‘Sustaining partnership in law firms is still a challenge’
Just recently, the president of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN) inaugurated a Legal Profession Regulatory Review Committee. Among other tasks, it is to review the regulatory architecture of the legal profession and the role of the Body of Benchers. It is also to review the roles of the General Council of the Bar, the Council of Legal Profession, the Supreme Court of Nigeria and the NBA in the regulation of the legal profession as well as the current standards for admission into the Nigerian Bar and recommend changes. Henry Ajumogobia (SAN), in this online interview with GODWIN DUNIA, describes the action as the right step in the right direction. He also spoke on the future of the profession among others.
Following the election of the Buhari administration, how has the environment for the legal profession changed in Nigeria?
As it has been with politics, the public and I daresay the legal profession itself have become disillusioned with the legal system and with our so- called learned profession. I use the term here in its wider context – whether we be lawyers who have remained at the public or private bar or those who have shed the partisan role of being advocates for a cause to become magistrates and judges who society looks to, to deliver justice according to the law without fear or favour. The recent regrettable armed raids on the homes of judges of our superior courts including the Supreme Court, and their arrest by security operatives, combined with the arrest and detention of very senior lawyers, has sadly brought our profession and the legal system into disrepute and brought existing feelings of disillusionment to a new low.
The good news however is that this has caused the profession as a whole to be introspective, and will hopefully make us recognize that we must restore confidence in the legal system, in our judges and in the integrity of our profession, or also suffer the inevitable chaos that follows when people lose total confidence. Recently, Abubakar Balarabe Mahmoud (SAN), the President of the Nigerian Bar Association, remarked that the current regulatory framework underpinning the legal profession in Nigeria is obsolete and cannot address emerging trends and challenges in the legal services industry. This was a telling statement and highlights the concerns about the profession implied in your question. On January 24, 2017, he inaugurated a Legal Profession Regulatory Review Committee to amongst other things, review the regulatory architecture of the legal profession; review the role of the Body of Benchers, the General Council of the Bar, the Council of Legal Profession, the Supreme Court of Nigeria and the NBA in the regulation of the legal profession; review the current standards for admission into the Nigerian Bar and recommend changes. This clearly is the right step in the right direction and I wish the NBA President and the Committee well for all our sakes.
How do you see the legal profession evolving further over the next five years?
The demand for good and experienced lawyers with integrity will always be high. I see that demand growing exponentially as ethics compliance and best practice dominate the corporate landscape, especially for corporate commercial lawyers like myself. The anti-corruption drive of the Buhari Administration has put law and order on the front burner once again. Both of these developments ought to see the profession evolve to play its crucial role in creating a more just society and country. There can be no development in an unjust society.
What new issues are creating challenges for lawyers?
In one word, the issue that I would say is creating challenges, especially for corporate and commercial lawyers is “globalization.” Legal services are no longer provided locally. Therefore Nigerian lawyers are now no longer competing only with their local peers, but have to contend with large international law firms who see the potential of the Nigerian market place and have begun to dominate the space as transaction advisers. They are particularly successful in the growing sectors of the economy – power and infrastructure, oil and gas and even financial services, as well as intermediation and other areas that require specialist knowledge and expertise. Growing and sustaining such growth in law firms in Nigeria while developing the necessary specializations and competencies under one roof to be competitive in the corporate commercial space is thus a significant challenge. The legal profession and the practice of law has changed considerably since I entered the profession 38 years ago. In 1979 when I was called to the bar, solo practitioners were the norm.
I am proud to say that my law firm of Ajumogobia&Okeke, which Chris Okeke and I founded in 1984 is one of the oldest continuing and extremely successful partnerships and I can with due modesty say, was one of the pioneers of the partnership model that is now in vogue. Sustaining partnerships the way they have been sustained across the world is still a challenge in this part of the world. It is a measure of the strong foundation and culture that we have been able to sustain at Ajumogobia and Okeke, that three out of four senior partners were away from the firm simultaneously for a period of almost three years, yet the firm hardly lost any standing and is now in its fourth decade as an enduring partnership, despite the challenges posed by early retirements and withdrawal for national service of partners from the firm at various times during its long and exciting history.
The strong ethical foundation as well as the extraordinary legal talent that the firm has always attracted, ensured that the scope and quality of our services to our world-wide clientele was sustained. In a broader context I think the biggest challenge that the profession as a whole faces is enabling greater access to justice. Most people – and here I don’t mean just the disenfranchised rural or urban poor – even amongst the middle class, cannot afford legal services. Lawyers fees are high.
The profession has to find a way to join and expand access to justice and legal aid schemes to address this important and complex matter, as we try and build a more just society.
How are your clients managing in the current environment? Have their needs changed?
We all adapt. As I said compliance with law and regulation has become a buzzword. We recently witnessed the NCC fining a telecom company $5.2 billion for an alleged infraction of NCC’s regulations relating to unregistered SIM cards and the negotiated downward reduction of the fine. I’m sure that many lessons were learned by that company and others about the growing importance of compliance with law and regulation.
How is technology changing the way the law is developed and applied?
Technology forces lawyers to bill only for real value. Much legal advice is now available for free online at the click of a button on a mobile device. Many law firms also embrace technology to aid research. A significant component of legal training and practice is knowing where to look – the relevant regulation or law or judicial authority preferably of the Supreme Court, which is binding on all lower courts and thus constitutes a major source of law, to solve the client’s problem. Contract law for example is perhaps the fulcrum on which all commercial transactions are consummated. Clauses in the contract will properly protect a client’s interest if prepared by a knowledgable and experienced lawyer or endanger a client’s interest if prepared by a novice. New technologies thus facilitate information gathering and make new global trends about contract law and novel protection clauses and mechanisms for example far more accessible. Law firms can thus employ technology to lower costs of research, thereby enhancing their bottom line.
Ajumogobia & Okeke embraced technology early and uses technology in case management. At one time we were handling tens of thousands of cases on behalf of a client. Without technology it would have been an impossible task to even keep track of each case, opposing counsel, dates of adjournment, judgements, and settlement terms to name just some of the moving parts. At Ajumogobia & Okeke, we also pride ourselves on being innovative, especially for those clients who require or value creative solutions offered at a premium, on account of their originality. One of the great challenges in today’s market is differentiation. Already clients are becoming more discerning in comparing the relative expertise of numerous firms, combined with information about costs, efficiency, service delivery and reputation in selecting a firm. Rather than serving all needs for all clients, law firms will begin to specialize in specific areas, thereby opening up new markets for their services. Without embedded technology this would be a challenge.