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Integrity, professionalism, dedication, hallmark of the legal practitioner, says Professor Ajogwu




Recent development in the nation’s judiciary has resulted in an erroneous public perception of lawyers as unprincipled wretch who constantly engage in the distortion of truth by ways entirely very discreditable, and for rewards grossly exaggerated. However in this interview with BERTRAM NWANNEKANMA, a Lagos-based Senior Advocate of Nigeria and Nigeria’s first professor of corporate governance, Fabian Ajogwu, said not all lawyers fall into that deplorable category. He also provides a recipe for the restoration of the ethics of the legal profession in Nigeria. Excerpts:
Prof, much has been said about the dwindling fortune of the legal profession, what in your view is responsible to that?
That is a good question. I will start by saying that the legal profession is the fulcrum upon which the Society as a whole rests. It is the lawyers who run civilization, touching on several areas such as the government, businesses, private lives of individuals, real estate, succession planning, etc.

The major factors responsible for the dwindling fortune of the legal profession are the declining standards and the quality of lawyers coming out of the Nigerian Law School. It is received wisdom that sound education is a prerequisite for honouring the trust we hold as legal practitioners in our different callings and we hold this trust for the future generation of lawyers. These falling standards are an offshoot of the general decline in the quality of education in Nigeria. Education has a cost which must be borne by someone. The government has over the years, given less capital allocation to the education sector. Many Federal and state universities are bereft of funds due to low priority given to education these days. The falling standards in the legal profession can be attributed to the poor system of legal education as the proper education of a lawyer starts at the university.

A few lawyers have also failed to update their legal practice in line with the current economic, political, and administrative trends in society and this is contributory to the decline. The mode of legal practice adopted in the ‘70s, or ‘90s cannot sustain the level of globalization we have today. Lawyers need to continuously improve on themselves, and offer new practices and services in order to move with the times, particularly in light of the harsh economic realities in Nigeria today, or face extinction. Lawyers need to be able to persuade the communities where they reside that those communities cannot function without them.

Another cause of the dwindling fortune is the failure to integrate sound business principles into lawyering. There is the lack of adequate professionalism and firmness when dealing with clients. Consequently, lawyers find themselves in positions where their clients boss them around and dictate if and when their professional fees will be paid. Some of these points are addressed in my new book, ‘Oral & Written Advocacy: Law & Practice’, co-authored with Chief ’Folake Solanke, SAN, CON, the first female Senior Advocate of Nigeria.

What are the solutions to that?
It is important for the government to increase its capital allocation to the education sector until the minimum of 25% of the national budget prescribed by UNESCO is achieved and surpassed. In a situation (such as what we have on ground today) where the government is unable to fund the cost of quality education, parents who can afford to pay the fees of their children should be made to do so, as we currently operate with a system of free / heavily subsidized education which is not matched by a commensurate financial backing. There is the need to provide the basic and fundamental tools required for the realization of high level and functional legal education.

Furthermore, the law school curriculum also needs to be updated in line with the current trends in society. The teaching method should also not be limited in scope; law teachers need to consistently improve their teaching methods, reach beyond the regular law subjects and make learning more practical for the law students using case studies, analysis and research. More emphasis should also be placed on research. A sharp contrast lies between what is taught at the law school and what obtains in actual legal practice. With these things in place, the quality of lawyers in the legal profession will greatly improve. There should also be an extended mentoring of new wigs by the old wigs, with strict mechanisms out in place to ensure that such mentoring is beneficial.

I would further recommend that lawyers acquire training on the principles of entrepreneurship. In practicing law, we are running a business. The Nigerian Bar Association needs to provide training for lawyers in modern concepts of law firm management which mirror the business needs of clients. The Nigerian Bar Association owes its members a duty to assist their professional development by improving on its Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programmes, making them mandatory, if possible. It is important for lawyers to continuously expand their reservoir of knowledge and constantly be updated on new developments in every practice area. CLE trainings should also cover new areas of law.

Your recent book co-authored with Chief ’Folake Solanke, (SAN), (CON), tends to portray a sad commentary on the dwindling ethics in the legal profession. Why did you venture into writing the book?
That is very easy to answer. The Lead author, Chief Solanke, SAN, CON and I have always shared a passion for advocacy, both oral and written. Advocacy is indeed, the specialty of lawyers; in every way, we legal practitioners advocate for the cause of our clients. The lead author and I pointed out a decline in the quality of advocacy being practised at the Nigerian Bar. The Supreme Court Rules 1985 emphasized in Order 6 Rule 3 on the need to engage in superior advocacy. We are of the view that it is professional responsibility of every learned counsel to cultivate lucidity of thought, simplicity and cogency in oral and written advocacy in order to communicate effectively on the client’s behalf. Consequently, our objective for writing the book was to advocate very distinctly and powerfully what qualitative legal advocacy entails; and, contribute to legal and academic scholarship

