What is Pupillage?
15. I use the term ‘pupillage’ rather loosely to refer to the period of a lawyer’s career in Nigeria, which is expected to be spent learning the ropes or cutting one’s teeth under the supervision of a pupil-master. This period need not be compelled by law but ought to be structured by the Nigerian Bar Association and made attractive for the young lawyer to voluntarily enrol in. I do not have in mind the type of apprenticeship programme practised in the United Kingdom which is made compulsory for the furtherance of one’s practice career. I do not also have in mind a period of compulsory work employment before one begins an independent legal practise.

16. The type of pupillage that I am recommending is a period of paid apprenticeship during which the pupil counsel learns what was not and cannot be taught at the law faculty
and the law school. Before entering into such apprenticeship, the pupil counsel is made to sit for a qualifying aptitude test in a law firm designated by the Nigerian Bar Association as appropriate for pupillage. After being successful, the pupil counsel then enters into an apprenticeship agreement for a period voluntarily stated by such pupil but of a period not less than thirty-six months.

17. During this period of thirty six months, the pupil counsel undergoes practical training in the history of the legal profession in Nigeria, sourcing and billing clients, courtroom strategies, alternative dispute resolution, understanding the Judge and the client, legal drafting, legal language, ethics and etiquettes and information technology.

18. It is obvious that within the period of four, five or even six years spent in our training institutions, not every aspect of law and practice can be covered or even mastered. Many lawyers can easily recall that they never learnt in the university the branch of law in which they are now specialists. Up till today, there are few, if any, Faculties of Law in Nigeria that offer Chieftaincy Law, Anti-Corruption Law, Project Financing or documentary credits, Agricultural Law and Advertising Law. These are branches of Law that constitute an enormous part of the practice areas in many jurisdictions in Nigeria.

19. It is during pupillage that a pupil-counsel understands billing, client interviews, counsel-court relationship, courtroom strategies, rainmaking and many other important aspects of law in which only practice can make perfect. This is the period that I refer to as “pupillage”. It is the period when a legal career is shaped by the eminence of the pupil-master, the contacts built, the practical experience acquired, the culture and etiquette imbibed.

Is Pupillage Necessary?
20. There is no doubt that this will be a contentious debate. However, as I have said, the type of pupillage that I envisage and now advocate is not yet entrenched in Nigeria. If we look at pupillage, in the way that is very common in this country, in which a newly qualified lawyer wanting to “gain experience” moves into a law firm or joins a “sole proprietorship practice” without counsel or guidance hoping to spend some few years and then setting up his independent practice, then it is very doubtful whether such “pupillage” is necessary.

21. There are very many successful senior lawyers in Nigeria today who underwent practically no pupillage, as we presently know it in Nigeria. My principal’s pupillage was for only three months! Furthermore, we can also point to several lawyers who served “pupillage” for a very long period, some for upward of ten years but are now buried in obscurity. I myself do not advocate that type of pupillage. Even if that type had been useful in the past, or the avoidance of it has not made a difference, the days of unplanned beginning in the legal profession are long gone.

22. Nigerian lawyers today are like the sand at the sea shore or the stars in the sky. It is time to structure the early years and give hope of a brighter future by an excellent beginning. In 2003, there were about 41,000 lawyers in Nigeria, dead and alive. As at now, July 2012, there are more than 80,000. What that means is that growing at an average of 8,000 lawyers annually, the present number will nearly double in another ten years. If we ignore pupillage of the type I now advocate which would be indigenous to Nigeria, we leave our young lawyers in free ranging practice and as sheep without a shepherd.

23. The repercussion of this will be that many will go into independent legal practice without counsel or leadership and create a mushroom of stunted firms which are incapable of sustaining themselves or expanding to admit other young lawyers. It will be interesting to take the statistics of law firms set up five years ago by lawyers immediately upon being called and the number of those that are surviving today. I do not think that we will be delighted by our discovery.

24. It is my firm and solemn submission that a law firm set up by a young lawyer immediately after call is doomed to either fail or become a plague on the client world. Clients’ cases and consequently their lives will become a guinea-pig in the hands of untrained minds. Learning will be haphazard, and billing, arbitrary. Many of such firms will be on subsistence level for a very long period, unable to recruit juniors or even pay them well, if recruited.

25. They become pawns in the hands of unscrupulous clients and victims of serial breaches of professional ethics. What is the palm tree to a tomato plant? A desperate effort to burst out into legal practice without pupillage is like the airline trainee pilot upon graduation, seizing a 747 jumbo jet for a trans-Atlantic flight with 300 souls on board. Is it possible to imagine an NYSC medical doctor conducting a caesarean operation? Or a civil engineer upon graduation designing structural drawings for a ten-storey block of flats?

26. The pupillage is the incubation that the young lawyer needs to enhance capacity. The queries raised however cannot be wished away. It is still necessary to inquire into why lawyers who did not undergo pupillage succeed and even those who did faded away into oblivion.