Paul Usoro is one of Nigeria’s leading lawyers, with industry-leading expertise in commercial and telecommunications law. In the fourth part of a series of articles, he tackles the issue of welfare for young practitioners in the legal profession, the structural problems fuelling it and set out a range of proposals the Nigerian Bar Association should consider in order to alter the status quo.
Related Issues (I): Pupillage
Pupillage has in recent times been mooted as a way of remediating the deplorable welfare packages for most junior lawyers. The proposal is for junior lawyers to work with senior lawyers for a mandatory period of a year or two before they can establish their own firms if they so decide. In those mandatory years, the junior lawyers, according to the proposal, would be paid a minimum wage similar to the allowance paid to medical doctors during their residency years. I see a number of challenges and flaws with and in this proposal.
First, pupillage, as it is practised in the United Kingdom and South Africa is a pre-qualifying process and not a post-qualification requirement. The focus of pupillage in those countries is to foster practical training for the trainee barristers during the mandatory period of one year that they will be attached to senior lawyers and will have the privilege of learning directly from them. It is not my understanding that this is what the proponents of pupillage are proposing.
The second challenge is the expectation that governments, at different levels, will accept to pay a minimum wage to junior qualified lawyers, most of whom may not, during that period of mandatory “pupillage” be working for the various governments and their agencies. I am sceptical of that prospect given the aversion of our governments to social spending but if it can be swung and the welfare package proves to be reasonable, it would be a great day for the profession and its junior members and the architects of such a success would all deserve tonnes of accolades. If we are however unsuccessful in getting the various governments to pick up the bills for these junior lawyers’ mandatory “pupillage” program, it is my belief that most law firms will refuse to engage these junior members of the profession based on imposed minimum wage standards; we would, in that event, end up at the starting block of the problem that we are all trying to resolve.
Even if our various governments accept to pay the fresh lawyers specified welfare packages during their compulsory “pupillage” years, we would, in point of fact, be deferring the current welfare challenges of the young lawyers considering that the mitigating period of mandatory “pupillage” would only last for 2 years at most, and thereafter, the young lawyers would enter the job markets, complete with its present-day vagaries and inadequate remuneration structures. With that scenario, it is desirable that we work at a sustained and sustainable solution to the welfare challenges of young lawyers, deploying, amongst others, the solutions that I have proffered in the preceding segments of this series.
But, is pupillage – in its pre-qualification sense – absolutely unrequired in our current training process? Definitely not. It could and should be incorporated into our pre-qualification process and used to impart practical training to our trainee lawyers, similar to what obtains in the United Kingdom and South Africa. This is imperative given the widespread discontent with the standards and quality of practice by some junior members of the profession.
The closest to such pre-qualification pupillage program in Nigeria is the attachment of Nigerian Law School students to law firms for a period of 6 weeks during which period they are expected to be exposed to advocacy in practice and law practice generally. I’m not sure how rigorous the Law School has been in supervising these attachment students and whether indeed it forms part of the final scores for the Call to Bar of the law students.
I’m not also sure that the current very limited period of the attachment makes as much impact on the law students and actually enables them to learn much and imbibe the best practices of the Bar. In addressing these issues, it may be wise for the Nigerian Law School and the NBA to periodically review the attachment processes and tighten the required bolts and loose ends in order to gain the best value therefrom.
To the issue of welfare for junior members of the Bar, it would be helpful if some stipend is recommended for the Law School students during the mandatory attachment period, particularly if the attachment period gets to be extended. However, such mandated or mandatory stipend must not be confused with the required steps for ameliorating the poor welfare packages for junior lawyers.
For one, the Nigerian Law School students are not lawyers, as at the attachment period, and the welfare of qualified junior lawyers cannot be equated with, measured by or with the standards of the Nigerian Law School students. In any case, the welfare challenges of junior lawyers which requires urgent attention and relief relate to their Post-Call years and not the pre-Call student period.
The point here is to develop practical, implementable and sustainable solutions to the welfare challenges of young lawyers.