The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) will be holding elections for new national office-bearers on Friday July 24 and Saturday, 25. Africa Legal has invited the three candidates standing for president to complete a Q&A.
Here Olumide Akpata, a partner in the Corporate and Commercial Practice Group at Templars Law Firm in Lagos, and vice-chair (West-Africa) of the International Bar Association’s Africa Regional Forum, answers our questions.
If you were elected president of the NBA, what would your top three priorities be once you took office?
There are so many things that one needs to do in office and I consider all of them to be very important. But, if I must prioritise, I think that the three major ones are:
Members’ welfare, including capacity-building, ensuring an improved income system for lawyers and protecting the business of lawyers;
Institutional reforms to ensure that the NBA is run as a better structured organisation that is inclusive and fit-for-purpose for lawyers in all sectors and niches and where processes are seamless, interface with members pleasant and continuity of policies is possible; and
Active engagement with the Judiciary and other relevant authorities to deliver a justice sector that is not only different, but that meets the expectation of 21st century judicial services users.
What is the biggest challenge facing the legal profession in Nigeria today?
The loss of dignity and prestige in the profession. This challenge is probably exacerbated by a number of factors including the incessant harassment of lawyers by security agencies in the course of performing their lawful duties; the low income earning capacity of lawyers despite the time and resources spent in training to become a lawyer; and the loss of confidence in the justice system by society especially on account of inefficiencies in the justice delivery sector.
What is your view on political involvement in the justice system?
It is one of the most worrisome developments in the justice system, to be honest. The judiciary and its processes should be insulated completely from political manoeuvres. How, for example, could a Chief Justice of Nigeria be removed via an ex parte order issued by an inferior tribunal? However weighty the allegations against him were, the process was unquestionably political and illegitimate. I would also feel the same way if a democratically-elected President were to be removed via a coup d’etat, regardless of how grave any allegations of corruption and abuse of office against such a President might be.
Then, there is the equally irritating abuse of court processes to score political points, with injunctions and counter-injunctions tumbling over each other at such rapidity that you wonder sometimes whether political parties also have their judicial wings. These are unequivocally condemnable.
Yet, the solution lies largely with the judiciary itself (with support, of course, from the Bar), just as the solution to the diminishing prestige of the legal profession in the eyes of society also lies largely in the hands of the Nigerian Bar Association. If the judiciary stands firmly against any attempt to subvert its processes for political gains and refrains from associations, transactions and decisions that could raise objectively plausible doubts about its neutrality, independence and impartiality, political actors will certainly take the cue and adjust accordingly.
What is your view on the overall quality of legal education in Nigeria?
The law teachers are trying their best within the limits of what they have but I think that the focus and existing curricular of legal education is not adequate for the quality of modern lawyers that we need.
In many universities, not much has changed in terms of course offerings, course content and mode of delivery from close to 30 years ago when I graduated. A lot has happened in the economic development of this country over that period – from telecoms to power; media and entertainment to technology. But you can count on your fingers the number of institutions that offer credible courses relating to the business of these and other sectors that are extremely important to Nigeria’s economic progress. So, our legal education is not as dynamic as it should be.
The Council of Legal Education and the Nigerian Universities Commission are, of course, the relevant statutory institutions that superintend legal education and university education respectively. But I believe that the Bar could at least pitch to these bodies the imperative of revising the legal education curricular extensively, to introduce courses that are relevant to our emerging economy and emphasise clinical and practical teaching methods at the undergraduate level.
How would you build relationships with the legal profession in other parts of Africa?
By collaborating effectively with the Bar Associations and Law Societies in other countries. We have common interests and concerns and it will be in our enlightened self-interest to work together. Indeed, the recent signing of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area Treaty by member-states of the African Union only serves to throw this issue into stark relief. We must work closely with our colleagues on the continent.
I must place on record the fact that a former President of the NBA, Augustine Alegeh, SAN, being very mindful of this fact, convened the first ever African Bar Leaders Conference which held in Lagos in 2016 and was attended by the Presidents and top officials of Bar Associations and Law Societies from across the continent. I was very involved in the planning of that event, as well as in the deliberations that took place there at, and I will definitely like to build on the foundations that were laid then with a view to fostering sustainable and mutually beneficial collaboration within the profession in Africa.
