Aspiring lawyers, after spending years in the university and law school, often expect smooth and lucrative transition into the legal practice. However, this appears to be far from the reality in Nigeria as legal practitioners just starting out often battle harsh financial conditions in the process of becoming established. KOLA MUHAMMED investigates the state of legal practice in the country as established and young lawyers speak on how things could possibly get better.
When Tola Ogunwusi (not real name) got admission to study Law in the university, his joy knew no bounds. He was finally on his way to fulfilling a dream he had been nursing since childhood to become a lawyer. Over the course of five years in the university, he would devote himself to rigorous study and come out tops in his set.
After managing to secure a scholarship which catered for his Law school tuition, he imagined that things could only get better from there. However, after some seven years in pursuit of his lifelong ambition, including the mandatory National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme, Ogunwusi was raring to go, eager to strut his stuffs and showcase that he is not just ‘the law’ by moniker alone but by substance.
However, it would come as a rude shock to him the kind of offers he got upon attempts to begin his professional career.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when I was offered N10,000 as salary. In fact, it was not called salary; it was called stipend. Apparently, working with an established chamber is some sort of apprenticeship and you don’t get paid for that.
“My lofty expectations were given a rude jolt and it dawned on me that the reality is the direct opposite of my imagination. I can’t even tell my friends who call me ‘the law’ and see me in black and white, that I earn way below the old minimum wage,”Ogunwusi told Sunday Tribune.
The testimony of Ogunwusi might seem incredible to many who are outsiders to the legal profession but Sunday Tribune’s interactions with several young lawyers revealed that rather than be the exception, experienc such as Ogunwusi’s has become the norm over the years and many legal practitioners were not reluctant to share it. It is one experience they wish they could forget in an instant.
Corroborating the hardship many young lawyers undergo, an Osogbo-based lawyer, Abimbola Akinyemi, shared the story of his professional journey, how he was paid a paltry N10,000 salary and made to work very hard for it.
“When I was practising in Ado-Ekiti, I was earning N10,000. I remember there was a week that I was sick and wasn’t able to go to court. My boss told me that he was not going to pay for that week and he deducted N2,500 from my salary.
“There was nothing I didn’t do, to the extent that there were certain times that we would go to court and we would be selling cosmetics. When I moved to Ibadan, the man [employer]said I was going to work from Mondays to Saturdays between 7:30am and 9:00pm.
“My salary was going to be N20,000. I worked for a week and I quit,” Akinyemi further said.
For Lagos-based legal practitioner, Gboyega Adeyemi-Bisileko, the sordid experience of young lawyers reflects the system in place in Nigeria, starting from the Law School.
“Most of us have had issues with how the Law School system treated us and how oppressive it is. It is crazy that Law School which is the place where the law is taught and future lawyers who should more or less represent the rights and freedoms that the constitution gives, is where future lawyers are most broken psychologically.
“You can’t complain about stuffs. So, the average young lawyer that leaves Law School is already scarred, because he has realised that to get out of that system he should just read, endure the hardship, get out and live his/her life.
“They have to deal with all the trauma from Law School, deal with trauma from a boss that uses you so badly,” he narrated.
Speaking of his own personal experience, Adeyemi-Bisileko explained that he once worked with a private law firm. “I worked with a law firm that had me as the only guy. The support staff, the owner of the firm and the head of chambers were all ladies. For me, it was a bit hard because everytime I had a difference of opinion about how to do something, it was always seen from the perspective of challenging them because they are women.
“The idea was not really seen on its merit. And it affected my ability to relate with female authority for a while. Throughout the 16 months I spent at the firm, I was carrying 80 to 90 per cent of the workload of the firm.
“There were weeks on end that I would not be at the office because I’m mostly in court, meeting clients. And when you go out on your own money, recovering it was a tiring process. The time of response after submitting one’s expenses can be up to two weeks, based on their mood.
“When I saw that I was carrying the majority of the firm’s burden months after I started, I asked for a raise from the starting salary of N50,000. I was told that they had got my mail in January 2019 and were looking into it. When I left the firm in September 2019, they were still looking into it.
“Many lawyers do not have their employers covering any form of insurance such as pension and health schemes. I’m sure that up to 80 per cent of young lawyers in firms do not have their employers covering that.
“And I think it is a vicious cycle. When you get exposed to that kind of toxicity from your employers, if you do not deal with it, you would repeat the same to young lawyers coming after you.
“The surprising part is that when I told a friend about my unbearable situation which made me to resign, that friend told me to give him their contact that he could cope with such conditions. You can then imagine how much worse he must have had it.
“it is my personal opinion that lawyers are one of the worst employers of labour. That’s why the ultimate dream for a lawyer is to work in-house within a company, where there’s a definite path to growth, enjoy 13th month salary, leave, insurance schemes and many other things. Work within a law firm is the real ghetto,” he submitted.
Another Lagos-based lawyer who, however, pleaded anonymity, also had similar experience but remarked that there were positives nonetheless for young lawyers.
“I have worked in about six law firms in my six-year post-call experience and I have faced the good, bad and the ugly.
