Lawyers in Nigeria are not as employable as medical doctors. Go to Lewis street in Obalende and observe them crowding newspaper stands or bookstores arguing (as always) about one matter or the other.
There’s a category of people who read this blog and for some weird reason believe it is anathema to comment publicly – they prefer to attack me via facebook message or other means and one of this turns out to be a doctor who called me on phone yesterday to protest about what I perceive about their professional arrogance. Those who know me know I rarely take kindly to such calls except the person is an eminent member of any emotional group I belong to or speaks their mind jocularly. Well, this doctor dude (as personally arrogant as British royalty)was the wrong poster boy for doctor’s yesterday and I reminded him of several occasions where his arrogance had been pointed out – once by a roadside mechanic on Bode Thomas. His saving grace yesterday was that he had an argument: he claimed that every profession has a form of arrogance, especially lawyers.
From my first year in the university when I had thought I would be admitted to study law only to be sent to the English Department because I hadn’t passed Mathematics in WAEC (I later did), I have always had little respect for law students. We took a number of courses together in the first and second years – mostly Use of English courses, borrowed political sciences and others like that and you could almost always distinguish them: immaculate in their black and white daily uniforms, they seemed more like a school choir, zebra crossing or a waddle of penguins. And they could argue – one girl argued so much with my department lecturer that the man had to be begged before he released the result for their entire level – none of them got better than a C grade in that course.
“…A waddle of penguins: spot the difference.”
Observing lawyers in practice is however a far cry from the arrogance of those school days. After years of trawling Igbosere and Ebute-Metta courts, I think they finally understand what life is about. Lawyers in Nigeria are not as employable as medical doctors. Go to Lewis street in Obalende and observe them crowding newspaper stands or bookstores arguing (as always) about one matter or the other. Their collars are usually frayed with off-white milky colours, the black has seen better days and the shoes are sometimes worse. The lucky ones are those who have a bloodline of the law to fall back on – those whose fathers were lawyers and can simply inherit a chamber, a trunkload of court cases and massive connections. I have a friend like that – sharp guy, son of an eminent lawyer – he has opened his own law office, got two associates and has made a number of appearances at the Supreme Court in a matter his aging father was unable to appear for. But he is an exception to the norm, and he comes with a bit of legal arrogance.
I know many other lawyers whose commitment to the law is unyielding but they are very humble because most lawyers you see have an eye for politics. The law has always been a good breeding ground for politicians and an arrogant politician is a foolish experiment so many lawyers are humble, until you start discussing issues with them. They eagerly quote law after law, citing this and that reason why you are wrong until you point out to the bloody penguin that he isn’t a judge, merely a lawyer and he doesn’t have a monopoly of right opinions which no one has or why else can two lawyers with the same training look at the same matter and take opposite stands on it? Such as this case of Hamza Al-Mustapha for instance.
Lawyers are forced to be humble even if they don’t plan to go into politics – there is no profession (to my mind) that has a more rigid hierarchical system than the law – bench or bar. Judges are deemed superior if only by the biological error of alphabetical order their name is entered before another judge. Lawyers in the same chambers must give respect to senior lawyers who got into the firm before them. You see those worn out wigs and robes that old lawyers never replace? It’s a subtle reminder to junior lawyers: “we’ve been in this profession even before the war”. And what in God’s name is this SAN business all about if not hierarchy and favouritism just to get cases heard before others? I once heard how the late eminent FRA Williams refused to stand before a judge who had been his junior colleague at a point. He bluntly declared “I am giving myself a septuagenarian’s indulgence” – the courts laughed, his lordship demurred, FRA addressed the bench while sitting and you know who won the case.
It’s the humble lawyers that get things done for me. That my arrogant legal friend was once told by a policeman that he would be shot if he didn’t stop shouting to which my stupefied friend responded: “you go shoot me?”, entered his Baby Boy and kept quiet till he crossed Berger into Lagos. My other lawyer is an activist, a great one who still travels all over Nigeria attending NBA conferences and young lawyers meetings here and there.
For me, the difference between a great doctor and a bad one can usually be a matter of arrogance: a doctor who knows what he’s doing would invite you to question his procedure, a bad one would be threatened and eventually fumble. When it comes to the law (as it is in Nigeria), the best lawyer to have is one who can get things done. Most legal minds do not understand business. All they see is legal hurdles, pending litigation and stuff that can make an entrepreneur go crazy. I like lawyers who understand business. An entrepreneur thinks in terms of how to make things happen, a lawyer (most of them) think in terms of how to prevent the other party from swindling you. Lawyers don’t get that if I didn’t trust this person, I won’t be dealing with them and the only reason I’m involving a lawyer is so that the other party knows that I’m not alone.
It’s important for every business person to have a lawyer but more important to have a lawyer who understands business and negotiations; a lawyer who sees the absence of important documents not as an impediment to the deal but as a bargaining chip for his team to pay less. A lawyer who isn’t afraid of litigation but knows that there are a millions ways to settle issues before resorting to the law courts. Such a lawyer is an avid reader of this column, his birthday was about two weeks ago and he is sure to call me and threaten me for some reason as soon as he reads this piece. (That’s why I have the other arrogant lawyer by my side).
If I die in the middle of two lawyers, I will like my Lord and Saviour go to heaven between two thieves – according to the old joke about lawyers.