Problem with the legal profession regulation bill
It has been a few weeks since the internet went abuzz with the news of the Legal Profession Regulation Bill which has just passed the second reading and is currently at the committee stage. The Bill, among other things, seeks to maintain public confidence in the provision of legal services and provide transparency, proportionality and efficiency and recognize and preserve the status of the legal profession. These objectives are no doubt lofty yet we cannot judge a book by its cover, because doing that will be to laud the Bill for its preliminary provisions alone, without considering its problematic nitty-gritty.
Peak among the challenges facing the profession is the fact that there is gross unemployment of lawyers, and the welfare of lawyers in Nigeria is generally poor, with no one looking out for their wellbeing while they look out for the well-being of others. Another is the fact that the legal profession in Nigeria has failed to catch up with and adapt to changing trends in the profession, lagging behind with obsolete practices and laws. That is why Section 86(1) of the draft Bill before the National Assembly irked me. The section requires that all new wigs from the effective date of the Bill shall undergo mandatory two-year pupilage in the firm of an experienced legal practitioner in active practice or a law firm with requisite facilities. It is even more curious because this section provides only two sub-sections, the second of which does not explain or elaborate on the procedure for the scheme, a clear lack of aversion of thought to what this process will entail for the Nigerian legal provision, a tactless provision with no regard for the real future of the profession.
It is imperative I paint a picture of the fate and future of the young lawyer in Nigeria from the start of his undergraduate degree. A young chap leaves secondary school with dreams to become a lawyer, gets into a university accredited by the Council of Legal Education to offer law degrees in Nigeria, finishes a five-year course plagued with the intermittent prolonged delays of the Nigerian educational system, then proceeds to the Nigerian Law School for one year, a place where he uses only about 3 per cent on the bunch of theory learnt at the undergraduate level and is forced to ingrain the entire procedural knowledge for the legal profession. After that, he is introduced into the legal profession with no assurance of a job and in many cases left to fend for himself. The Bill being proposed intends to add a two-year period to this term a period in which there is no provision in the Bill as to whether the young lawyer will be entitled to payment, a period within which the lawyer cannot start his own firm, a period that essentially hamstrings the young lawyer. Even the United Kingdom has a five-year total period for a person to qualify as a lawyer: three in the law school, one for the Bar Professional Training Course and one year pupilage, after which a person can practise freely as a lawyer, and this is for a country rated as one of the 10 best places in the world to practise law; a place where the average entry level lawyer earns an equivalent of 19 million naira annually. The United States which tops the chart on the best places for lawyers to work operates a seven-year system where the aspiring lawyer earns an undergraduate degree in whatever course then proceeds to Law school, and writes the State Bar to qualify as a lawyer. There is no pupilage of any sort, yet they field the best lawyers in the world, and still make the biggest bucks. Should we then not take an intrinsic view at our legal education systems rather than fault the young lawyers for the seeming woes we see in the profession. With respect, these foibles that are harped on in defense of pupilage present a terribly flawed argument as the inadequacies are not even limited to the young. I have seen Senior Advocates make unforgivable mistakes both in legal processes and orally in court.
For the young ones, we can blame inexperience. What excuse do we have for the latter?
Since I have come down this path, it is necessary to point out that the Nigerian Legal Education system in my opinion has failed. From the undergraduate institutions, the curriculum is a theoretical mishmash of unnecessary first year courses and half-baked lectures with notes dating as old as 30 years. Added to that is an uncanny and inexplicable need to frustrate the student with terrible grades, and conform them to a particular way and manner of thinking, ensuring the notes and texts of the teachers, no matter how obsolete, are reproduced in the exams. The law school, yet again, prides itself on producing terrible grades, perhaps believing it to be a testimony to the prestige of the system, a bleeding irony. The students finish, are called to the Bar, and are welcomed into a legal profession that tells them ‘Here, it is not as you were taught in law school.’ So does the legal education system really prepare the lawyers for anything or simply pass them through repeated hurdles of banal academic activity with nothing to show for it? Can we then blame the students? I think the Council of Legal education needs to do a re-assessment on the curriculum for undergraduate law studies, to abridge the time, and make it more procedural, mandate mock trials, internships and structure mentorship for law students with lawyers and judges in the area. There is also a need to sync the curriculum of the universities with that of the law school so the students do not have to encounter a culture shock every time they get to the law school.
Many law firms in the bid to make money and win cases, have seemingly lost touch with their duty to raise the next generation of lawyers. So, internship programmes are neglected, with some even refusing to accept interns altogether. Lawyers of senior category are too busy to engage with the young ones, answer their questions and put them through. How then do we expect the young to grow?
The Bill is a stark example of solving a problem with a problem. The solution to the dwindling standard of the legal profession, I daresay, is not pupilage. It is re-working the educational system to provide solid, practical, all-round education and mentorship for the lawyer while he is still a student, so that by the time he comes out, he would have had law office experience, court experience, worked directly with senior lawyers or judges through mentorship and engaged in mock trials that would build his advocacy skills. Unsurprisingly, on the welfare of lawyers or a minimum wage, an idea that has repeatedly been dangled by members of the Bar in political speeches and interviews, the Bill merely makes a feeble attempt in Section 14 to create a committee that will look into it, something we can all assume will continue being looked into until further notice. With the average lawyer earning anywhere between 15, 000 and 20,000 naira monthly, how does this Bill contribute to the status of the profession if a lawyer earns just as much as a janitor?
In my opinion, the Legal Profession Bill is bad law as it is, and should be overhauled to reflect the needs of today’s young lawyers- a consistently teeming population, and not just feed the egos of a few.
Adebayo is a lawyer, lives in Lagos.
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