To Compete Globally, We Must Do Away With Family and Individual Firms – Elvis Asia

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Elvis Asia is a versatile legal practitioner with a good grasp of the mechanics of law. Having worked in the client group system at Chief Rotimi Williams Chambers for over ten years, he has developed special interest in corporate/commercial practice and dispute resolution. He has an avid interest in legal research and writing and has written several articles on contemporary legal issues.

Elvis believes that to compete globally, Nigerian law firms must do away with family and individual patterned practice. He also believes that to get law firm partnership right, partnership should be partnership indeed, not glorified promotions and every firm must be able to show lawyers the route to partnership which is not subject to the mood of any partner.

In this chat with DNL Legal and Style he talked about this and many more.

DNL L&S: Please give a brief of your background (Name, State of Origin, Parents, Siblings, position in family, education –from the beginning to the last qualification).

Elvis: My name is Elvis Evbaruovbokhanre Asia. Many people struggle with pronouncing my middle name because it is quite long; it means a child does not forget whatever is done to him/her. I am from Edo State. My father is Pa. Asia Obasuyi who is currently the oldest man in my community and perhaps in Edo State. He was a big farmer in his days, very easy going but highly respected by the community. My Mother, Madam Helen Aigbenohuomwanre Obasuyi-Asia passed on in 2006. She was a very intelligent and energetic woman. People say I took after her in terms of intelligence and drive. My father had 16 children. We are currently 15 after the loss of my brother in 2010. I am the last child of the Family.

I attended Uvbenisi Primary School in Uvbenisi, Uhunmwode Local Government Area of Edo State. For my secondary school, I attended both Immaculate Conception College, Benin City and Eguaeholor Grammar School. I proceeded to Ambrose Alli University where I obtained my LL.B in 2007. I was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2008 where I was the recipient of Justice Olujide Shomolu Prize for Civil Procedure. I obtained an LL.M from the University of Lagos in 2013. I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, United Kingdom (2015), Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators of Nigeria (2016) and the Chartered Institute of Taxation of Nigeria in (2019).

DNL L&S: What motivated you to study law?

Elvis: A combination of factors motivated me to study law. The most compelling for me was my encounter with my history teacher at Immaculate Conception College. Unfortunately, I cannot recall his name now. One day he came to class and asked who could teach the topic for the day. When nobody stood up, I did. He asked me to read the note and teach the rest of the class. It was not a problem for me because I loved history. He was so impressed that after the class, he called me and said from the way I was talking in class; he thought I should study law because he saw a lawyer in me. From that day, I started seeing myself as lawyer. Looking back now, my late mother was another major influence on my decision to study law.  As early as when I was in primary school, my late mother, for reasons I could not understand, would refer to me as her lawyer or defender.  Those days in primary school, results were called at assembly ground. My late mother would always come on the day because she was proud to see me always take first position. On the way home, she would say I must go to school. Though I did not understand it at the time, I believe now that it had an unconscious effect on my decision to become a lawyer. Generally, coming from a humble background and seeing a lot of injustices suffered by people at the lowest levels, I felt studying law was a good way to stand up for myself and against injustice because of the way lawyers were regarded.

DNL L&S: How is the experience so far with legal practice?

Elvis: The experience has been quite good. Before I joined Chief Rotimi Williams’ Chambers in 2010, I worked briefly with Kupolati & Co. /Renaissance Law Publishers Limited where I did a lot of work on the editing of the All Federation Weekly Law Report. I have had the opportunity to learn and practice law with the best legal minds and at the highest levels. The important thing in law practice is that you need an environment where you can learn and at the same time be allowed to express yourself. Luckily for me, I had a combination of both in my early days in practice. Of course to be allowed to express yourself, you must self-develop and earn the trust of both your principals and colleagues.  The importance of pupillage in a good firm at the beginning of a legal career cannot be overemphasized but unfortunately, not every lawyer will get that opportunity. Apart from working with great lawyers within my firm, I have been privileged to equally learn from other great lawyers in the country through the work I did in which they were involved and globally through Terralex, a worldwide network of law firms. I have appeared at all levels of court and have argued important cases before our superior courts. I have also acted as Company Secretary to a public company where I interfaced a lot with the Nigerian Stock Exchange and Securities & Exchange Commission.

