Written by Reginald Aziza
Millennials. Like the elephant, this group is more easily described than defined. Whilst descriptions are themselves problematic and sometimes inaccurate; impatience, discontent with existing social order and a strong-willed, open-minded, all-conquering spirit are said to characterize this group. The millennial wants it all; and wants it now. Armed with youth, education and technology, the millennial believes (as she has been told) that everything is possible; and she has countless examples of incredible human innovation and exploits to back this up. Difficult as it may be to express simplistically, the Millennial’s Manifesto is to quickly ascend to the pinnacle of her chosen field, whilst living happily in the process.
This sense of exploit and impatience however meets a brick wall in the legal profession. Renown for its traditions and steeped in its precedents, the legal profession is a case study in conservatism. This conservatism is taken to arguably elevated heights in the Nigerian legal profession. In the university and at the Nigerian Law School, the aspiring lawyer is compelled to dress in black suits and white shirts. She is taught to respect her senior colleagues and always conduct herself in a ‘fit and proper’ manner. When she gets admitted to the Bar, she learns that she has to defer to existing authority, and whilst fearless in her advocacy of her client’s interests, she must be restrained in the pursuit of hers. She learns this in what is unfortunately an unsupportive, yet fiercely competitive environment, characterized by the twin vices of low remuneration and unclear career progression.
Yet, these twin vices lie at the core of the Millennial’s Manifesto, leading to inevitable friction between the Millennial and the Profession. This friction finds expression in at least three topical issues, which will continue to require regulatory attention for so long as the friction exists.
The Explosion of Start-up Law Firms
Perhaps the first and least contentious consequence of the friction is the explosion of the number of law firms opening up in Nigeria. Although extant regulation permits a newly qualified lawyer to open a law firm immediately he/she is admitted to the Bar, the usual experience is that the Millennial intent on active law practice takes up paid employment in a law firm. However, dissatisfied with low remuneration and unclear career progression, she perhaps changes jobs a number of times before the eventual decision to start a law firm on her own or (as is more usually the case) with a number of colleagues or former classmates.
There is another subtler, but no less persuasive reason for the Millennial’s decision to start up a practice: a disconnection between the work the firm is engaged in and the Millennial’s passions. With the rebasing of Nigeria’s economy and the increased focus on diversification, a number of less-traditional legal fields have opened up which present windows of opportunity to the open-minded Millennial. Given the novelty of the area, the Millennial is as inexperienced in the field (and therefore as likely to succeed) as the Senior Advocate. These areas range from Outer Space Law (on which I know a number of young Nigerians racking up incredible knowledge) to Internet Law, Cyber Law and Entertainment Law. Needless to say, experience in election petitions and garnishee proceedings is entirely irrelevant in negotiating a distribution agreement for an e-Commerce company.
The Explosion of Lawyers in Business
Another consequence of this friction is the explosion of lawyers in business. This is as much a result of passion as it is a reaction to lack of upward mobility and low remuneration. However, the remuneration structure in the profession accentuates this issue. The profession is now witnessing more of its members who are lawyers by day and weavon merchants at night, or lawyers on weekdays and event planners or makeup artists on weekends. Normally, the goal is to receive an additional source of income to supplement the paltry remuneration paid in the firm. I consider this to be entirely defensible: if a person cannot earn a decent living in paid employment, she should not be prevented from taking other steps to guarantee her livelihood. Nonetheless, as this additional income equals (and perhaps surpasses) the income from law practice, questions are then asked as to whether it is in fact worthwhile to remain in active legal practice.
This issue has serious ethical implications in the light of Rule 7 of the 2007 Rules of Professional Conduct, which explicitly prohibits a practicing lawyer from personally engaging in business. Given the absence of effective monitoring and compliance, and in the face of the flagrant breach of this Rule, one wonders whether the time has not come for it to be significantly re-calibrated to achieve compliance or removed from the rulebook altogether.
The Impact of International Law Firms
The third and perhaps most controversial expression of this friction is the debate around the impact of international law firms in the Nigerian legal profession. Although this issue did not start with the Millennial, the Millennial’s Manifesto has significantly contributed to the debate, spurred by the increasing number of returnees who are back to Nigeria after education and experience abroad.
The impact of international law firms can be seen in two areas, which have been equally thorny to some commercial practices in Nigeria. Firstly, there is the emigration of talent from Nigeria to these firms in the form of direct recruitment or recruitment at the end of postgraduate studies. Secondly, there is the immigration of the firms themselves into the Nigerian legal space, and whilst this is still a deeply divided issue in some quarters, a sense of inevitability seems to pervade the market, strengthened by the alliance between Olajide Oyewole LLP and DLA Piper LLP. For so long as the twin-ills persist, the debate around foreign law firms will remain topical. From her time studying with them in Ivy League schools and Oxbridge colleges, the Millennial recognizes that lawyers in these firms are not demonstrably more intelligent, competent or experienced than she is. On what basis should they have clearer career progression and earn multiple times her remuneration where they both hold the same certificates?
The Role of Regulation
What are the consequences of this friction to the profession, and what ought to be the role of principled regulation to address these challenges? A central theme running through the expression of the friction as discussed above is the risk of brain drain in the profession. This affects both members of the profession and potential aspirants to it. In relation to members, whether the drain comes in the form of emigration of talent into international law firms, into business, or into less traditional areas of law practice, the implications are the same: the reduction of talent in the mainstream legal industry. As regards aspirants, at a time when creatives work shorter hours and live more comfortable lives; where arts, music and sports have shown the propensity to be far more financially and socially rewarding; where the financial situation of some lawyers is borne on social media in spectacularly sordid detail; and where there are ever louder cries for transparency and meritocracy in the profession, there is a risk that Millennials (and indeed young people generally) choosing a career today may view the Nigerian legal profession with circumspection.
Effective regulation must therefore be calibrated to reflect the profession as, at the very least, inclusive and meritocratic: inclusive in the sense that it caters for the wide-ranging interests and passions of its members, and meritocratic in the sense that it clearly shows that all practitioners can rise to the pinnacle of their practice through hard-work, ambition and determination. Consequently, trivial rules i.e. rules that are routinely breached (such as the rule against engaging in business) and rules with no social value (such as the dressing requirement) must be discarded, whilst a principled approach must be adopted to value-adding areas of regulation. In this universe, foreign law firms should be welcomed into the legal industry. Market forces will undoubtedly exert effective discipline and innovation on firms. On a positive note, this can lead Nigerian law firms to be more innovative in collaborating with, and perhaps establishing offices in neighbouring countries to support local clients with Pan-African or sub-regional interests, and at a macro-level, regulation can ensure a level-playing field, integrity and professionalism. This should lead to a profession able to cater to the wide interests of its members; firms able to compete and innovate to protect and win market share rather than relying on paternalistic regulation to prop up unsustainable business models; and members able to carve niches for themselves and rise within these niches as quickly as their ability permits them.
In the end, unlike the Communist Manifesto, the Millennial’s Manifesto is not a battle cry for disruptive change; it is a call to inclusive growth – which is the least we should expect of a ‘Brave New Bar’ or of the people angling to take it over.
Written by Reginald Aziza, Lawyer | Doctoral Student (Researching into Securities Law) University of Oxford | MCL Graduate, University of Cambridge