaves you wondering?
Some of the reasons why many in the legal profession are very brilliant yet poor are addressed below.
Becoming Everybody’s go to Lawyer
The fastest route that will lead you to becoming a brilliant poor lawyer is not to set a standard for yourself and your practice. It is not just enough to have the boldness and the skill to dazzle in court. Remember that the same boldness it takes to stand before a judge to argue a N10b suit is the same it requires to argue a N10m suit. What will set you apart and distinguish you would be your ability to say ‘no’ when the client wants to take you for granted. Have you ever wondered why lawyers collect N5k to prepare a deed for a property worth N100m? It is because some lawyers somewhere are too wretched in mind to resist the urge to collect anything. You hear lawyers in this category say somethings like; “the entire juicy briefs have been collected by the big law firms.” “If I don’t collect this, hunger will kill me.” “The people telling you not to collect, are they going to pay your bill?” “Is it the 50k your principal is paying you that will sustain you?” While all these may be valid propositions, the truth is that you are on the fastest route to becoming a brilliant poor lawyer if you keep any of these mind sets. If you have a client who can buy a property for N10m and he is not able to pay you at least N500k for preparing the deed, it is not the fault of the big law firms that you do not have juicy brief. It is your fault for not seeing the potential for having juicy briefs. In the end, when that same client has a serious problem, he would go to the big law firms and will gladly pay them millions. You would continue to eat crumps because you do not have any standard. When you read this, remember one thing; Poverty is a thing of the mind.
Billing Clients is an Art You Must Acquire
I worked in a law firm that had five partners and they all agreed that only two of them had the gift of negotiating bills with client. So, what they do was to attend every meeting with either of the partners. In fact, these two are so good with billing that when you sit with them to negotiate with clients, you would be scared at the proposals they make. They are confident, they are persuasive and they are very professional. When they are done with discussing the reason why you should pay what they propose, you would be left thinking that they are the only ones that could get your case handled well. I tried to remind myself that it was still our office sometimes with the way they present these things.
On the other hand, I have also worked with a principal who makes the fee look like a favour to him. The clients get away with anything they propose. Sometimes I used to be so angry with the Principal and wondered how he got his bills paid with the ridiculous sums he accepted as professional fees.
Billing clients is an aspect of the practice that no one will teach you in the four walls of any preparatory school. You cannot read it in any law book. It is either you have the skill inborn or you make effort to acquire the art. As a lawyer who wants to be rich, find out if you have it in you. If not, do whatever it takes to acquire it. Majority of those who do not have this skill are the fresh wigs who jump into practice without pupillage. You would be lucky to scale through the average life without having an on the job experience on how to bill clients. In some law firm, it is such a treasure that unless you desire to learn it, you may never understand the intricacies. You have been in a firm for 5 years or more, ask yourself, have you ever seen your partners or principal negotiate bills? If you haven’t and you intend to ever have your own practice someday, it is time to make it a priority. Lawyers are under priced, under paid and exploited for this reason. As a service based profession, legal practice is one of the professions that clients want to enjoy services for free, so, you may never become rich if you do not understand billings and how to make clients pay for your services.
What kind of Law Office Do You Have?
The greatest error committed by most lawyers who have had a practice for so long and have continued to struggle is that of not developing a practice. No, your car is not and cannot act as your office. Your room is not and cannot also act as your office. I have no problem with you deciding to start your own practice even fresh from Law School but you must have to realize that there is a time of sowing. What most people forget is the fact that whether you decide to go the route of pupillage or not, you must have that period of pain. What type of pain would suit you? You may decide to face that pain of N50k per month and learn the rope or start your practice with the so called “relatives’ briefs” either way, you must plan to start off with some standard. How can you get your first N1m brief and all you have in your head is to go buy a car? Some will then deceive themselves with the cliché, “I need to package myself”. No, you need to save to rent an office. You need to equip that office with books. You also need to make the office decent. You cannot set up a practice in your car or garage or room and expect to become rich. No, it does not happen.
If you do not have money to set up a practice, swallow your pride and forget all you have heard or read about seniors and their “wicked” ways. Guess what, that common saying by those seniors that a lawyer cannot be paid is actually true. Do not listen to failures. They failed anyway and they wish you also fail. Go out there and attach yourself to a law firm for no matter how little. If you have to work for free, by all means, Work! Set your goals, make contacts, form alliance, become a firm of 10 Partners if you must, but set up an office that is decent. Clients pay for so many things. If you know, you know.
becoming a Rebel without a Cause
Unconfirmed statistics show that people in this category are often bold, daring, outspoken and a bit arrogant. However, rather than convert these attributes to something positive, they use it to burn their bridges (read more on burning bridges below). They have no respect for anyone, including seniors. They will argue and insult everybody in and out of the courtroom. You went to Law school they did too, so ‘kini big deal’?. I have attended a settlement meeting with my Principal where, after the meeting, I had to politely ask him if he knew the junior on the other side from somewhere. First he did not even say hello, then he became intimidated for no reason and turned aggressive. His client at some point became very uncomfortable. He kept saying, “I cannot be intimidated”. What exactly is the fight for? You cannot take away the fact that the other person is your senior, so, by all means feel intimidated, it is part of learning the rope. Someday, someone will also be intimidated by your presence. However, let the intimidation humble you and not make you nasty. A very popular Senior Advocate invited a junior colleague to join in an election petition matter after both of them had a matter in court. The story as told by the junior was that the learned silk had an incurably bad case and did all he could to use technicalities to get by. The young lawyer respectfully tackled him on all aspect, including oral advocacy where necessary and eventually earned his respect. After the judgment, the learned silk was so impressed that he personally signed a letter of commendation to the junior which he ended with a note saying he expects him in their circle soon. The young lawyer thought that was the end until one afternoon he got a call from the SAN to come to his office. He was told he has just been joined to the team of juniors to handle an election petition and when he got his alert, it was so much for him that he moved office, bought a car and bought so much books, including a complete set of NWLR from inception. You think you are doing me? You are doing yourself burning the bridges. You do not have to become hostile to the seniors. You can become friends with them even after flawing them in court. They started before you and would definitely leave the arena for you. Just resist the temptation to be rude and insulting, you would never go far with. Ask those who did.
Settling for Police Station and Magistrate Courts
I had to meditate on this point before including it to this series. The reason is because, it would be very easy for people to misunderstand the intention. But we have to speak this truth. Yes, there is nothing wrong in being an expert in bail application and Magistrate court practice. There is nothing wrong in having these clients who have one thing or the other to settle at the magistrate courts and police station. Rent recovery, petty debt recovery, street fight and so on. However, the very bitter truth is that by the nature of these clients, you will never become a rich lawyer just joggling these two places for them. I haven’t seen any rich lawyer who is only expert at bail and magistrate court cases. I stand to be corrected.
Just before you start rebelling, let me remind you that there are so many ways to grow your practice. One of them has been identified earlier. Do not take the short cut. You must have to pay these dues somehow. Pupilage or not, there is a growth period. If you find out that you cannot go beyond having police cases and magistrate court cases, perhaps it is time to join an established firm. Perhaps it is time to consider a synergy. Do not become too proud to build with others. This practice is about who you know and have contact with. Have you ever wondered why some Principals guard their clients with their lives? Have you wondered why some of them would hide their files inside their offices and not allow you to have access to them? It is because in legal practice, contact is everything. Until and unless you realize that you can do it another way, you will remain grateful for that daily meal you make from those small cases and before you realize it, you have become 28 years post call still wearing coat to the magistrate court and police station. I do not wish that for you and I know you do not wish that for yourself.
Burning All the Bridges
To be Continued…
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