“Life choices for a would – be legal Practitioner, keeping an open mind”

By Richard Oma Ahonaruogho SAN


In preparing this lecture, I had recourse to the paper -: The Future of the Legal Profession in Nigeria”, presented by my dear learned friend and brother, Dr Akpo Mudiaga Odje as a Panellist at the 2015 Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Conference held on 25th August, 2012, in Abuja. I find his submissions very useful and I will make the full text available to the Dean of Law for your reading. I am certain that you will find it useful in your life’s journey in the legal profession. I have also relied on the researches/works and write-ups made available to me by some great legal minds, notably Abubakar D. Sani Esq, Akin Adesomoju Esq, Emmanuel Akpeme Esq and Mavis Abada Esq, who was the first student from the Faculty of Law, University of Benin (Uniben) to bag a First Class Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree and who repeated this feat at the Nigerian Law School! It is my hope and prayer that those of you who bagged First Class degrees will be able to repeat same at the Nigerian Law School and even those with other Classes of degrees should not fight shy of a First-Class degrees at the Nigerian Law School. It is possible, set your mind at it and work assiduously, and before you know it, the results will be all over the world.

You now possess a Bachelor of Laws degree and today you are Law Graduates but not Legal Practitioners. During your studies in the university more attention is given to the substantive content of the law as its major priority and focus, whilst leaving the procedural and professional aspects of the law to be taught at the Nigerian Law School. Consequently, the process that catapults the legal education in Nigeria is the admission to study law in an approved University, whilst the process ends with a Call to the Bar by the Body of Benchers, having successfully completed the mandatory 12 months program.
This paper is directed to encourage you not to be just Law Graduates which you have justly earned with your graduation from this university, but to become Legal Practitioners and leading Legal Practitioners at that!

In April 1959, the Federal Government of Nigeria set up the Unsworth Committee to remedy the deficiencies noticed in the English Bar system. Membership of the Committee included the Legal Secretary of the Southern Cameroons, Attorneys-General of the Regions, Solicitor General of the Federal who was the Chairman.
The terms of reference of the Committee included to consider and make recommendations for the future of the legal profession in Nigeria with particular regard to legal education and admission to practice; the right of audience before the courts. It was further mandated for as material for our purpose to wit:
i. That Nigeria should establish its own system of legal education;
ii. A Faculty of Law should be established first at the University College Ibadan, and subsequently at any other Universities to be established in future in Nigeria;
iii. A Law School to be known as the Nigerian Law School should be established in Lagos to provide vocational training of legal practitioners in the work of a Barrister and Solicitor;
iv. The qualification for admission to legal practice in Nigeria should be a degree in law of any University whose course for a degree is organized by the Council of Legal Education and the vocational course prescribed by the Council.
v. Any person graduating in law from a university which has not accepted the syllabus recommended by the Council of Legal Education should be required to take such further examination as the Council may prescribed;
vi. A Council of Legal Education should be established.
The Federal Government accepted most of the recommendations of the Committee which culminated in the promulgation of the Legal Education Act and the Legal Practitioners Act in 1962.
In pursuance of these statutes, the Nigerian Law School was established in late 1962 by the Council of Legal Education, to provide vocational training to aspirants to the legal profession in Nigeria. A person can no longer become a legal practitioner in Nigeria unless he first acquires a law degree from required university in Nigeria or oversea before attending the Nigerian Law School. Graduates from England who were already admitted to an English Bar were eligible to undertake the three months course while law graduates who were yet to be called to an English Bar were allowed to undergo a one-year course at the Law School. A law graduate from any foreign university has to attend a mandatory three months Bar Part Two course of the Nigerian Law School.
The first full one-year vocational training of students at the Nigerian Law School took off in October 1963 at Igbosere, Lagos, some five months after the three months maiden course which ran from January to March, 1963.
The Council of Legal Education which is the proprietor of the Nigerian Law School was set up by the Legal Education Act of 1962.

