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Examining pros, cons of regulating lawyers’ salaries in Nigeria

By Ngozi Egenuka
22 March 2022   |   4:24 am
At the beginning of this current Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) regime, the President, Olumide Akpata, released a communique on list of activities NBA would embark on to serve its members...

President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr Olumide Akpata PHOTO: Twitter

At the beginning of this current Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) regime, the President, Olumide Akpata, released a communique on list of activities NBA would embark on to serve its members, among them was a remuneration committee.

The statement introducing the committee reads: “As part of our commitment towards improving the earning capacity of lawyers in Nigeria, my team and I recently set up (with the National Executive Committee) a Remuneration Committee for the Nigerian Bar Association (the Committee). The Committee is to, broadly speaking, design a workable and enforceable framework under which lawyers will (i) charge the right fees for their legal services using acceptable and realistic metrics; and (ii) ensure that those fees, when earned, trickle down, in terms of reasonable living wages and emoluments, to those who work with, or for, the lawyers. “This project is not only important to me but is also necessary for the economic well-being and advancement of our members.”

The reason for the committee is not far-fetched. Like obtainable in most professions, what is the right or standard wage has always been a topical issue of discussion among lawyers.

In Nigeria, the average salary of a lawyer, who works for a law firm or a company, is N50, 000 monthly. However, it is imperative to know that the actual salary of a lawyer in Nigeria is limitless. A lawyer’s salary is determined based on experience, size of the law firm, skills, gender or location. Another factor is the lawyer’s ability and determination to work because the profession does not restrict practitioners from doing many jobs, which are still related to law.

There are four levels in every law firm namely: Interns, Junior Associates, Senior Associates and Partners. For an intern, they, most times, work for free, just like Interns of other professions, but few legal companies pay interns between N5, 000 and N30, 000.

Junior Associates, who are newly employed are paid ranging from N15, 000 to N100, 000 monthly, depending on the size of the firm. The next rank, Senior Associates, who, most times, have worked in a particular law firm for at least three to five years, have their salaries range from N50, 000 to N300, 000 monthly.

While partners, who most times, were part of the people, who opened the law firm, and have worked there for three to five years, have their salaries determined by the income of the firm. On the average, however, a partner earns around N100, 000 monthly (for small law firms) and N1, 000,000 monthly (for big law firms).

Speaking on the possibility of regulating salaries of lawyers, Senior Legal Officer, The Human Rights Law Service (HURILAWS), Collins Okeke, expressed doubt over the workability of moderating lawyers’ salary citing that remuneration is a function of income. “If a law firm earns more, then they are likely to pay more. The challenge with legal practice in Nigeria is that there are too many leakages. Lawyers are losing business to other professions and international law firms and the NBA is not doing enough to protect legal business,” he claimed.

For the convener, Criminal Justice Network of Nigeria, Nathaniel Ngwu, the idea of improving lawyers’ welfare has long been charted by successive regimes of the Bar without much impact. He explained that reflecting on what the current NBA President has achieved through the recent innovations and strategies, there has been changes in the system, thus, giving lawyers hope for the fulfillment of the remuneration initiative. He, however, expressed skepticism on the idea of regulating lawyers’ salaries.

He said: “I have some reservations on the practicability of regulating salaries of lawyers, as it concerns the actual need of lawyers in Nigeria. Section 15(3) of the Legal Practitioners Act CAP.L11 provides that the Committee shall have power to make orders regulating generally the charges of legal practitioners and without prejudice to the generality of that power, any such order may include provision as to all or any of the following matters, that is to say (a) the maximum charge, which may be made in respect of any transaction or activity of a description specified by the order; (b) the ascertainment of the charges appropriate for any transaction or activity by reference to such considerations as may be so specified;(c) the taking by practitioners of security for the payment of their charges and the allowance of interest with respect to the security; and (d) agreement between practitioners and clients with respect to charges.”

According to Ngwu, the said provision only allocates powers on scale of charges without enabling provisions for the implementation in the practice of a lawyer in Nigeria. He noted that lawyers face the same income challenges as other Nigerians and added the need to focus on redeeming the image of the profession.

