What Constitutes Legal Practice In Nigeria?

By Chukwuma Chinaka

The just concluded Annual General Conference (AGC) of the Nigerian Bar Association 2022 themed ‘Bold Transitions’ has come and gone expectedly with some thrills and chills. Some of the thrills include the speeches by presidential candidates in the coming 2023 elections and the usual side attractions, the NBA presidential dinner, the highly engaging breakout technical sessions, Annual General Meeting and of course, the climax which was the handover to the new national executive committee led by a respected noble barman, Yakubu Chinoko Maikyau, SAN.

On the flip side, the embarrassing violent conduct of a few of our colleagues at the accreditation venue over conference materials was indeed the lowest point of the conference. The actions of these colleagues are incompatible with the ethics, standards and conduct of persons admitted to the noble legal profession.

Unfortunate also are the commentaries from respected Barmen regarding the embarrassing conduct of members at the AGC. These comments and the negative impressions trailing them are not those to go down in a hurry.

Of them all, one which resonates loudly is the reaction of a respected SAN, Chief Niyi Akintola, when asked to share his thoughts on the anomaly. His use of derogatory and unkind words on the immediate past President, Mr. Olumide Akpata, is quite worrisome and may be lending credence to the unfortunate ‘allegation of conspiracy’ by the Egbe Amofin, an umbrella body of Yoruba lawyers against the immediate past Akpata-led NBA NEC.

As Expected, this has drawn the ire and flaks of some of his learned silk colleagues and other senior lawyers.

However, what got me really worried is Chief Akintola’s comments that “…that boy has never practiced law. He has never done so before. He said so himself. He doesn’t go to court. He is a businessman. He is a transactional lawyer…”. These derogatory and spiteful comments got me brooding over the nature of legal practice and its constituents; and to query whether only litigation constitutes legal practice? Is there any legal practitioner in Nigeria whose job remit is absolute litigation without more, not even drafting land sales agreements? What would be the perception of non-lawyers towards lawyers involved in other spheres of legal practice other than litigation? What would some lawyers, especially the young (0 – 5) in non-core litigation firms and practice think of legal practice given the comments of this reputable silk? These and other begging issues informed this write-up.
According to Garner’s Black’s Law Dictionary (9th edition), the practice of law is described as ‘the professional work of a duly licensed lawyer, encompassing a broad range of services such as conducting cases in courts, preparing papers necessary to bring about various transactions from conveying land to effecting mergers, preparing legal opinions on various points of law, drafting wills and other estate planning documents and advising clients on legal questions. The term also includes activities that comparatively few lawyers engage in but require legal expertise, such as drafting legislations and court rules.’ The American Bar Association in its model definition views legal practice ‘as the application of legal principles and judgment with regard to the circumstances or objectives of a person that require the knowledge and skill of a person trained in the law’ (emphasis mine).
It is therefore necessary to conscientise young lawyers and non–legal minds that law practice is not all about litigation. As society evolves, so does legal practice evolve with new opportunities to be explored for daring legal minds.

No doubt, litigation has been widely acclaimed as the cornerstone of the legal profession, and with the abolishment on the ban on fees for the Roman advocates by Emperor Claudius, Roman Emperor (AD 41 – 54), advocates started making money from their professional services. However, beyond litigation, we must note other roles of law and lawyers in the society? On this score, may I refer to the immutable words of Sir Samuel Cooke (1973 – 1978), Judge and former Chairman of the Law Commission of England and Wales that “The extent to which human activity is governed by law is enormous. Because of this, one such measure of the health of any society is the extent to which its legal system is in tune with contemporary realities and contemporary public opinion. It is the aim of all those who are responsible for legal policy to ensure that the legal system satisfies all these requirements; but they will not succeed in that aim unless they are able to discern contemporary realities and to assess contemporary public opinion with a fair degree of accuracy.” Otherwise stated, law is a tool for social engineering and the society’s super-structure upon which other structures rest, otherwise, with all the evolving societal challenges, the modern era would have gone back to the leviathan state of nature in which there were no enforceable criteria of right and wrong. Therefore, at the base of every human endeavor, there lies an opportunity for a discerning legal mind with interest in the subject-matter and this broadens areas of legal practice beyond the well acclaimed litigation. Interestingly also, in the new areas of interest and the rights and remedies accruing from them litigation can be birthed.

This confirms one thing, which is that whatever path one has chosen as a legal practitioner is noble and relevant on its own and beneficial to the society.

It will therefore not be out of place to assert that the way forward for legal practice is specialization. We are in an era where there are subject-matter specialists for the various and emergent practice areas of the profession. Little wonder, the Nigeria Bar Association cued after leading legal international associations e.g. the International Bar Association to set up different sections of practice in order to encourage specialization. As at date, there are three sections, namely the Section on Legal Practice which seeks to encourage specialized legal practice for all Nigerian lawyers and law firms; Section on Public Interest and Development Law (SPIDEL) which seeks to promote and protect human rights, the rule of law, and good governance in Nigeria; and finally, the Section on Business Law which seeks to engender the professional development of Nigerian commercial lawyers, thereby raising the level of business law practice.

With close to 200,000 persons enrolled as solicitors and advocates of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, the question is, can only litigation practice sustain them? Obviously NO is the answer.

Arising from the adverse consequences of our judicial system on the ease of doing business, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, especially arbitration has taken a large chunk off litigation, as most business transaction agreements bear provisions for arbitration. A lot of law firms in Nigeria especially those in Lagos, Abuja, Kano, Port Harcourt, Warri amongst others have developed and built capacities in specialized practice areas e.g. intellectual law, environmental law, policy advisory, public financial management and public procurement law, public private partnerships, medical law, communication law, aviation law, financial technology law (FINTECH), entertainment and sports laws amongst others too numerous to mention. These practice areas require special skills, competence and experience, as some of the challenges which lawyers are expected to respond to in these evolving and emergent practice areas have no precedents but require a high degree of initiative and innovation to respond to a societal novel issue deploying relevant legal tools and expertise. Could these lawyers be said not to practice law? Obviously No as it would be uncharitable to say so.

We are privileged in Nigeria to have a system that accommodates the fusion of the advocacy and solicitor roles of lawyers. I am sure that hardly would any ‘established’ lawyer deny exploring the opportunities and privileges contained therein. In Nigeria, most of the big and high-earning law firms in are partnerships with diverse specialized practice areas. A quick search on firms like Aluko and Oyebode, Banwo and Ighodalo, Olanihun Ajayi LP, Udo Udoma & Bello Osagie, Perchstone & Graeys,Templars, AELEX, Wole Olanipekun & Co. and SPA Ajibade & Co, among others indicate that these firms have diversified their practice beyond litigation and explored other areas of practice in response to evolving societal needs and challenges. Due to the seamless and transnational nature of legal services, most of these local firms have collaborations and understandings with international law firms, which had embraced diversification before us. Most of the global renowned firms such as Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Clifford Chance, Letham & Watkins LLP; Baker Mckenzie, Allen & Overy among others have specialized legal practice areas, and have a foothold in the Nigerian legal market through partnerships and collaborations.

Finally, the future of the Nigerian legal practice is in diversification and specialization. While litigation is a compulsory learn at the law school, innovation and evolving legal requirements of the society should drive us to specialization. Practitioners in these novel and emergent areas of practice should hold their head high as they are practicing the law.

  • Chinaka practices law in Abuja and can be reached on barchuksdlaw@gmail.com.

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