Dr Ahonaruogho iin discussion with VC, IUO, Prof Professor Lawrence Ezemonye

Indeed, it is clear from our legal history and literature that 1962 heralded the genesis of the legal labyrinth called the Nigerian Law School, whose responsibility is to professionally prepare and train lawyers under the guidance and supervision of the Council of Legal Education. Lawyers are, by definition, part of the elite. Their calling and education automatically confer a status on them which is, arguably, higher than that of other educated and, even, professional classes. As we like to say (perhaps vain-gloriously!) “whilst others are merely educated, we are learned”! This unique position is not altogether unearned, as, even the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended) (hereinafter referred to as “the Constitution”) – in Sections 150 and 195 – categorically provides that there shall be an Attorney-General of the Federation and of the States who shall be the Chief Law Officer and Minister and Commissioner in the Government of the Federation and of the State, respectively. There is no comparable provision in respect of other professions, such as medicine or engineering. Beyond this official recognition, however, even lawyers in private and corporate practice command a certain kind of respect from the non-legal population which can only be described as adulation – if not outright reverence.

The foregoing is so established that members of the public routinely refer to and address us as “Barrister” instead of by our given names. We are truly lucky. With recognition, however, comes responsibility. In this regard, to the extent that Nigeria is a constitutional democracy – and, that the Constitution is the cornerstone of the rule of law – it goes without saying that the lawyer, on being enrolled, is honour-bound (in fact, sworn) to protect and defend the Constitution. This sacred oath is so unique to us that, any perceived failure in this regard is considered professional misconduct under Rule 55 of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2007, which can attract the ultimate sanction of disbarment from practice. It goes without saying that, as you stand poised on the edge or cusp of the best profession in the world, this is the best time to be aware of the responsibilities, the expectations, and the promise which it offers. The latter is, of course, the subject of this piece, but it would be a mistake to de-emphasise the former, as both of them are really opposite sides of the same coin.

John C. Maxwell, a leadership expert once said, “Life is a matter of choices and every choice you make makes you”. This is no different from a would-be Legal Practitioner.

The first question as a Law Student and now as a Law Graduate, is “what can I do with a law degree”. I can assure you that “you can do every and anything with a law degree!”. Every law student has probably heard this mythical phrase – or at least a variant of it, promising unlimited options of career prospects upon completion of a law degree or being called to the bar. While the reality, as many law professionals would attest, is not quite as unlimited, it is also far from bleak.

As you are graduating and looking to go to law school, it is expected that you will try to start making an informed decision about your post-law-school options (if you have not already started) by getting an idea of the career prospects open to you. So, to attempt to give an exposition on the topic, it is important to first highlight some key skills and qualities that a law degree should have helped you to develop which will continue to grow and be useful in your career phase in terms of life choices and how much of a good choice a career in law represents.
Skills like critical thinking, research and analysis, strong understanding and use of language, clear and concise writing and speaking, attention to detail, perseverance, and dedication, are some of the qualities and skills you are expected to have, of which skills and qualities have helped other persons with legal backgrounds to iconic status in their various endeavours in the world. It is such skills that helped raise icons like Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States, Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving British Prime Minister of the 20th century, and Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian revolutionary and teacher, to legendary status.

As far as life choices go, the legal profession is known to not only promise a certain measure of financial success or stability but also societal respect and prestige. While you may not have immediate financial freedom (please do not be alarmed!); as you progress and gain further experience, you would be faced with more choices, which will bring about financial stability. Your income will increase with more experience in the legal practice and when taking an inventory of your career life, you will discover how much you have grown financially, just by being a Legal Practitioner or more commonly, a Lawyer.

That said, let us now take a deep dive into the typical careers that law graduates can enter, along with a look into additional law-related roles and alternative legal careers to explore.

1. Law Firm
The first point of call for most lawyers is a legal practice with a law firm. Active legal practice in a law firm is always a good career foundation, from which you can venture into another aspect.
Lawyers work in all kinds of law firms – large, medium to small partnerships, specialist or multi-disciplinary firms, etc. Some work as solo practitioners, others in small or boutique law firms. Many work in firms that have several hundred lawyers in cities around the world. Lawyers usually join firms as associates and work towards becoming senior associates/managing associates, and then partners depending on the organisational structure.