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There have also been frustrations along the way due mainly to the general problem with justice administration in Nigeria. The problems includes delays in adjudication of disputes in our courts, court not sitting even when you travel all the way from Lagos to Port Harcourt or Jos, unhealthy court rooms etc.  I recently concluded a matter that was filed by the late Chief Rotimi Williams in 1990. The reality is that Judges are overworked and without the requisite tools to do justice in a timely and efficacious manner. I am always pained when litigants bombard me with questions about timelines for the resolution of their matters which I cannot answer because I know the system.

Conflicting decisions of appellate courts is a major hurdle for lawyers involved in dispute resolution. On many important issues of law, there are diverse views by Justices of the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. This does not encourage confidence in the system. There is a need for investment in justice administration through the employment of clerks and researchers to assist Judges to keep pace with case law. There is also the need for intellectual law reporting. The present practice of reporting all judgments without consideration of their significance and relevance to existing precedent does not help the bar and bench.

There is also the problem of reluctance of lawyers to accept alternative dispute resolution mechanisms even when their clients’ case is obviously hopeless. The resort to crude tactics to simply delay a matter is unethical and brings the profession to disrepute. In most cases, arbitration has become a pre-trial formality. Lawyers need to be cautious in adopting any approach to the resolution of matters. Litigants are increasingly more interested in the way and manner their cases are handled and may start claiming damages against lawyers for professional negligence. The society is also now more aware that lawyers can be petitioned to the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee. The court can step in by adopting a realistic cost structure to dissuade frivolous cases and defence. The present cost system is a joke taken too far.

DNL L&S: You have worked with the firm of Chief Rotimi Williams’ Chambers for more than 10 years now, how would you describe your experience?

Elvis: I have had a great time at Chief Rotimi Williams’ Chambers (CRWC). I joined the firm in January 2010 few months after I relocated to Lagos in 2009. So my Lagos story has been shaped and told by CRWC. CRWC is blessed with the best and finest in law and most importantly, in terms of human relations. This is exhibited by the way the partners relate with lawyers at the firm- truly like colleagues. This is not surprising. The firm was founded by the late Chief Frederick Rotimi Alade Williams who was one of the most celebrated and disciplined lawyer of his time.

At CRWC, I met great people like Mr. Folarin Williams who in my view is one of the best legal minds around, Abimbola Williams-Akinjide SAN, a no nonsense and thoroughbred Senior Lawyer, the amiable T. E. Williams SAN, Mrs. Efosa Etomi with the eyes of a legal eagle and her husband, Uncle George Etomi who have practically adopted me as a son, the Company Secretary of Seven-Up Bottling Company Limited, Mrs. Ngozi Giwa-Amu, Mrs. Yejide Osunkeye, Mrs. Bukola Akinloye, my brother and friend, Olagbade Benson and many others.

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I was more than a counsel in Chambers at CRWC.  I was also what you may call a personal lawyer to the Williams’ family in the general sense of the word and in the process had first hand interaction with the glorious legacy of the late Chief Williams. I am grateful to the firm for trusting me with important matters and for affording me the opportunity to develop myself. I have colleagues in some other firms who cannot afford to study for a Masters or other professional courses because of the nature of their working environment.

One important take away from the firm is that even if you are specialising in an area as a lawyer, you should have the capacity to service the client’s legal needs, whatever that need might be.  This is because the firm runs the client group system which allows lawyers to provide legal services to a particular client. Of course, people will eventually find that they are better in a particular area within the group but they are nevertheless in touch with the law as it relates to other areas. This system is very good for young lawyers who should not be rushed to specialise in what they do not know.

DNL L&S: What lessons would you be taking along should you decide to leave the firm of Chief Rotimi Williams’ Chambers today.

Elvis: The truth is, no matter how beautiful your home is; you will need to leave it at some point. That is the natural order of things and it is the only way you can impact the world with the virtues you have imbibed in your home. I tendered my resignation to the firm in January 2020 to establish the Law Future Partners (LFP). The long term goal is to make LFP a mega partnership of colleagues across the country.

There are many lessons I will be taking with me, some of which I have already mentioned. The first one is that Senior Lawyers need to treat juniors with respect. I was treated with respect at CRWC, this was why I was able to develop at the pace I did. The stories we hear from some of our colleagues in other firms about how they are being abused and harassed is sad. In this regard, I call on the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee to sample the views of young lawyers in the firm of applicants confidentially before conferring the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on lawyers. A Senior Lawyer who harasses colleagues in whatever form or manner is not deserving of that rank. Secondly, young lawyers should be given opportunity to appreciate the law before specialising in an area and should be given the opportunity to express themselves. Thirdly, continuous professional development is very important. Senior lawyers and firms should assist younger members of the bar to develop themselves. Assistance needs not be in monetary terms only, encouragement and structuring the work environment to enable young lawyers have the time to develop themselves is important. Also, do not sacrifice quality for speed and or speed for quality. High quality legal work is essential to survival in the legal market, so also is timely service. More importantly, law is a business and must be treated as such.