“There was a time I was depressed during my time with a law firm because my principal partner likes to talk down on young lawyers. The first time I resigned, she said that she wouldn’t take it just because of the manner of approach and the manner of communication of information.
“There is a big gap between the senior partners/associates and young lawyers. They [senior associates] need to understand that what is being taught at Law School is not the same with what obtains with them. There is the need to orientate young lawyers in order to bring out the best in them.
“This wasn’t the case at the law firms I worked. Since they are paying you, they want to get value for money. They pay you N30,000 and expect to get the value of N150,000.
“My experience wasn’t about the money, it was about the environment. The first place I worked after internship had a hostile environment. The second law firm I worked with didn’t really align with my career path and whenever I wanted to attend conferences, I would not be allowed, even when I won scholarships.
“The next place was nasty. I didn’t realise on time that she didn’t practise for long. Because of that, she would expect you to file an application in a day, move that day and get judgment the same day! Eventually, when I resigned, I learnt that I was the sixth or seventh person to resign that same year.”
Why young lawyers need the experience
While several young lawyers have not hidden their frustrations at the hands of senior partners and firm owners, Sunday Tribune sought the opinions and reactions of the senior Learned colleagues.
A senior partner based in Ibadan, Samuel Erinle, explained that several reasons abound for what young lawyers go through in the name of growing on the job. However, such reasons, he opined, are fast becoming obsolete.
“The belief in the legal profession is that experience is superior to education. What is being taught at Law School is different from what obtains in the real practice. The number of years spent in school does not matter if you have no experience.
“Therefore, lawyers actually need to build their experience in the profession. It is because of this that senior and managing partners feel that young lawyers should actually pay for the apprenticeship they want to undergo.
“So, to pay them a meagre allowance means that they are even being generous when the expected order is that young lawyers pay for the experience they need on the job.
“Another popular practise is that senior practitioners feel that young lawyers should pass through the same rigours they passed through. Some were not paid at all while those who were paid only got stipends. So, they want people coming after them to experience the same thing because they feel it is the only system that can make them grow.
“Social pressure too is another issue that adds fuel to the fire. Landlords, friends and neighbours of lawyers always call them ‘The Law’ and expect that they earn big because they are lawyers. But the reality is otherwise.
“On the part of young lawyers, I think they need to temper their expectations. Some have this lofty dream of earning six-digit salary as soon as they leave law school. When the status quo hits them, then they are unable to take it. It is like an aircraft. The take-off is always rough but when it reaches certain altitude, it becomes smooth and passengers get to walk about and release their seat belts,” he said.
Corroborating Erinle’s words, a principal partner, Olumiji Martins, explained to Sunday Tribune that Law is just like vocational trades which require apprenticeship and apprenticeship doesn’t usually come cheap.
“I have also gone through this same experience and it was not in any way pleasant. Law is just like a trade, a vocation, like we have carpentry, bricklaying and so on. There is so much emphasis on apprenticeship.
“Although no law stops any lawyer from being independent from day one, but without apprenticeship, no one can get anywhere. Hence, principal partner even expect to be paid for providing the platform for gaining experience. I’ve seen partners who demanded payment. Because of the peanuts lawyers earn, many are forced to live on agreements and even undervalue themselves in order to make ends meet,” he explained.
Decent life for young lawyers
To make things better, Martins said “principals need to encourage learning on the job. They should allow young lawyers to do private practice. There can be a structure of 70-30 which would mean that something goes back to the firm.
“As for Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), they are trying as a body but, actually, there is no salary scale for legal practitioners in private practice. But NBA is stepping in so that young lawyers are properly remunerated. But one of the things NBA can do is to have a salary structure. If you are starting a law firm and you’re employing a lawyer, this is the minimum payment. There is no need to set a maximum payment.”
Former second vice-president of the NBA, Barrister Monday Onyekachi Ubani, in his own reaction disclosed that when he was in office, he recommended that pupil lawyers should be paid a minimum of N50,000 monthly, while starting out with established lawyers.
He told Sunday Tribune that changing times, particularly the COVID-19 challenge on the economy, has made things difficult for lawyers, especially the senior ones, who he said would only be able to pay their pupils, when clients pay.
“In Nigeria, where they want everything free, clients don’t want to pay lawyers and senior lawyers can only pay when paid by clients. COVID-19 has made things very difficult now and don’t forget many of these pupil lawyers are allowed by their bosses, to do PP (private practice) while still with them.
“Some would come and say all they want is to gain experience working under the senior lawyers and the senior lawyers, would arrange something like transportation allowance for them at the end of the month and they would now go out to say senior lawyers are paying them N5,000.
“I am for lawyers being well paid, but I think pupil lawyers should gain experience working under establish lawyers first, before setting up their own chambers,” he explained.
Indeed, the issues of welfare and remuneration, as Martins stated, Sunday Tribune learnt have long been deliberated upon at the highest level in the NBA. The change of leadership at the national level last year, which witnessed the emergence of Olumide Akpata, saw the reiteration of the desire to bring about the change that lawyers see as long overdue.