(Excerpts from Speeches made at NBA Aba Branch Law Week, NBA-YLF 2021 Summit and NBA-YLF Degema Symposium)
By Akorede Habeeb Lawal
In all honesty, dealing with this topic is more like me speaking to myself. I say this because outside the courtroom, nothing much describes my credit alert, except gifts from clients who are impressed with my courtroom advocacy. There is no doubt that most of the brilliant lawyers that inspired you and I to become lawyers made their wealth, names and fame within the courtroom. Litigation was their game.
I appreciate the theme of this session –modern law practice in a depressed economy, and it is ingenious. It is ingenious because the persons that coined the theme attempted to downplay the effect of the depressed economy in order to justify the modernization of law practice. But the long and short of it all, the real essence is finding alternatives that could pay our bills and from which we could make a decent living beyond litigation and within the practice of law.
I know the easiest place to look at is the alternative dispute resolutions practice, after all, there is a reason it is called alternative. It is alternative to litigation not only for disputants but also for legal practitioners. So it will be expected of me to encourage you to secure certifications in arbitration, conciliation, negotiation, mediation and what have you. Colleagues, you are hereby encouraged. But this is not why I am here. Let us be practical. This is Nigeria. Look around you, who are your clients? Are they the big foreign companies exploring direct investments in Nigeria or are they Mr. Chukwuma and Madam Gloria running individual businesses? Who needs you?
While I appreciate and encourage the ambition of aiming for the top business deals, we must understand our jurisdiction and what the needs of the potential clients in our jurisdiction are even as we expand the frontier of our legal practice beyond litigation. The majority of an average Nigerian lawyer’s clients are Nigerians. The National Bureau of Statistics in its 2020 survey shows that 40.1% of Nigerians are poor. The Bureau is yet to release the 2021 statistics, but looking at the theme of the session and the reality of the ‘Buhari Economics’ we all know it will even be more depressing. These are our clients. These Nigerians will likely not need arbitration clauses in their business agreements. A lawyer’s stamp will often do the magic to keep all the parties in line. At times, they even take these agreements to court to stamp it.
So basically, expanding frontier of legal practice does not always mean leaving your frontier. The move to something else doesn’t have to be drastic, but it has to be strategic. Perhaps I should share this experience with you to drive home this point. Two weeks ago, a colleague from Ihiala called me, he needed to get over the process for his notary public application. He sounded so serious about it and I was wondering what was special about being a notary public. He later informed me that in the whole of Ihiala, there is no single lawyer who is a notary public. Together we imagined the money he would have made during the last JUSUN strike, but he is consoled with the fact that when he makes notary public, he has another stream of income outside the courtroom.
At this juncture, I should say to you my colleagues (particularly the young lawyers) that tech is the new oil and we have to take full advantage of it, if we must collectively expand the frontier of our legal practice. Time would not permit me to detail in specifics the emerging areas of legal practice like data protection that greatly gave technology as its base. But to appreciate the rainmaking art of technology, it would interest you to know that in the first quarter of 2021, Nigeria generated N40 trillion as GDP and the ICT sector alone contributed over N4 trillion that is 9.91% while the oil sector generated 9.25%. It’s been about 100 days since the Nigerian Government unintelligently banned Twitter and the Punch Newspaper authoritatively reported that Nigeria has lost over N247 billion in those 100 days. What this means is that Twitter contributes an average of N2 billion to our GDP every day. Dear colleagues, Nigeria is known as a creative and industrial hub and no doubt it is full of young and budding tech gurus. If you are the first lawyer they know and think of when they are start-ups, you will likely remain their lawyer when they are big and up there.
Closely related to the opportunities in tech is the reality that most of our clients are online – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They yearn for legal services, therefore a lawyer needs a reasonable social media presence. And it is at this point that the Rules of Professional Conduct (particularly as it relates to attraction if business) must conform with the rules of our present reality. A 2007 Rule cannot by any stretch of imagination sustain the demands of legal practice in 2021. However until the necessary amendments to the RPC are effected, a lawyer who desires to expand his/her frontier could take advantage of the social media market by letting people know what (s)he does for a living without asking them to come and buy. Tweet about law issues that may interest the public. Write legal articles, post decent pictures of you at your professional engagements.
I should conclude by stating that in order to maximise the full benefits of tech, we would have to adapt to technology and adopt it to ensure client satisfaction and even improve on what we get in terms of money from our practice. The tools are easy and you could even start from your phone. Yes your phone. Imagine setting up a video conferencing spot (with zoom) in your office where a new client does not have to go with the brief, because lawyer isn’t in town, but can engage you even while you are out of office or out of jurisdiction. Imagine an easy to use app that allows you to bill your client the way and manner we buy stuffs from Jumia or pay our conference fees online. Stop imagining. Start working on it.
Thank you for having me.
Habeeb is the immediate past National Assistant Publicity Secretary, Nigerian Bar Association