DNL L&S: What is your take on legal practice in Nigeria; are we fit and well positioned to compete favourably with other jurisdiction?

Elvis: Legal practice has grown substantially in Nigeria. There are a few law firms with many partners and lawyers today. However compared to the number of lawyers in the country, this is a far cry from the idea. One-man practice is still the order of the day.  To compete globally, we need more partnerships and business oriented firms, not family and individual firms. This is the only way we can acquire necessary resources, both human and capital as well as information technology that is needed to compete globally. Secondly, legal practice is highly sophisticated today. Legal training alone is not sufficient to compete. Lawyers must develop themselves in areas such as finance and information technology. When I took courses like Corporate Financial Management, Economics, Accounting, Tax Accounting & Computation and Quantitative Techniques in my professional certifications, I was amazed at how relevant the information garnered was to the practice of law. It will be difficult for lawyers to appreciate the complexities of modern commercial and business relationships without training in these areas. The era when people studied law as an escape from mathematics is over.

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DNL L&S: What area of law would you consider your specialization?

Elvis: I am a corporate/commercial lawyer with a knack for dispute resolution. However, given my background in the client group system at CRWC and professional training over the years, I am a versatile legal practitioner with a good grasp of the mechanics of law. I have an avid interest in legal research and writing. People say I have a way with brief writing that is unique and compelling.

DNL L&S: What advice do you have for lawyers who are looking up to carving a niche for themselves in a field of legal practice?

Elvis: My advice is that they should find a firm that mirrors their dreams and invest heavily on personal development even beyond the law. Specialisation is good but a good lawyer should strive to understand the workings of the law generally before specialising. Artificial intelligence is shaping the world today and more tomorrow. They should take interest in understanding the legal dynamics of artificial intelligence.

DNL L&S: What are your thoughts about partnership in law firm?

Elvis: Partnership is important for a successful law practice in this era. There is a meteoric when people pool together their resources. The reality of today is that every lawyer needs a support system beyond the tag of employees. The complexities and sophistication of modern practice are such that a firm should have experts in different areas to be able to service clients holistically. This is only possible with partnership. Partnership also leads to resource maximisation and gives firms a competitive edge. The challenge however is that people tend to be greedy and insincere; hence, the one-man structure still holds sway.  There is so much exploitation in the present system because one person wants to take everything. The prosperity of most firms does not trickle down and majority of lawyers are poorly paid. The Nigerian Bar Association should find a way to encourage partnership in law practice because that is a way to discourage exploitation which is rife in the practice of law in Nigeria. Guidelines on partnership including on issues like structure and relationship between lawyers in partnership should be formulated by the association. Every lawyer working in a firm should know the route to partnership which is not subject to the mood of any partner and partnership should be partnership indeed, not glorified promotions. It is also important for lawyers going into partnership to take courses on the business aspect of the law. The NBA should, as a matter of urgency, design a course in this regard as part of Continued Professional Development initiatives. More importantly, our legal education must be reworked to capture the reality of the business aspect of the law.

Beyond partnerships simpliciter, I believe in collaborations.  Whether or not a lawyer is two days at the bar or junior counsel, he or she is a ‘partner’ with respect to the work attracted to the firm and should be rewarded accordingly beyond normal remunerations and performance bonuses. Many firms say this but never institutionalise it, when the client pays, it becomes discretional. This should not be so. There should be a clear pre-agreed sharing formula.

DNL L&S: Where do you consider Elvis to be in the next 5 years?

Elvis: In five years, I want to be involved in major legal developments in the country and beyond. I am also passionate about continued professional development. I hope this answers my friends who ask me why I publish free articles online every day. I want to continue to do that and in 5 years, come up with better ways of contributing to the development of law.

DNL L&S: Aside law, what other things interest you?

Elvis: Investigative journalism, Information technology, poetry, sports, music etc. If I was not a lawyer, I would probably have been a writer. I have always loved writing. I remember writing an article that was published by Punch Newspapers in my secondary school days.

DNL L&S: How do you relax?

Elvis: I listen to music and discuss life issues with friends and family

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