Lawyers in law firm practice may focus on, and become specialists in, so many areas of law – both established and emerging areas of law. These include dispute resolution (litigation and alternative dispute resolution (ADR)), intellectual property, shipping, aviation and international trade, energy, and natural resources law, and corporate/commercial practice (within this include, banking and finance, capital markets and securities, private equity and mergers & acquisitions (M&A), labour and employment, company secretarial), etc. There are also emerging areas like financial technology (fintech), data privacy and data protection, sports law, space law, media law, etc.

2. In-House Counsel
Corporations large and small provide job opportunities for lawyers. Every corporate or business organization engages in day-to-day operations that involve legal complexities.
Usually, the largest number of “in-house” lawyers can be found at the corporate headquarters of commercial banks, large companies indigenous, and multinational organizations. In-house corporate counsel advises the company on legal activities related to the company’s business, whether it is for the design of a contract, regulatory compliance, transaction, or for advice on the legal implications of any activity.
Large companies often have correspondingly large legal departments and several in-house lawyers specialize in specific issues these companies employ quite an admirable percentage of practicing lawyers across the globe.

3. Government Service
Most federal and state government agencies have legal counsel. These agencies include the Federal and State Ministries of Justice, the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Security Exchange Commission, the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the Nigerian National Petroleum Company Limited (NNPC), and any other government agency. Lawyers also serve in all branches of the military.
In addition to the aforementioned, we have lawyers being appointed as Arbitrators, Mediators, Magistrates, Judges, Justices, Panellists, etc.
4. Public Interest and Human Rights Law
Many public interest lawyers work for legal-aid societies, which are private, non-profit agencies designed to serve economically disadvantaged people. In addition to working as in-house counsel advising on the operational activities of the non-profits, some of these lawyers represent clients in human rights enforcement proceedings.
There are also opportunities at development finance institutions (like World Bank, Africa Development Bank, etc).

ALTERNATIVE CAREERS – Non-Law Careers with a Law Degree
You may find yourself saying, “I am only studying law but I don’t want to practice law.” That is also fine and there is no need to panic. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of law and the multiple transferable skills gained during a law degree, students can build up a high level of employability, attracting employers from a variety of industries and sectors. Again, the competencies you developed during your law degree (and legal work experience) are relevant in many alternative careers Analytical and research skills, for example, are needed by not just lawyers but by other professions. Likewise, good communication and problem-solving skills are directly transferable to many careers including management, and consultancy work. There are also roles where legal knowledge as opposed to skills, is particularly useful – such as human resources or tax advisory work. As a result, law graduates adapt very well to career transitions.

1. Law Firm Administration
Sizeable law firms often have a variety of non-practice-related employment. Legally trained people work in areas of business development, legal recruitment, law firm finances, human resources, or managing office workflow. Graduates interested in these law firm positions usually have (but are not mandatory) a business, accounting, or human resources background.

2. Legal Publishing and Journalism
Most legal practitioners and law students use law reports, Law Pavilion, Lexis Nexis, Westlaw, Thomson Reuters Practical Law, International Comparative Law Guide, etc. as research tools in their practice and during law school. Several print and electronic media concentrate primarily on legal news. For those students with backgrounds in publishing or journalism, jobs with legal publishers as well as print or electronic media also provide law-related employment.

3. Higher Education Administration/Academia
Law school graduates often work in law schools as well as colleges and universities. As you are well aware, lawyers teach in law schools, colleges, and at other educational levels. While some people go on to jobs in faculty positions, many other law school graduates work in non-academic positions of colleges as Dean, Director of Admissions, Alumni Affairs, and Development, and Career Services to name a few.

4. The Others
There is a huge opportunity in the aspect I grouped as others – with a law degree, “you can be anything” (well maybe not doctor, engineer, pharmacist unless you have the degree). Regardless, you can take professional courses to become an accountant for instance. You can be a banker, an investment banker, an artist, a blogger, or an entrepreneur of any kind. The list and opportunities are endless – the only thing required of you is to be consistent, persevere, be hard-working, and have some faith.

