The Bitter Truth About Legal Practice as a Young Nigerian Lawyer: A Heart-breaking Tale of Exploitation

Law Practice as a Young Nigerian Lawyer

Eight years ago when I first flirted with the idea of becoming a lawyer, the two most important considerations that influenced my choice of law as a career seemed like no-brainers at the time.

Like many attention-seeking youths of my time, I was dying to be somebody.

And the thought of being part of a widely revered and privileged legal profession felt like a dream come true for me. Lawyers were adored then as now.

As well as that, I could tell that they were important people in society by just how people fawned over them each time they introduced themselves as learned gentlemen.

I even thought they could do no wrong.

Beyond this, I couldn’t resist the golden opportunity I considered a career in law as giving me. The chance of making a good fortune while passionately and selflessly helping the wronged of society argue lost causes in court in the most ruthless fashion was just too irresistible.

But after six years of continuous legal training that involved a painfully exhausting five-year LL.B study, and a nervous year-long marathon vocational training and humongous expenses at the Nigerian Law School, I am not sure I might have been that hasty in deciding to pursue my dream of becoming a lawyer had I known of the frustrating difficulties facing many of my young professional counterparts today.

Why is There Exploitation in the Legal Profession?

The legal profession in Nigeria is supposedly built on timeless legal traditions as seniority at the bar, mutual respect among lawyers, and equality of status. These lofty creeds are even embodied in the rules of Professional Conduct 2007.

While these core principles are observed in relations between more senior members of the profession, on current evidence however there is nothing to suggest that the last two influence dealings between many fairly young and relatively senior members of the Nigerian legal profession.

To put it bluntly, these values seem almost fantastically non-existent.

For this reason, the experience of numerous young lawyers in legal practice today is one of ill-treatment and financial deprivation. Their stories are those of shocking exploitation.

Their continued resolved to ply their trade in the face of abiding dissatisfaction, not cushioned by the countless daunting challenges confronting them, is hinged on the empty hope of far distant future success than on any expectation of immediate financial gratification as is the case in other climes.

And all this tragic legacy of misery many new wigs are experiencing is coming at the hands of law firms and their managing partners who seem far more driven by personal gain than by any concern for the welfare of the army of vulnerable young lawyers through whose labour they build their legal empires.

It is to be observed that the ever increasing turmoil being experienced by the vast majority of new wigs derives from a widely-held perplexing ideology within the Nigerian legal profession quite like the opinion-splitting Roman Catholic idea of heaven through the purgatory.

To reach the paradise of a blissful legal practice they say, many young lawyers have to be blooded through the purgatory of countless anguishes and hardships, most of which older practicing lawyers have all had to face in their early years of legal practice.

It is this philosophy that has given the impetus for the blatant exploitation of today’s young lawyers in their bid to reach this promised wonderland.

It’s a belief that’s hugely over-subscribed within the Nigerian legal profession. And one that has not only emboldened a new wave of defiant violations of young lawyer’s economic rights to adequate compensation for their services, but has engendered the norm of failed dreams of opulence, dashed hopes of self-reliance, and truncated expectations of repaying back the care and selfless sacrifice of loving parents who, against all odds, had gone to great lengths to expectantly train them through school held by a new generation of young aspiring lawyers.

I got my first hint of the situation from a lawyer uncle of mine, a seasoned legal practitioner with over forty-five-years post-call experience, during a conversation with him the week of my bar final success.

I arrived at his house feeling triumphant and jubilant on that particular day.

As we exchanged pleasantries and sat down to talk, he quickly reminded me there was something he had been meaning to tell me.

“Now that you’ve passed your exams,” he began. “I have two very important pieces of advice for you,” he continued. “You see, in this profession you need to be humble to be successful”.

I didn’t have any issues with this humility part of course. As someone about to graduate into the relentless overflowing ranks of patient job-seekers, I wasn’t about to harm my cause by putting on airs.

What worried me however was what he told me next, said with such bluntness and sincerity that I shivered with fear at its implications.

“Patrick, I am confident of your abilities and work ethic, but know some people are going to USE YOU,” he added. “But I am convinced you’ll be successful someday, but you’ll have to be VERY PATIENT,” he encouraged.

He turned and stared intently at me as if to confirm I understood the bombshell he had just dropped.

I more than did.

When I got home that day, with a look of resignation, I slumped into the nearest sofa and was immediately lost in the thought of figuring out the identities of those my uncle had warned would try to use me.

“Who are these people?” I thought. “Why would anyone want to take advantage of me now, after all I’ve been through?” I wondered.

Not many days after, my nagging premonition was given further credence when I got in touch with other young lawyers I had first met during the law school’s law firm attachment.

