The Nigerian Law School churns out, on average, 4000 lawyers a year. Even for a country without rising unemployment (unlike Nigeria which is projected to reach an unemployment high of 33.5% by 2020) this is a very large number.
Upon completion of an undergraduate law degree, and the compulsory one year training at the Nigerian Law School, many young lawyers struggle to find gainful employment. The reality is that the prospects for a young lawyer starting off in legal practice in Nigeria are not very promising.
After the call to the bar, new lawyers soon discover that the profession offers very little reward, especially in the formative years of practice, save for a few privileged persons fortunate enough to find a place in a “top firm”.
These “top firms” are what are often referred to as “The Five”. Although the number of medium to large firms changes from time to time, The Five are, to a large degree, consistently ranked as top-tier firms locally and internationally.
The profession is fraught with many challenges. These include poor remuneration; little value being placed on legal services in the Nigerian corporate sector; a justice delivery system that does not reflect the realities of the 21st century; the perception that young lawyers are unemployable (no thanks to the outdated curricula and standard of university education and the limited opportunities available for lawyers to thrive).
What this effectively means is that the average Nigerian lawyer has to work extra hard and go the extra mile to succeed and be recognised.
Eventually many lawyers either pivot to other professions (such as banking, consulting or even photography) or emigrate in search of better opportunities. The current socio-economic uncertainties and instabilities in Nigeria suggest that this trend will continue.
A young lawyer that intends to stand out soon realizes a “textbook approach” to law practice may no longer be sufficient. The methods that applied 5 to 10 years ago may no longer apply, hence a need to switch gears. In the 21st century, especially in Africa, it has become even more critical for lawyers to carve a niche for themselves to stay relevant.
I have learned that it is important to be strategic. Define your personal vision and take full responsibility for your own growth and development. To stay ahead in this time, young lawyers must take out time to invest in their greatest resource - themselves. This dedication to a relentless pursuit of personal growth is key. To achieve this, it is important to (i) obtain additional certification and knowledge (ii) engage in thought leadership and improve your visibility through writing and speaking, (iii) expand your network and make very positive use of social media and (iv) develop knowledge and expertise in emerging areas in law.
One of the many advantages of the internet age is that resources and information are freely available and lawyers can leverage this to build capacity, acquire additional skills and create opportunities for themselves.
Today, lawyers are no longer seen as just legal practitioners but are often trusted advisors to businesses. Law firms are focused on innovative ways to deliver better services, increase their client base and add value to their client’s businesses. This requires delving into emerging areas of law and recruiting talents that have developed competence in these areas and can add extra value. For example, less than 5 years ago, law firms in Nigeria were not focused on the technology, fintech, media and entertainment space but, in 2019, a good number are creating dedicated practice groups. This presents a unique opportunity for proactive young lawyers to acquire knowledge and the skill set required to thrive in these areas.
Although the challenges are daunting, with a strong and deliberate commitment to charting your own course and building capacity, young lawyers can rise above these challenges and set themselves apart.