Specialization: Are Lawyers Spoilt for Choice?
A lawyer’s practicing certificate opens him or her to a vast vista of opportunities for plying his “trade”. Admittedly, such possibilities are greater in more advanced jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA), but their Nigerian counterparts are not much far behind, and it is really up to the individual practitioner to take his pick and go for it or risk being a Jack-of-all-trades and a Master of none. So, what options are available to a budding or aspiring counsel? Well, this depends on the goal of each of you. If you’ve ever wondered what you can do with a law degree or a barrister’s practicing license, it obviously depends on your area of interest and career goals. You have to consider what type of work that you would enjoy doing daily. Equally important is a realistic appreciation of your strengths. This is because, while some lawyers possess strong interpersonal skills, others are more endowed with analytical abilities. In this regard, it is important to stress that not all lawyers go to court.

Litigation is notoriously costly in terms of time and money, so the emphasis is increasingly shifting to alternative dispute resolution mechanisms like arbitration and conciliation. With that in mind, here is a brief run-down of some of the areas of legal practice which you might wish to consider, viz:

(i) Business/Corporate Law:
This area of specialization is for lawyers with a commercial bent who have a flair for business. They handle legal matters for business and ensure that all company transactions comply with Local, State and Federal laws. They are, typically, concerned with mergers and acquisitions, formation or dissolution of businesses, patents, intellectual property and corporate liability issues. A business lawyer’s daily routine might involve conducting legal research, writing and perusing legal documents and negotiating contracts. Business lawyers typically work in either corporate law firms or as in-house counsel for a single company.

(ii) Criminal Defence Attorney:
This type of lawyer defends people accused of different types of crimes in order to ensure that their liberties and basic rights are upheld in and beyond courts. Such lawyers may be either a public defender or (more commonly) a private counsel. The focus of their work is to leverage the law to the best advantage of their client – the accused or defendant.

(iii) Constitutional Lawyers:
Are concerned with the interpretation and application of the Constitution in order to ensure a balance between the interests of Government Institutions and those of individuals. Their roles include challenging the constitutionality of laws, and representing people in civil liberty cases.

(iv) Intellectual Property Lawyers protect and enforce the rights and
creations of inventors, authors, artists and businesses. IP law covers copyrights, trademarks, patents, and securing trade secrets for tangible products such as inventions and intangible ones such as brand-names, slogans or symbols. The scope of these counsel’s work is three-fold: to counsel clients on the optimum legal means of protecting their intellectual property; to register trademarks, copyright or patents of their client’s intellectual property and, finally to secure their client’s intellectual property against infringement.

(v) Personal Injury (tortious liability) lawyers. These counsel
represent clients who sustain personal injuries arising from vehicle crashes or accidents, medical malpractice, product liability or workplace accidents. The focus of these lawyers is to ensure that whoever is responsible for causing injury, damage or loss to their client is held to account and pays appropriate compensation or restitution.

(vi) Tax Lawyers. These types of lawyers specialize in the nitty-gritty
of tax legislations. They can work in virtually every setting, including companies, law firms, accounting firms, non-profit organizations and government departments. The scope of their work includes tax planning, interpreting tax law (and its effects on their clients), as well as related research. This last aspect is particularly important, owing to the increasing complexity and volume of tax laws and the frequency with which they charge.

(vii) Employment/Labour Lawyers. These counsel handle issues in the
workplace including wages, benefits and pensions, staff-management relations, collective bargaining, workplace discrimination and harassment. In the other words, they are broadly concerned with the relationship between employers and employees.

(viii) Government Lawyers. These are counsel under the office of the
Attorneys-General of the Federation, and the States constitutionally recognized under Sections 150 and 195 of the 1999 Constitution as alluded to at beginning of this piece. They advise the government on proposed and existing legislations and policies. They also perform the more obvious task of representing the Government in both civil and criminal cases – in the latter instance, as prosecutors in criminal trials.

(ix) Entertainment Lawyers. This is an evolving off-shoot of intellectual
property law, particularly in Nigeria. Lawyers in this field typically represent musical artists, and performers, actors, athletes and other media-related clients and brands. Their work is focused on protecting the intellectual property of their clients, such as music, lyrics and melody and a comedian’s routine. They also negotiate contracts on their client’s behalf, secure talent releases and act as liaison between agents or venues.