As I got on the phone to some of them, the lid was finally lifted on the identities of my likely USERS. They turned out to be unsympathetic learned senior lawyers, and ruthless law firms.

As many of them recounted their experiences working as recent lawyers to me, they spoke with a touching sense of injustice.

They were deeply ambitious professionals alright, but visibly distraught young people who were starting to lose all sense of optimism at being able to get either sufficient monetary reward, or deserved recognition for the valuable services they were rendering.

Their jarring narratives were strangely familiar, insanely upsetting, unbearably moving, and most of all, tearfully heartbreaking.

“Can you believe it, Patrick?” one of them began, with a note of concern in his voice. “I’m the first to resume work and the last to leave” he complained. “I even work a month of thirty-two days” he continued, tongue-in-cheek. “And yet I get nothing for my troubles, not even the money I spend on transport fares!” he concluded.

“So why do you continue?” I queried. “I need to hang around here long enough to get some experience under my belt,” he replied. “Once I have that I could maybe hang out my own shingle and make some money on my own,” he reasoned.

“I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am,” another started. “I thought I was going to make big money, but with what I am making now, it’ll take years before I can even recoup my law school tuition costs, much less the cost of my expensive university education” he admitted. “I’ve just moved back in with my parents because I was having rent problem where I lived” he added.

As he spoke, a memory from my law firm attachment quickly came to mind.

One hot afternoon, a partner at the firm had marched a young associate sheepishly into the firm’s book-overflowing library where I and five other weary externs had taken asylum and were frantically pre-occupied with the joyless task of cracking some steel-hard arcane topics from earlier weeks of lectures at the Nigerian Law School.

He wore a look of disappointment on his face, and a hint of annoyance in his tone as he beckoned her in.

We watched bemusedly as he paraded her like an unlucky police suspect caught pants down in the very act before us all, and then unleashed a venom of stinging criticism in what we would later recognize as a no-holds-barred viral-worthy open dressing-down.

“You draft all those lousy pleadings because you are not diligent to look up the law in Sasegbon,” he lamented. “And now your opposing counsel can’t believe their luck when they learn you are the lawyer for the other party,” he continued. “That’s the reason you are always losing cases in court”.

She flushed with embarrassment. And in that moment the poor girl might have wished the floor would split open and swallow her up.

As we listened, we couldn’t help the giggles that erupted at hearing that. And who would have blamed us!

His comments of her were downright savage to begin with. And of all the places to chastise an erring junior associate, the last place to do so was before hastily judgmental externs.

The whole episode raised questions of the young lawyer’s competence. And we thought the worse of her afterwards.

This may have been a single incident, but in practice incidences like this are a dime a dozen. Some senior lawyers resort to even physically abusing their young associates in public.

This ill-treatment of young lawyers doesn’t speak well of a profession that preaches mutual respect between all of its practitioners. Nor the equality of status it so vocally advocates.

Amidst the changing dynamics of employer-employee relations sweeping today’s workplaces and improvements in minimum wage necessitated by rising inflationary trends across the country, there can no longer be any justification for the continued maltreatment, or the payment of slave wages to young lawyers by law firms and employing learned senior lawyers.

But lying at the heart of these issues is perhaps the lack or absence of organized unionism for new wigs to fight for a better deal by seeking to protect their interests.

Thus putting hiring law firms and senior lawyers in very strong bargaining positions where they can dictate unfair terms of employment, however exploitative, knowing new wigs will accept them or tolerate their maltreatment out of sheer desperation. And as we say beggars can’t be choosers, we cannot expect them to insist on improved terms or better treatment, seeing their precarious situation.

To protect the dignity of the profession, there is therefore the need for the NBA to introduce some sort of minimum salary for young lawyers below which legal employers cannot go.

Away from that, there is a good case for setting up a monitoring/complaint committee to checkmate the abusive treatment of young lawyers by law firms and their learned senior colleagues alike, and the rather toxic and threatening working environments in which many of them work.

With equal importance, there is a real necessity to take some sort of punitive measures against law firms and lawyers who feel they can utilize the services of these young lawyers to their benefit without paying them at all.

Not even doughnuts for their transport fares incurred while carrying out these responsibilities!

Let’s even talk turkey.

Like it or not, education is an investment.

Which parent then would want to send a child to a profession that doesn’t give any return on their heavily invested children’s legal education?

This calls for swift action, particularly as the future of the profession hangs in the balance.

More worrying, the lack of financial incentive for young practicing lawyers may only serve to discourage many bright young lawyers from going into legal practicing, further strengthening the rapidly rising trend of exceptional new wigs who dump their wig and gown immediately after their call to the bar to take up careers in entertainment or business.

If left unchecked, this new trend we are seeing could potentially mark the gradual decline of the legal profession as we know it in Nigeria.



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