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‘How to sustain partnership in law firms’

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Ozobia

Running a law firm is not a mean job. It requires resources, skills and training. In order to have law firms that outlive their founders, lawyers form partnerships. However in some cases, some of the partnerships crumble in the long run. A former president of the Commonwealth Law Association (CLA), Boma Ozobia, in this interview with Joseph Onyekwere says only standardised procedures will ensure that partnerships are sustained. She also spoke on leadership succession in the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) among other issues.

We know how the traditional law firms operate; however in recent times the dynamics have changed. On the issue of not advertising, what is the present position with lawyers putting their firms up there?
In fairness, there are two arms to this. There is the individual practitioner either working as a sole practitioner or with others and then there is the Bar Association, which is our collective voice. I think it is important that we engage with the people, those who we are meant to serve. I would like to go back to history and talk about this profession. This profession is not just a 21st century profession, it is an evolving one. The principles that brought us into being in the first place have not changed. The profession is about the rule of law, about access to justice for all and that is where we started. I show a lot of the young lawyers our gowns and I say to them “look at the gown, that back of the gown was where our fees used to go because we didn’t charge, we advocated and then if you were happy, whatever you felt, you put it into the back of the gown”. But at the same time, we were held in such high esteem that you couldn’t give money to the lawyer. So that is our history! Having come from there, we now have to run businesses in the same reality as every other business. We have to rent a space and pay salaries, because the reality of today’s world is that you cannot work on your own, you need a support system, you have to buy books and so on.

It is also easier in a cooperate firm than an individual, because the same number of books and the same resources I have to subscribe to, the next lawyer has to subscribe to them. But if we pull our resources together we have then managed to reduce the burden on each and every one of us. So if for nothing else, that is something we commend- working together. The other thing is that the world is getting more and more sophisticated, which means that the law is getting more sophisticated too. The implication is that there are areas you cannot be a jack of all trade because you will now be a master of none. You really need to have expertise in some areas. That being the case, it is important we have subject matter experts coming together because some transactions would require expertise in different aspects of law. In other to give a complete service to your client and if you are unable to put all of that together under that one umbrella, then they will take their business elsewhere. That is what has been happening to the Lagos services industry in Nigeria and Africa in general. I think the only part of Africa that has succeeded in retaining a lot of their transaction is South Africa.

If this is the case so why do we still have very few partnerships here in Nigeria and Africa as a whole and its still a very big issue trying to get lawyers to come together in partnership with all the big transactions from all parts of the world coming our way?
I have found two things, one is lack of structure. There is no benchmark per se for these partnerships. So, there is nothing you can refer to and say this is how it should work and then that provides comfort for everybody. In England for instance, everyone will have almost the same template. So it makes it easy because its not based on individual idiosyncrasies. That is something I would recommend for the NBA. It will assist the professionals in forming partnerships and making sure that they last and work because you are no longer relying on different persons or bodies, changing opinions every now and then. We have something to benchmark with. That way, we put aside our individual personalities and go with that benchmark into a partnership. The other thing, which I find also inimical to partnerships and their success, is the fact that we are not trained as business people. We are trained as lawyers. Now in this jurisdiction, when we are going into business as lawyers and sometimes as partners, we don’t make provisions for the trainings that will help us run the business. To become a partner in England, one must undergo management stage one and two. Otherwise, you cannot be a partner in a law firm. The training teaches you to be financially literate, read accounts, understand business plans and so on. It helps us to understand that we are running a business, how to run the business, what the business requires and not about personal opinions.

So should such training begin from the Law School?
No, because the law school already has a very full curriculum and the key thing is to get the lawyers equipped to practice. Now the law society, management stage one and two is from three years preschool and above because the expectation is not that you will immediately come out of Law School to go into a partnership. So it should really be part of the NBA’s professional development to provide that kind of training and make it available to those willing to identify with it.

You once recommended a CLA succession model for the NBA. In your opinion, could the crisis that trailed the last NBA election have been avoided if they had followed your suggestion?
Yes, I will still recommend the same structure as we have most law societies across the world to the NBA. I think our succession to national office is far too politicized and I really do not understand why it is so. It is about service and if it is about service, we should not be fighting over it. But whatever the case, we have something similar to what we have in the CLA. The NBA is the same as all the bar associations and law associations across the Commonwealth countries. They are all 54 of them. It is a similar structure. So why is it that every two years we have this fight over who becomes our national officers? Most of the other common law jurisdictions have elections only for the vice president or vice chairman. That person succeeds the sitting President because then you have two years of working together, and hence effectively you serve the association for four years, so there is continuity because you have served together, attended meetings to agree and molds the direction, so by the time the president steps out, the vice president steps up. So I recommend it.

