Oct 6, 2020

Securing The Socio-Economic Welfare Of Nigerian Lawyers: Beyond The “9-5”|Fifehan Ogunde


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 

 


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