“Lawyers are facing the same challenges of an ordinary Nigerian even more because of the highly elevated title of being a “Lawyer or Barrister”. The idea of determining the scale, as already provided by law, shouldn’t be the concern of Olumide Akpata’s exertion of energy but rather channeled into redeeming the image and profile of lawyers in Nigeria. What I mean is that he should galvanise areas of major challenges of lawyers and set out solutions for implementation.

“It’s not news that once a lawyer is out of law school he/she is being left to his/her self to survive. There is nothing he hopes from the bar other than to begin to scamper for rich law offices or corporate offices, which sometimes, reject the person on one reason or the other. If you take statistics of lawyers moving into practice and those into corporate practices, you will understand the neglect lawyers in practice face from the Bar. But, the Bar expects such a new wig to pay practicing fee before he appears in any Nigerian court. The Bar should consider removing those initial fees payable by the new wigs as well as providing enabling ladder for lawyers to improve in practice.

“How would the Bar regulate the charges without firstly ensure that the government improves on the welfare of the people? If the Bar has a mechanism that will attest to the amount charged on a legal service or document as well as ascertain locations of lawyers in Nigeria, then it would be practicable. Non-lawyers around the courts and streets of Nigeria are doing majority of lawyers’ legal jobs. The Bar should consider preventing the use of court premises as lawyers offices for some lawyers and non-lawyers, who touts around, impersonating lawyers with fake documents,” he suggested.

Ngwu noted that majority of lawyers are not registered members of Bar branches. Many practice on their own frolic without adhering to Bar directives, while many struggle in other ventures, since they are not able to pay increasing bar practicing fees, while avoiding embarrassment from the courts. “Lawyers needs the intervention of the Bar President in interfacing with other institutions with respect to relevancy and legal jobs,” he added.

Dean, Faculty of Law, Redeemer University, Prof Bukola Akinola, said that matters of employment are contractual and statutory. The Labour Act and the Minimum Wage (Amendment) Act also regulate certain categories of employment in terms of the number of employees among others. “Implementation is key in regulating remuneration benchmarks for lawyers, law firms,” Akinola added.

Sustainability and Development Legal Associate, Chidinma Agu, said remuneration of lawyers is purely contractual between the lawyer and his employer or client, so, NBA lacks the power to determine remuneration or compel compliance despite the provision in the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) 2007, which prohibits charging low fees that amounts to undercutting.

“The RPC makes it clear that lawyers should charge low fees that are not up to minimum fees specified in the extant rules, but majority of the time, in a bid to make ends meet, lawyers accept low sums for their services,” she pointed out.

She noted that some law firms do not review or improve salary structure in their firms. “Another challenge is that technology has made it possible for individuals to take up some roles like Drafting contracts, but there are certain clauses in a contract or agreement that require certain amount of care,” she said.

According to her, remuneration of legal services must measure up to the value of time spent or created as determined by the economic environment in which the service was provided. “I don’t think the NBA should regulate the salaries because there are a lot of things to consider, like locations and their financial realities, size or capacity of law firm, unstable economy and diversity of clientele. The best thing NBA can do is to stipulate a minimum wage that would serve as a benchmark,” Agu suggested.

Abubakar Sani said: “To the extent that the statutory basis of that move – the remuneration provisions of the Legal Practitioners Act – purports to control the value or cost (in other words, prices) of counsel’s services, it is ultra vires the National Assembly because of the non-fulfillment of the condition precedent for the validity of any price control legislation, namely designation of the object of such measure – in this case, counsel’s services – as essential.

“This provision of Item 62(e) of the Exclusive Legislative List of the Constitution has not been complied with in the case of counsel’s services. Hence, the proposal would be invalid null and void,” he said.
Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Yomi Aliu, also stated that employment is contractual, so the NBA can only set a minimum salary and the employers determines whether or not to employ any lawyer.

“In any case, how do you set standard where earning capacities are different in over 200 branches? For example, how much do you set as standard for a branch like Lekki where one bedroom is N700, 000 yearly and that with N120, 000 or even N30, 000? If one should spend 10 per cent of his salary on accommodation, then the junior in Lekki must earn N7m yearly, while his learned colleague in Sekona, Osun State earns N300, 000.

“It means that the Bar will have to treat minimum wage in line with prevailing economic circumstances in each of its branches. This, apart from being tedious, will be almost impossible. It will even be against the hallowed principle of law and equity, which states that to treat equals unequally is injustice,” he said.