(x) Estate Planning/Family Lawyer. This counsel specializes in wills
probate, trust and family property rights. Their advice ensures that client’s assets, either covered by a will/trust or not, are handled correctly while also addressing related tax and legal issues. They negotiate the often-delicate task of advising their clients on how to provide for various family members. Perhaps a more visible part of their work is a divorce attorney who handles division of marital assets, child custody and alimony. Beyond these, however, they are involved in virtually all family-related issues such as adoption, guardianship, paternity, juvenile delinquency and child welfare. They are also involved in negotiations and drafting contracts, prenuptial agreements, counselling clients on legal options or resolving family disputes.

(xi) Law Teaching. These are the egg-heads, who engage in academic research and passing on legal knowledge in Universities, Law Schools and the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. They are the torch-bearers of legal education, ensuring that it is passed from generation to generation. For those of you with academic bent, this might be your calling.

This list is by no means exhaustive as there are other fields, such as environmental law, contract law, etc. However, within those identified above, there are yet niche areas which provide additional opportunities for specialization. For instance, within the field of personal injury law, there are specific sub-niches like medical & malpractice and claims against pharmaceutical companies.

The very nature of a lawyer’s calling – requiring, as it does, the interpretation, application and giving counsel on the legal status and implications of the affairs of men – brings us permanently into contact with opportunities to either make or mar our roles (not to mention reputations) as society’s Sentinels and the Praetorian Guards of its values. Unfortunately, given that bad news gets all the publicity (good news is hardly news, as salacious stories sell far more!), the fact that the vast majority of Nigerian lawyers do their work within the straight and narrow hardly gets reported. Instead, it is what I may call the tiny minority of us who run afoul of the law that make all the headlines: “2 male lawyers engage in fisticuffs in open court”, “Two female Lawyers (one of them pregnant) brawl over client in court premises”, “Lawyer charged with embezzling client’s funds”, “Lawyer charged with forging court order”, “Ex-AGF barred from holding public office for life”, etc.

Lawyers are confronted with a unique challenge of both adding positive value to the society by using their daily professional exertions as instruments of so-called social engineering, and passively, by being seen to be above-board in all their interactions and engagements, either professional or otherwise. In other words, they are expected to be both Saints and Warriors. Whether this is feasible or, even humanly possible, is moot. Suffice it to say, that the verdict for failure (particularly in respect of the former) has always been harsh. Whether this has proved to be enough to deter deviant (or unprofessional) behavior is an open question. The same, arguably, is the case with the latter (sentinels and guardians of our common values). To what extent will you keep faith with that high ideal? Will you live up to expectations? It is up to you. Just ensure that whatever choices you make for actualizing your career as a Legal Practitioner, you are guided by the right values, topmost of which is our professional ethics. You breach them at your peril.

Overall, while the law is reputed to be one of the toughest professions to excel in/at, a lot of opportunities are offered to anyone who decides to tow this path as they can develop the necessary skills needed to excel in other fields. You will be able to have an in-depth understanding of almost any area of interest. If you want to develop your creative thinking and problem-solving skills and other in-demand qualities to enable you to cross-carpet across professions, then, studying law would be one of the best decisions you can take. Essentially, whether you would be practicing as a lawyer in active legal practice or would be venturing into other spheres of employment, you will have, by your legal training, developed the necessary skills for success in any endeavour.

However, while, as you can see, there are many different paths for you to take once you have graduated from law school, it is important to take a moment and strategically decide what you would like to do with your future, and the trust of your family and in some instance, your community. However, in making that decision, you should endeavour to choose the option that is most interesting to you as it will ensure that you do what you love, a key component in excelling. As Donald McPherson recommends: “think of your legal qualification as the start of your learning, rather than the end of it – always grab opportunities to learn new skills and broaden your experience.”
Let me remind you that it is also fine to make mistakes, however, it is not fine to stay back in that mistake – we can always start all over!
I wish you all the very best in the legal profession and as the saying goes, the sky is not just the limit but the starting point. Thank you all and God bless.
Thank you for your time and attention.

Prince (Dr) Ahonaruogho SAN delivered this Valedictory lecture at Igbinedion University, Okada to the set of 2022, Oba Erediauwa College of Law on July 16, 2022.

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