“Practice is hell” Ikem (not real name) answered with a straight gaze. “You won’t believe I earn just N30, 000. 00 monthly”, he continued as sweat formed on his brow. Dabbing his brow with a white handkerchief, he announced “my uncle is helping me out with one civil service job sha and once that clicks, am off this hell called practice, you diehards can continue with it”.
“How is practice”, is the usual question amongst new wigs who were mates at the University or the Law School. Save for the lucky few who work in well paying firms, majority have tales of woes over poor pay and working conditions.
Ikem was my classmate in the Law School and had been so enthusiastic about practicing law that he bought his wig and gown before the release of the Bar Finals result.
“Can you believe that of all my siblings, am the only one who is still being supported by my parents despite the fact that I spent the longest period of time in school and my training was the most expensive?”
“I work from 8 am till whenever my Boss leaves the office which is usually at 9 pm on weekdays and from 1 pm to 6 pm on weekends. The cost of transporting myself to the office everyday takes half of my pay and we are just two lawyers besides my principal and his secretary who doubles as the receptionist. We have no litigation officers so we prepare, file and serve court processes and letters ourselves. At the end of every day, am so overworked and stressed out that all I do is to eat and sleep off after I get home and wake up early the next working day for another stressful day. I only have a little reprieve on weekends and during the period of court vacations.”
Ikem’s story is just one out of many for new wigs. Save for a few who get jobs in well paying firms or companies, many face the problem of poor or no remuneration and even exploitation by senior lawyers.
Generally, besides the fixed remuneration system, there are other models of paying wages in legal practice and they vary from firm to firm. Many firms adopt the model where the new wig is entitled to a certain percentage of whatever income the firm makes within a period. Good as this may sound, it rarely favours the new wig as he/she is rarely in the know of how much the firm makes and can’t dispute whatever paid as his/her entitlement. They end up being paid peanuts which is nowhere near the agreed percentage. Again many principals use this method to evade paying salaries during the vacation period when most litigation firms are not very busy.
There is also the appearance fee system of payment whereby lawyers are allowed to collect appearance fees for each case they appear in while their principals pocket the rest of the professional fees. For new wigs, the amount is usually N3, 000. A new wig’s ability to break even with this system will depend on the number of cases he can appear in. This has led to many new wigs opting for more court appearances at the expense of research or other office based tasks.
The poor remuneration of lawyers is doing the image of the profession a very big harm. The conversation I had with a female Engineer confirmed my fears in this regard. The engineer had asked me if it was true that many lawyers earn as little as N15, 000 monthly. What else could I have done but sigh and tell her it was the truth. To say she was shocked was an understatement. “There is no justification whatsoever to pay a professional that low. The bad economy is not even an excuse as all professionals feel the economic strangulation”, she told me. “I can’t imagine paying a qualified Engineer in my own firm that low or even any other Engineer doing that. We would cheapen and destroy the integrity of the Engineering profession if we do that. It may pay your seniors to keep the pay of their juniors low but then it will harm your profession in the long run”, she warned.
The issue of poor remuneration is always an issue during the NBA national elections with all the candidates promising address it by fixing a standard wage code for lawyers but very little had been done over the years to implement such policies. The NBA has failed to protect new wigs from exploitation and poor remuneration. In fact the usual mantra amongst NBA officials who incidentally are senior members of the bar is that the new wigs should be patient and focus more on learning the ropes instead of the poor pay.
The words of Chief Richard Akinjide SAN, a former Attorney-General of the Federation and past president of the NBA says it all;
“It is totally a misconception for a newly qualified person from the Law School to think that he holds a passport to immediate earnings and self support in private practice. All he holds at that stage is a certificate to learn how to practice law, the certificate is not yet a meal ticket”.
The question is how many new wigs can be patient enough to learn under the strangulating conditions which characterise their formative years in legal practice. In fact, I have seen many new wigs express regrets for choosing law as a profession. A friend of mine would always blame his woes on law movies and novels with plots revolving around prosperous lawyers and suspense filled court room acrobatics. Alas it is not the same in real life, albeit for the new wigs.
The poor pay and exploitation new wigs are faced with early in the professional life leaves a very sour taste in the mouth considering the number of years spent in their training and the financial cost involved too. Training a lawyer takes about five years in the university or more due to the ubiquitous strike actions in the university and a year at the Law School.
Many families borrow to pay the very exorbitant law school fees and so expect immediate returns on their investment via the new wig getting a good paying job and helping out with the family finances. However, in most cases, the reverse is the case as many families are called upon to support such new wig even after they have started working.
To escape poor pay and exploitation, many new wigs resort to starting their law firms without garnering the required experience. A lawyer once narrated how a new wig appearing before a Judge was guided through moving his application by the Judge. The Judge obviously frustrated by the new wig’s fumbles, had at a point asked the new wig who his principal was and the new wig replied “my Lord, I am my own principal”. Of course other lawyers in the courtroom knew the new wig was running from poor pay and exploitation.
The issue of inadequate remuneration is an albatross on the neck of the legal profession and has made legal practice especially litigation very unattractive for new wigs. Many new wigs prefer property or other commercial transactions which require very little training. Others are thrown into the demeaning world of ambulance chasing for dock briefs popularly called “charge and bail” practice.
The junior lawyers who constitute the majority at the bar should save themselves from the current situation by pushing for reforms. The NBA national election is a good forum for that. Candidates seeking elective positions in the NBA should not just promise to tackle the issue of poor wages but should be made to disclose how much they pay lawyers in their own firms and the working conditions too. Charity must begin at home.
The issue of remuneration and welfare of junior lawyers should also be used as criteria for the award of SANship. It should be a condition for the award of the rank that aspirants should be made to pay a decent amount as wage to their juniors in chambers before they could be elevated to the rank. The requirement should be that such candidate must have paid such an amount for a minimum number of years preceding the date of the application for the rank.
The burden lies on the junior lawyers to correct the anomalies in the profession which affects them more than their seniors. The new wigs and other junior lawyers need a pressure group within the bar to serve as a platform for reforms. The near success of the Movement for the Abolition of SANship in its goal to get rid of the rank of Senior Advocates in the bar is a testimony to what pressure groups can do. It is left for the new wigs and junior lawyers who bear the brunt of being paid peanuts, poor welfare and often times poor working conditions to unite like broom sticks to be able to sweep out their problems.