So with this structure will that really solve the conflict?
I think the primary reason for the rancor is not about succession but about the values that these individuals see in the position. With all due respect, I cannot say this kind of fight is about service. Therefore until we remove whatever is there that is so attractive, we will continue to have rancor which is why I have always advocated institutionalizing the NBA. Elected officers should only deal with policy as they do in other jurisdictions. The law society is ran by professionals and the council simply sits like a board, makes policy and leaves it to them to run whilst the lawyers in council continue with their practice running it. So, its not just about succession, its about what is your objective, is it about service or added value to yourself?

You are a core figurehead of World Trade Organisation (WTO) liberisation of legal services from the Nigerian platform. In your view, how prepared is Nigeria to engage in that programme called liberisation of legal services been that Nigeria is to lead the rest of Africa?
Again, are we prepared? I say no, because of the fact that we have not looked at it with any continuity. Different leaders of the bar come in and have different views and approaches. The reality is that this jurisdiction and every other jurisdiction wherever there is internet is already liberalized. You cannot stop any lawyer sitting anywhere with internet access from taking instructions from a client in any other jurisdiction. They can even with whatsapp send documents and you can advice them from wherever you are. So the sooner we accept that this is the current situation, the better for us. Now having accepted the reality of modern tools of communication, we should then structure the regulation to take that into consideration so that we protect our citizens. They derive income from the work that they do for us and we share knowledge. That will be my recommendation to the NBA because they can’t run away from the reality.

Right now NBA’s major concern is what kind of agreement it can go into such that lawyers would agree on how to come into each others jurisdiction?
Absolutely, because a structured engagement is better than none at all. As it stands, they are already working in your jurisdiction, so engage with the regulators in the other jurisdictions and they are ready to listen. The law society, which I run, has been coming because they already have a structured open door that they want you to also reciprocate. So for instance, when I was practicing in England, I was practicing as a Nigerian lawyer in London because there was a space for me to practice. It just meant that you cannot go to our courts, but you can practice any other aspect of law in this jurisdiction.

That way, we capture the income because you are paying taxes. So that is already in place. There is nothing stopping us from saying you can come and work with us on transactions and register with the NBA.

Coming from a jurisdiction where judicial corruption is almost unheard of, if at all it exists, why leaving the comfort of such jurisdiction to come back home to set up practice? How have you been able to cope?
Let me just say and I have said this before, Nigeria is perhaps where England was about 250 years ago or thereabout. It took the imprisonment of the chief justice and after that barred him from coming anywhere near the house of parliament before there was sense in the judiciary.

So every system goes through some sought of process and sometimes it has to be broken for it to be fixed and our judges are part of our society. If you are talking about corruption being in every aspect of the society, corruption is almost becoming a culture in this country. Sadly then, you can expect that you will have some corrupt judges. But my own personal experience in practice has not reflected the poor reputation that our judiciary has. It has actually been far better than the reputation. So I think, the problem is not as bad as we think it is. The way I work is the same way I work in England. So I start by putting my case together because I am not going to court unless I know that I have a good chance of winning. I don’t believe that it is in the hands of the judge. The law is quite predictable. So by the time you’ve got your facts and then you look at the law and the precedence, you should be able to say if you have a good chance of winning the case and if not you should be able to tell your client its better to settle the case or think twice about going to court. So when I start from that premise, I predict my outcomes and I can happily say that the outcomes have been as predicted, which means that it went in accordance with the law as we know it in all the cases that I have done so far. So for me, I cannot say that the judges have been otherwise persuaded other than the law. I hear of these things, but my experience has not reflected them.

Recently the NBA sent a list of lawyers to the Supreme Court to be made justices of the apex court. What is the implication as it has generated a bit of controversy?
I actually think that different backgrounds will only add value to the bench. The reason is that academics are subject matter experts, which can only add value. I don’t believe that you must have been a judge as you will have to start from somewhere the day you go from the bar to the bench, be it at the Magistracy, High court level or at the Supreme Court level. So, this is not new and I always look at it from a comparative perspective to have a benefit of doubt in my practice. In England, if you watched the BREXIT judges, one of them came straight from practice as a commercial lawyer into the Supreme Court. Also the Chief Justice of Kenya came straight from academics into the Supreme Court and was appointed the Chief Justice without ever being a judge. So there are precedence. I don’t have any difficulties with it. My concern is for them to go for it for the right motive so that they do their jobs and do it diligently.

Giving your international exposure is there any rule, code or ethics that stipulates an amount of money that a lawyer can charge his clients?
Naturally, you can benchmark and you find that bar associations and law societies in a lot of jurisdictions will tell you a lawyer of five years post-call should be charging a particular amount. So they give those sort of guidelines, depending on the type of transaction. For example in Ghana, the Ghanaian bar publishes a fees list and it is updated regularly with different amounts between international clients and home based clients so there is clarity and it means that the seniors are rewarded appropriately, while the juniors are rewarded commensurate to their experience. Having said that, its a guideline at the end of the day. I can choose to charge more and its up to the client if he wishes to pay more for my services but what I will commend to us which I do in practice is to always have a letter of engagement so it sets out our terms.


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