Opinion: What They Don’t Teach You In Law School

Opinion: What They Don’t Teach You In Law School

By Opinions | The Trent on May 7, 2015
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SAN Legal

by Izere Imosemi

In 2014, more than 2000 students were called to the Nigerian Bar. This year, and the years to come, the Nigerian Law School will continue to churn out new lawyers to the ever increasing pool of lawyers in the country.

As expected, the Call to Bar Ceremony, which is the ceremony “initiating” new lawyers or new wigs as they are called into the profession, is usually frenzied with excitement. Food and drinks would flow, friends and family will buy “Aso-ebi”, proud parents would paste stickers with witty inscriptions on their cars indicating that their child is now a member of the “elite club”. Some parents go the extra mile of publishing pictures of themselves and their children smiling gleefully at the camera in national dailies and of course, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media outlets would be flooded with tweets, posts, pictures of the ceremony and praises to God for the success at the Bar exams.

On that very special day, new wigs are usually very ecstatic and rightly so too. Anyone who had gone through the rigours of studying law for five years in a Nigerian university or any other university in the world, and later spends one year of vigorous study, in the anxiety inducing environment at the Nigerian Law School will understand and appreciate the delight of new wigs.

However, after all the glitz and glamour, young lawyers are released into the society and reality assumes a different face. The Call to Bar Ceremony can be likened to a wedding ceremony where everybody comes to celebrate with you amidst great pomp and pageantry but once the day ends, the new couple are left to chart their lives together, the success or failure of the union would depend largely on the conduct of both parties thereafter. In the same manner, the success or failure of your profession would depend on what happens after that one special day.

There are certain facts every young lawyer should know before leaving law school as the practice of law is remarkably different from the business of law. In recent times, a large number of young lawyers leave the profession to do other things like music, fashion and business. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad development, it is a testament to the growing dissatisfaction of young lawyers with the profession.

The problem, however, is not an abundant supply of lawyers. The problem is the perception of the public towards service-oriented industries. In our society, there is a general unwillingness of people and organisations to pay for services. They would readily pay for goods and negotiate services. Many would insist that you offer your services for free. I attended a meeting recently with a lawyer who was trying to negotiate his legal fees with his client. As both parties haggled over the fees to be paid, his client, a successful businessman, told his lawyer cynically that he (the lawyer) wasn’t hungry yet, and that when he was he would take the brief.

Legal practice in Nigeria is far from the glamour depicted in popular television shows, like “Suits” and “Boston legal” where the lawyers wear smart suits, and all the women appear attractive and dole out impressive arguments in court. Legal practice, particularly litigation, involves hours of endless research, continuous adjournments in courts, religious adherence to procedure, impatient and grumpy clients, lots of heavy ugly looking files held together by thick white ropes, and a not-so-impressive salary. Young lawyers need to be prepared for this. It is not all grim though as the legal profession is one of the few professions that affords you the opportunity of earning a living by helping people. The intrinsic satisfaction derived from providing solutions to problems cannot be quantified.

The first and perhaps most important fact is that young lawyers should not expect quick financial rewards. Many pro-bono briefs would be done in the first few years of practice. Young lawyers should understand that the legal profession rewards diligence, hard work and longevity. Whilst this is no excuse for the miserly remuneration some senior lawyers pay their juniors, it is better to be prepared for what lies down the road, so one does not get disappointed and discouraged. Parents who have invested in their children to become lawyers and are eagerly awaiting “harvest time” should also understand that harvest time may not come immediately after graduation from law school, “harvest time” may come five or 10 years later.

Furthermore, young lawyers should endeavour to work in a good law firm under an experienced senior counsel for at least a year or two. Law firms that do not compartmentalise their practice are the best kind of law firms to work for, in the early years of practice. This is so because you get to do a bit of every area of law like corporate, commercial and litigation. This way, a young lawyer can decide where his strength lies, what area of law he is most proficient in or if he is interested in pursuing a career in the profession at all.

