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The Nigerian legal profession is in a
very delicate condition, particularly as it relates to the socio-economic
welfare of lawyers. There are
reports
detailing concerns
about the wellbeing and
remuneration of lawyers with some lawyers said to earn between 15,000 and
20,000 Naira monthly (US$39-US$52) which is less than the average hourly pay of
lawyers in Western economies such as the United States or Canada. In a Twitter
poll,  
65% of
respondents
indicated that they either earned
or knew a lawyer who earned below 50,000 Naira monthly. In view of the ever
rising costs of living in the cosmopolitan cities where the majority of
Nigerian lawyers are based, it is not unreasonable to conclude as follows: a
significant number of Nigerian lawyers whose only source of income is derived
from legal practice are living in poverty.



Why are Nigerian lawyers poorly paid?

There are different reasons for this. First of
all, there is an excess supply of lawyers over demand. Over 4,000 lawyers are
called to the Nigerian Bar each year. There are however less than 2,000 law
firms in Nigeria. Assuming each lawyer recruits a new lawyer every year without
laying off any other, that’s 2,000 lawyers unaccounted for each year. It must
be noted that this does not take into account company secretaries, start-up law
firms and lawyers in the public service. While some have argued that Nigeria
does not have enough lawyers, the current evidence suggests that the legal
services industry is not sufficient to accommodate the delivery of lawyers. In
view of this, lawyers who manage to secure employment are susceptible to
economic exploitation evidenced in poor remuneration for legal work as their
choices are limited.

 

There are however much bigger problems. For
one, the Nigerian economy is hardly large enough to accommodate the salary
expectations of lawyers. While Nigeria is the
27th
largest economy
with a GDP of US$496bn, Nigeria
has a GDP per capita of
US$2,407 which is the equivalent of about 65,000 Naira per month as a result of
different socio-economic factors including gross income inequality. The emergent
economic consequence is that only a limited number of firms, individuals and
organizations can provide the kind of briefs that would make legal practice
profitable for the average Nigerian lawyer. Many of these organizations and
individuals engage only with the leading law firms, with the remaining law
firms left to engage with clients who are unable to pay the kind of legal fees
that can ensure that all lawyers enjoy decent remuneration. To make matters
worse, there is the issue of vast income disparities between partners in law
firms and junior counsel.

What should lawyers do?

 

In view of current socio-economic
realities, one would venture the following suggestions:

Alternative working structures

The typical Nigerian legal practitioner works
full-time hours during the weekday and sometimes on weekends. This gives little
or no room for the pursuit of alternative ventures. One would suggest that
lawyers, particularly junior lawyers, are given the option of working part time
at a reduced salary. This gives the opportunity for lawyers to pursue
alternative employment ventures to boost their income. There is no requirement
under the Legal Practitioners Act for lawyers to practice law full-time. While
the Rules of Professional Conduct (RPC) 2007 prohibits lawyers from engaging in
trade or business incompatible with the standards of the legal profession,
lawyers are not necessarily precluded from alternative professions while
engaging in law practice.

 

Another option is for lawyers to work
based on an hourly wage as opposed to monthly salaries. A minimum hourly rate
bearing in mind the qualification, experience and expertise can be set by the
Nigerian Bar Association which sets the standard for lawyers and firms in
contract negotiations. The hours of commitment to legal practice can be
arranged between lawyers and individual firms.




Remote working:

If law firms insist on engaging lawyers full
time and are unable to provide adequate remuneration, another alternative is to
consider the option of remote work for lawyers (part-time or full time). Under
this arrangement, legal practitioners can be required to attend the office once
a week in addition to their responsibilities in court. Meetings can be arranged
through different video or audio conferencing. Documents can be prepared and
sent for review via e-mail. One major challenge in this regard is the fact that
unlike other countries such as Canada and the USA, court documents are not
currently electronically-filed in Nigeria. However, since many law firms have
administrative staff responsible for filing court processes, such aspects can
still be handled by administrative staff present in the office with lawyers
given the opportunity to work from home.

 

Remote work can prove invaluable in
saving precious man-hours spent in traffic and reduce transportation costs,
which can be astronomical depending on the work/home location of practising
lawyers. It is noted that factors such as internet access/quality and mobile
data prices are significant in the chances of success of remote work,
particularly in rural areas. However, the idea is for remote work to complement
existing structures where feasible, and such may not be necessary in areas with
relatively low cost of living.





Other alternatives

 

A significant number of lawyers are
exploring previously unknown areas of law, (in Nigeria at least) to create a
niche for themselves and possibly expand their client base. However, many of
these areas of law do not have a client base strong enough for the expectations
of lawyers who are currently venturing into that field. Nevertheless, diversification
of legal specialisation remains a potentially viable option, particularly in
terms of building transnational legal networks.

 

In the international context, there are
other options that can be considered by Nigerian-trained lawyers. Remote
freelance legal writing for foreign organizations, securing legal
qualifications in foreign jurisdictions and freelance consultancy are a number
of alternatives that have been suggested by some professionals. Without
necessarily solving all problems, receiving remuneration from abroad for
services rendered would provide an immeasurable boost to the income of Nigerian
lawyers.

A significant number of Nigerian lawyers
are largely underpaid, particularly in comparison to lawyers in Western
economies and this undoubtedly has a negative impact on socio-economic welfare.
The recently elected Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Olumide
Akpata relied heavily on the improvement of lawyers’ economic welfare as a
campaign strategy. Whether his tenure can produce relevant systemic changes
that would create a positive impact in this regard. Those who cannot afford to
wait and see may have to take matters into their own hands.

Fifehan Ogunde

Photo Credit – www.channelstv.com