I remember the media influencing me subtly. It was a Public Hearing from the Oputa Panel (the Human Rights Violation Investigation Commission of Nigeria) televised live that year. Oaths were being sworn, lawyers in suits and politicians in native attires filled the seats. I also had seen some court scenes with Lawyers in black robes and creamy wigs. It would not appear as if they cared, but they would pick one paper after a book, asking questions, making references, sharing papers and making submissions. The panel sat looking in scrutiny and for the court scenes, the judge was there, head bent most of the time, sometimes listening and giving directions, other times, standing up to signify the end or pause of a session. This was the time when lawyers were gassed up with the appellation: ‘De-Law’, often with the promise to handle a case, upon finishing from the law school, against a former or present oppressor.

The after-session press interviews were most fascinating. The men at the back almost distracting the entire message, while the one with the microphone will give reports from the day with confidence and some vocabulary that my Primary 6 mind could not comprehend. But they were convincing enough to make me want to be a lawyer. For future sessions, on my side of the television, I would watch keenly, with a napkin on my head, as I mimicked the theatrics but never their eloquence or confidence. I sharpened those later, only to realise I preferred reading, reviewing and writing, following the steps of the proverbial potent pen with more power than the sword.

Today unlike in the 90s we have more lawyers who want to be solicitors and in-house corporate counsel than those who joined the noble profession to fight injustice from the oppression of a loved one. The exodus from litigation practice to corporate law and other novel areas of practice continues to increase as more lawyers are churned out from the Nigerian Law School. So, I thought to probe. Some say it is a necessary reaction of the times we are in; about 21 years since the military gave the judiciary its long-missed independence. But we know that the years after having only been a quasi-military set up with the President and other institutional powers wielding more power than the collective people. So maybe this is not a valid explanation for the exodus because institutional oppression has not stopped at all. There is thus, still a high demand for litigation against oppression.

A likely other reason may be that litigation practice, no matter how sophisticated it may be, is not the best product the legal industry can market to cure the infrastructure deficit and start-up mine that we have in Nigeria and Africa at large. These economic needs are best met with proper legal management for a functioning society. When mismanaged, these may be the crumbs that become the food for litigators to settle disputes in court. Interestingly the litigation lawyers, smart as they are, repackaged the dispute settlement as Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods. The pipeline to secure their relevant spot in the game. Simply put, a court outside the court with more privacy, relatively expensive and binding decisions.

My other friends have said that the needs of a young lawyer in this decade can, on a larger average, not be met by the yields from litigation practice. Corporate practice and the several novel areas have proven so lucrative that they deliver the bread and butter of the law. Why not eat and lavish early so you can grow healthy and strong for the meaty days? It would be sensible to place the young lawyer side by side with his friends in other professions and see if the profession really satisfies the lifestyle that a young person maintains or desires today.

This is not a note on ‘why litigation practice is not attractive’ but a call to lawyers: young and old to begin to have the conversation of attracting young talent, growing the talent we have and ensuring that this noble profession is still as lucrative as we thought it was and have seen some enjoy it. It will suffice to say the obvious: the game has changed. This change came with the reality of the times we are in. A change in the orientation of the people because of the different political and economic climate- two factors that the law can influence and is also influenced by. With this change must come the need to be more collaborative.

A lawyer today must be multidisciplinary in his approach towards skill acquisition. Not only will he maintain the confidence and eloquence he was taught as he crafts justice in its temple, the Courts; he must also seek to know all about his client — whether individual or corporate — in order to offer or deliver counsel that merge projections with reality in the most compliant way to applicable laws. He must be skilled in communication techniques and tools to know what, when, how and why to divulge information to his clients. He must speak the language of the client in whatever industry or sphere of the society he finds himself. With over 200 million people in Nigeria, legal needs are high from advocacy for reforms, to policy creation and more personal areas that will serve citizens to maximise potential as a citizen. But we must ‘stoop’ from our high and noble horse as lawyers, roll up our sleeves and connect, to conquer. The lawyer of the decade will not think in boxes of litigation or corporate law but think without the box, offering clients wholesome legal services.

Justice is no longer crafted nor worshipped in the temple of the Courts. Justice is in the field and in every household. Justice is free and democratised. We must seek to help everyone understand how impartial she is; we must show everyone she is not a rogue, she is principled; she is blind, she is sacred and she can be kept if we all had the right knowledge and actions. Lawyers must work with everyone in this process. Build skills, communicate well and find justice everywhere!!!

Okezi Uwede-Meshack

Abidjan, 2021

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