Africa Legal has run several articles and interviews with junior lawyers where a common theme was poor pay and exploitation of their time. If you were made president of the NBA, what steps would you take to ensure junior lawyers were paid appropriately?
This is an extremely important question — one that I ask myself every day. Everyone appreciates the fact that the NBA has no power to impose minimum remuneration on our members who are employers. But the NBA must find a way nonetheless to ensure that lawyers are paid decently.
So, if I were to serve the NBA as its President, I know that my goals would broadly be to:
- generally, improve the opportunity for lawyers to make more income, so that those who genuinely desire to pay their employees better but are constrained by their own limited income can have a fighting chance to achieve that desire; and
- leverage on the NBA’s position as an umbrella body of lawyers in Nigeria and a potent pressure group to create advantages for employers who pay well and disadvantages for those who can, but, do not.
How will I achieve the above? Firstly, I hope to set up an NBA Remuneration Committee that will carry out an empirical study of the cost of living (with focus on feeding, transportation, and housing) in various parts of the country in order to propose a ‘living wage’ for lawyers in each part of the country and such identified living wage shall be recommended to members by the NBA. My mandate to the committee shall include considering the possibility of recommending alternative business models that would suggest working arrangements that could enhance income, eg commission-based employment, part time work arrangements, partnerships and other types of contractual working arrangements that take account of the amount actually earned by the employee lawyer. The committee will also be charged with producing a formal policy document that we can call the NBA Recommended Minimum Standards and Conditions of Contracts for Employers of Legal Practitioners (The NBA Minimum Standards Guidelines).
The NBA Minimum Standards Guidelines, which would be subject to periodic updates to accommodate changing economic climate and employees’ rights, will identify and strongly recommend certain minimum terms of employment of lawyers to all NBA members who employ lawyers. Such terms will cover things like remuneration (ie recommended living wage), work-life balance, workplace harassment (including sexual harassment), etc.
Overall, we will institutionalise the recommendations of the NBA as a standard for our members to adopt and ensure that compliance with these standards would be one of the key indices that a member would need to satisfy to be entitled to certain privileges bestowed or conferred by the NBA on its members.
While these measures are ongoing, we will continue to work on other initiatives that will in the mid to long-term increase the earning capacity of lawyers and law firms to enable them to provide better remuneration packages for their employees in line with the recommended living wage or even better. Such initiatives include:
(a)implementing policies around standardisation of the lawyers’ fees and charges ensure that members of the association charge fair and reasonable fees for their services;
(b)modifying and enforcing extant rules on scale of charges so as to reduce undercutting among lawyers and make undercutting unattractive;
(c)protecting our legal market from external interference and preserving the work of lawyers from other professionals and service providers so as to increase the pool of work available to lawyers;
(d)deepening our market for legal services by expanding the practice areas of lawyers so that lawyers do not necessarily compete for work in limited areas of practice;
(e)creating sufficient platforms for lawyers to continuously network and interact with potential clients to generate more businesses and instructions; and
(f)building capacity of lawyers in new and diverse areas of practice so as to broaden the career and employment options of lawyers by making them suitable to undertake other law jobs outside the traditional litigation and land matters.
Introducing, implementing and sustaining each of these measures will, over time, improve the earning capacity of lawyers and law firms and ultimately have a direct effect on the remuneration of lawyers.
Why did you enter the legal profession?
Because my dear dad, who is a medical doctor, after getting over his initial shock and disappointment at the fact that I had no intention of following in his career footsteps, advised me to study Law (seeing that I had a flair for art subjects) as against my proudly vaunted decision, at the time, to study Business Administration because I wanted to be a businessman!
What do you do to relax in your spare time?
I love to socialise...I cherish the company of my friends and family. I attend lots of social events: parties, weddings, concerts, comedy shows...I love to have a good laugh! I also travel a lot, to see new places, meet new people and learn new things. I also read the biographies of great personages in the hope that I might pick up a nugget or two that would serve me well as I make my own journey through life.
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