What are the roles of the NBA and other relevant bodies in restoring the ethics of the legal profession?
The Role of the NBA in the restoration of glory to the legal profession, in my opinion, is two-fold. On the one hand, the NBA, has to maintain the integrity and honour of the Bar and promote good relations among its members. On the other hand, just as I had stated earlier in this interview, the NBA has the duty of promoting legal education through the Continuing Professional Development Programme organized for every legal practitioner in Nigeria. With respect to every legal practitioner’s conduct at the Bar, the NBA has the role of investigating complaints made to it and the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, against legal practitioners, and prosecuting the charges brought against the legal practitioners before the LPDC. This is a role which the NBA must take seriously to ensure that legal practitioners do not take lightly, the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Legal practitioners also have to ensure that we continue to represent the rule of law in the country and serves as the watch dogs for the attainment of justice. On no account must we be perceived as corruptible professionals. Rather, in the performance of our duties as counsel, we must exhibit the highest level of skill, integrity, dedication and professionalism, no matter whose ox is gored. Those who are currently practising as Barristers and Solicitors of the Supreme Court of Nigeria also have the role of ensuring that the new wigs continue to meet up with the standards which have been set by those ahead.

On no account must we be perceived as corruptible professionals. Rather, in the performance of our duties as counsel, we must exhibit the highest level of skill, integrity, dedication and professionalism, no matter whose ox is gored. Those who are currently practising as barristers and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Nigeria also have the role of ensuring that the new wigs continue to meet up with the standards which have been set by those ahead.

There are other regulatory bodies in the legal profession such as the Body of Benchers which is responsible for the formal call to Bar of persons seeking to become legal practitioners. No aspirant to the Bar can be called to the Bar without the recommendation of two members on the Body of Benchers. As such, they are sure that only persons of good character can be called to the Nigerian bar and exercise disciplinary jurisdiction over members of the legal profession. There is also the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) which is responsible for considering and determining charges brought against legal practitioners who may have misbehaved in the course of their practice. The Council of Legal Education is responsible for the legal education of aspirants to the Bar as well as their continuing legal education after their Call to Bar; the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee that is responsible for the conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on deserving legal practitioners in Nigeria, as well as the withdrawal of that rank by way of a disciplinary action, and finally, the General Council of the Bar that is responsible for the making and revision of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, to mention but a few regulatory bodies

These regulatory bodies I have mentioned all work together to ensure that the Rules of the profession are strictly adhered to, and the standards of the Bar do not continue to decline. With continuous effort and harmony, I believe that the glory of the legal profession will fully return.

What is needed is a reawakening of the important traditions of the bar – professionalism and integrity.
Are there inbuilt mechanisms to check it?
The regulatory bodies mentioned above are the mechanisms which check to ensure that the standards and ethics of the profession abide. A number of these regulatory bodies are statutory, with clearly outlined responsibilities and functions.

What is the relevance of your new book, ‘Oral & Written Advocacy: Law & Practice’ towards restoring the ethics of the legal profession?
In my new book, ‘Oral and Written Advocacy: Law & Practice’ co-authored with the First Lady Silk of Nigeria, Chief ’Folake Solanke, SAN, CON, we harped on the importance of ethics in the legal profession, particularly in the course of the representation of Clients by Counsel. In the Appendix of the book is a copy of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, which we would refer to as the Bible of the legal profession. We also devoted several sub-chapters of the book to the history of advocacy; the importance of advocacy as part of the legal profession; the extension of advocacy beyond the courtroom; outstanding advocates; the Rules of Court; Judges’ Expectations; the importance of proper and professional legal drafting, fine points in advocacy, etcetera.

On the issue of unpopularity of lawyers, it was the author of the Golden Rules of Advocacy, who noted that “We lawyers have been near the bottom of the popularity polls for centuries, keeping company with executioners, horse-traders and debt-collectors”. Chief Solanke and I are of the view that this is no different from how lawyers are still perceived even now. This perception is expressed in different fora – from comments made in professional settings to jokes made at important events.

It was Sir John Simon who said: “The public see the lawyer as an unprincipled wretch who is constantly engaged in the distortion of the truth by methods entirely discreditable and for rewards grossly exaggerated. He is expected to be a hypocrite”. The lawyer’s remuneration was seen in no different light. We concluded by stating that certainly, not all lawyers fall into that deplorable category depicted in those terms. However, we dare say that lawyers should conduct themselves in an honourable manner so as not to lend credence to the horrendous vituperations hurled at lawyers by members of the public. “The jokes about lawyers are just as damning as the abuses”.

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