Aliu stated that it would affect those the initiative sought to protect, adversely. “Unlike medicine that has housemanship and the Youth Corps that afford two years practical experience to doctors, lawyers come straight from the Nigerian Law School with only academic qualifications. They learn the nitty-gritty of the profession from their seniors.
“In how many professions do masters pay their apprentices? My brother worked with a foremost chamber in 1986 for a year without taking a dime, whilst I did same for six months in a former Attorney General of Oyo State’s Chambers without a kobo! The excuse then was that they didn’t have space! This reason will also be escalated today if NBA goes on with its plan,” he said.

He added that in moderating the salaries, experience will become the reason for employing a young lawyer and the traditional pupillage will be in the past. “It is a good step in the right direction but they should be careful the way they go about it in a way that will not affect the symbiotic relationship in pupillage and having in mind that the young should be allowed to learn the trade to protect the calamitous effect of a senior in age and green wig in disposition syndrome. Many of them abound among those who graduated in law at old age,” Aliu said.

Principal Partner, Eminence Solicitors, Ifeoma Ben, said regulating salaries of lawyers would not be easy, but added that if NBA functions in its national capacity and the committee works diligently on it, the living standards of lawyers could be improved.

She, however, noted that certain factors determine its doability. She explained that the fees lawyers charge for their services can be regulated in certain instances where there is an industry stipulated amount for particular services. “That happens if NBA, for instance, brings out a scale of charges for certain kinds of legal services, which would become binding on members.

“If members start adhering to that, it would help to increase the income of lawyers. In this case, if a law firm makes more money, the lawyer that works there is expected to receive more money in remuneration. For someone working for himself, this would help to improve his income,” Ben said.

She stated that a way to regulate lawyers’ salaries is to embark on a survey and provide people with questionnaires to decipher the problems and make recommendations. “Using a case study of the Lagos Branch, which inaugurated the first committee, they did a questionnaire, so that lawyers could fill and reached out to some lawyers asking certain questions. They used the information provided to know the issues that were prevalent and proffered solutions to them.

According to her, the enforcement of such measure would be relative and NBA would have to figure out a way to enforce its on members. “The NBA can say lawyers whose salaries are not up to minimum wage for practitioners can lodge a complaint to the it. Then they can use that to follow up and possibly sanction defaulters.

“If the employer knows that the NBA would sanction them for flaunting the rules, it can help the employer to step up,” she said. She, however, explained that regulating salaries could counter its purpose in the case where employees could lose their jobs because an employer doesn’t have the capacity to pay the minimum wage. “So, it has to be really balanced and it would take a gradual process,” she added.

Partner, Infusion Lawyers, Stephen Azubuike, said the NBA’s committee’s mandate is not only about regulating the salaries of lawyers in employment. “For instance, lawyers are agitating for standardising legal fees for property transactions and NBA has promised to look into that. This will impart lawyers’ earnings as solicitors in property transactions,” he said.

“He, however, applauded the NBA initiative to make moves towards improving the earning capacity of lawyers. “It is one of the dividends of belonging to an association. The goal here is extensive and goes beyond advocating more decent wages for lawyers in salaried employment,” he stated.

According to Azubuike, NBA can move to ensure that international best practices in labour relations within the legal industry are maintained. By this, he explained, law firms that are unable to meet those standards will be discouraged from employing any lawyer full time.

Senior Partner, Pistis Partners LLP, Mayowa Owolabi, explained that the concept of minimum or living wage is subjective because of living conditions of employees vary. According to him, it is very difficult to decide remuneration because the market determines such things. “We have a situation where so many lawyers are churned out in their thousands yearly. Regardless of all of those, as employers, we need to pay dignified living wage. It creates a situation of balance,” he said.

He stated that it is unsustainable to say law firms must have a standard minimum wage, adding that the firms could keep talking about it and if possible, as an association, the NBA should consider recommending a minimum scale for certain ranks. “We can use some comparative analysis. In the UK for instance, new entrants are required to pay a certain amount of money. For example, a fellow working in the city of London is expected to get at least 20,000 amount of money. Those outside London, also have a minimum amount employers are required to pay as well. So, I think we can adapt those kind of scales in such a way that we have a balanced system,” Owolabi suggested.