Young lawyers should also understand that whilst knowledge is essential in the profession, experience is “golden”. What this means is that a young lawyer may know all the principles of the law and may even be able to deliver the same with the mastery of a senior lawyer; however, a client would be more confident and at ease giving the brief to a senior counsel. This is the unfair reality of the profession.

Working in an established law firm gives a young lawyer access to law briefs he would probably not have had access to, had he set up his law practice immediately after graduation. Perhaps, I should also mention at this point that there is nothing that precludes a new wig from setting up a law practice immediately after graduation. This is a topic for another day. In life really, there are no rules cast in stones. Diligence, consistency and hard work are the only requisite tools for success. A number of successful lawyers started their law practice immediately after graduation from law school and excelled. However, working with a senior for a while will afford you the opportunity to learn from their experience.

Young lawyers, who work in law firms that permit them to pursue their private practice, are encouraged to take advantage of it, as it is an opportunity to start building their clientele early. Young lawyers should do their business cards and letterheads, stating their area of practice and contact address. The first set of clients for many new wigs usually consists of close family and friends. This set of people would request for legal advice and representation of all shades and forms. It would be wise to accede to their requests, because these cases would serve as pilot cases, training ground for the development of one’s legal skills for larger and more financially rewarding briefs. More so, since the people involved are family and friends, errors made in handling such briefs are more easily tolerated and overlooked. Such errors may not be tolerated by other clients.

However, be warned, do not expect any substantial form of financial remuneration from this set of people, as they would expect you to offer your services free of all charges.

A lawyer never reveals his ignorance. As a lawyer, you are essentially a problem solver. People only come to you when they have problems. You would therefore be required to proffer solutions on issues you probably know nothing about. Every lawyer knows that no lawyer knows it all. The eminent Lord Denning knew this for a fact when he reportedly stated that, “God forbid that I should know the whole Law.” Experienced lawyers have mastered the art of “tactfully” requesting for more time to study a particular issue rather than an outright confession of ignorance. There is a need for young lawyers to therefore acquire this skill too.

Furthermore, whilst it is wise to “tactfully” request more time to examine an issue, it is also important to note that you may indeed not have the solutions to all the legal issues brought to you. Wisdom is therefore knowing when to hold a brief and when to fold it. Young lawyers should remember that they are lawyers not miracle workers.

The first few years of practice are perhaps the most trying ones for lawyers; besides the poor remuneration in the industry, the profession recognises seniority and hierarchy. Many senior lawyers would mandatorily require their juniors to carry their wigs, gowns and files for court appearances. Many young lawyers find this disconcerting and denigrating. Although there truly is no reason why this should be, young lawyers should not be discouraged; it’s a learning curve and an opportunity to learn what to do and what not to do when you become a senior.

Happy customers give the best form of publicity to any business. Young lawyers need to understand that customer satisfaction is key. The reputation of any lawyer precedes him, hence integrity and client satisfaction should not be compromised in service delivery. Young lawyers should resist the urge of making fast gains at the detriment of their client’s interest. The “Charge and Bail” practice, which is a derogatory term used to describe lawyers that loiter in court premises soliciting briefs from accused persons should be shunned; it portrays the profession in negative light and lawyers as desperate people.

Young lawyers should endeavour to draw a line between the legal profession and real estate agency. In recent times, many lawyers have reduced their legal practice to real estate agency. Some of them end up clamouring for “managerial rights” on properties with mere real estate agents. The act of haggling over properties with real estate agents should be avoided. It belittles your practice, and reduces it to a “Landlord and Tenant” practice. Whilst specialisation is essential, a young lawyer should not be too quick to establish or create a reputation in a particular area of law early in his career, as he may later discover his flair for a different practice.

Finally, the ability to earn decent wages is still enormously important. Of what benefit is knowledge if it cannot be translated into financial gains and career satisfaction? So, if as a young lawyer you find a legal practice that allows you to earn decently and learn, please, by all means, embrace it.

This article is culled from The Opinion.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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