Jul 30, 2019

Saving The Dinosaur From Extinction: Preserving Nigerian Law Practice In The 21st Century | Fifehan Ogunde


There is tremendous excitement about the potential contribution of artificial intelligence to legal practice, especially in western countries. The turn of the century has particularly seen a growth in legal software that harnesses AI and machine learning. Artificial intelligence is also gradually making its mark in the Nigerian legal industry with the influence of legal technology firms such as Law Pavillion. 


Some people are actually worried that the human lawyer could be replaced by the artificial lawyer. While the available evidence does not suggest that this is the case, it is not unreasonable to suggest that many of the duties of the traditional Nigerian lawyer will be subsumed in artificial intelligence. This is of course assuming that AI software is developed in the expected manner. The threat of AI to the legal practitioner, if any, should not be overstated especially in Nigeria. AI software at the moment is limited, expensive and still too much of a work in progress to serve as a source of concern to the average Nigerian lawyer. Even if we should be concerned, there are bigger problems to worry about.
In Nigeria, there is already the problem of excessive supply over demand for legal practitioners, especially in the more economically productive areas. An average of 4,500 lawyers are called to the Nigerian Bar each year. Considering the fact that legal practice in Nigeria is a lifetime occupation with no designated retirement age, these lawyers only add to the existing lawyers that may still be seeking employment. Many of those who are employed are simply performing tasks equivalent to the function of a paralegal in the United Kingdom. Introducing AI technology into this mix will most likely lead to a reduction in available opportunities for qualified lawyers in Nigeria. This is in addition to existing problems relating to judicial independence and impartiality, corruption and poor remuneration of lawyers.

WHAT IS BEING DONE?
For Nigerian lawyers to remain relevant in the economy of the future, they must be able to show that they can offer more than the ‘traditional legal services’ of drafting and advocacy. As rightly noted by Jordan Furlong, the lawyer of the future is one that can rework his business model around advice and counsel as well as create niche areas for himself. A significant number of lawyers in Nigeria are already diversifying their expertise and venturing into alternative areas of service provision including legal consultancy and company secretarial work. The concept of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is also gaining ascendency in Nigeria. In Lagos state, the Lagos Multi-door courthouse and the Lagos Chamber of commerce and Industry provide platforms for ADR with the number of disputes resolved at the Multi-door courthouse rising yearly between 2002 and 2015. 14 other states in Nigeria have also adopted the Multi-door courthouse model in particular in relation to dispute resolution. Others are venturing into largely undeveloped areas of law in Nigeria such as entertainment law and sports law. A significant number are also directing their focus towards providing easily accessible legal information to the public through reference websites, blogs and social media threads. While this innovative approach is commendable, there is a danger that opening the legal profession in this manner will diminish the ‘specialist’ connotation associated with law practice. If legal information is readily available to the public for instance, people may start to question the need for lawyers in areas of public life that lawyers were hitherto considered fundamental to. Add AI into the mix and there may be very little demand for future law graduates. 

Furthermore, there is a need for the legal practice and curriculum in Nigeria to respond to changing societal dynamics. Gone are the days for instance where only lawyers really displayed any interest in the law. Now, non-lawyers are proving to be ‘law-savvy’ and informed concerning the legal position on various matters. The 21st century lawyer has to stand out in a different way. Nigerian lawyers need to, as succinctly put by Daniel Linna, combine deep substantive legal expertise with the ability to collaborate across many disciplines. Some have argued that lawyers need to add coding skills to their repertoire. While much of the current excitement around the influence of artificial intelligence and other aspects of technological advancement in the provision of legal services may be a bit overstretched, there is no missing the point: law practice in Nigeria needs to evolve beyond simply providing the traditional legal services to maintain its relevance not just globally but in Nigeria. This evolutionary approach must also be extended to the legal education curriculum in Nigeria. Already, top law schools like Harvard Law school and Georgetown university have gradually started introducing programming courses into their law curriculum. Many other universities in the US, Canada and UK offer combined undergraduate programs where law is combined with courses like business, criminology and computer science. The faculties of Law in Nigerian Universities do not currently offer such combined programs.
Evolution of the Nigerian lawyer is also significantly dependent on evolution of Nigerian law in general. Legislation is the foundation upon which litigation and other legal services stand and progressive lawmaking is key to progressive legal services. Nigerian law relating to areas such as cybersecurity, intellectual property and sports science remain largely underdeveloped notwithstanding the increase in the relevance of ICT and the worldwide web especially among young people in Nigeria. Laws such as the Cybercrime Act 2015 and the Copyright Act 2004 are definitely a step in the right direction in terms of developing relevant case-law and procedures relevant to the fourth industrial revolution. There is nevertheless a long way to go.  Many of the existing laws in Nigeria are also outdated and unfortunately very little is being done in terms of law reform. With a National Assembly where less than 15% of its members are lawyers, proposals for law reform may not be advanced as readily as may be necessary for development of our legal services.
Notwithstanding the focus on evolution of the 21st century lawyer, there is still an important role to be played by the ‘traditional lawyer’ in Nigeria. Furthermore, it is still the case that the law practice field is highly concentrated in major cities like Lagos, Abuja and Port-Harcourt. Nigeria is bigger than these cities and lawyers can make immense contributions in many abandoned areas in Nigeria. There are many areas ripe for law clinics, legal research centres and pro-bono work that can be run by lawyers, law graduates and law students. A great proportion of the population are still being denied access to basic rights and need qualified lawyers to help protect and defend their rights at different levels. Lawyers can also work as policy analysts and advisors for different professional enterprises.
The unique nature of legal practice is the fact that it is relevant to an area of human relations that will keep asking for specialists: protection of rights and dispute resolution. Problems will keep arising that require some form of resolution. Even the much vaunted fourth industrial resolution is set to create problems that will have to be resolved by those who are conversant with the dynamics created by the legal profession. The 21st century and the coming industrial evolution will not see the end of lawyers but the evolution of lawyers. Those who will survive are those who are willing to evolve.

Fifehan Ogunde Esq. 

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