First Published in This Day Newspaper
Ebele Irabor LL.B(HONS), B.L
In catching up with current trends of doing business across the world today, globalization has become more than a passing inclination for businesses; the legal profession not being an exception. At this rate, it will not come as a surprise if very soon, we find our jobs as local lawyers in Nigeria, being taken over completely by lawyers from Budapest, Brussels and Berlin. We have all now become familiar with the trend of multinational companies briefing lawyers in South Africa to manage their legal affairs in Nigeria, and the South Africans law firms in turn briefing our local lawyers.
With this frightening reality in mind, the Section on Business Law of the Nigerian Bar Association, in its 2nd annual conference held in Abuja early March last year, very timely decided to include a session to enlighten participants about ways to develop our practices and position ourselves for upcoming international competition.
This article was spurred by a need to share from information garnered during various such conferences and interactions with concerned lawyers. In particular, there was a very well attended seminar which had eminent international jurists of repute, well respected lawyers and laymen, amongst others, who contributed their thoughts and offered advice on this subject. It is particularly comforting to know that the present leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association has in place a committee deliberating upon the effects of globalizing legal services with the World Trade Organisation.
The line of discussions started with the need to instill upon participants, an appreciation of the changing needs of the international business community, clients and their expectations. Lawyers, we were told, must be able to appraise themselves as a team regularly, by becoming more business astute and savvy. We must go beyond just simply interpreting the law, to actually understanding our client’s business needs in order to give appropriate and pre-emptive advice. By this, we must understand the business of our clients and the business environment.
With globalization, there would be a need for local firms to compete with large international firms. Whilst local firms may have the advantage of local knowledge, our firms must appreciate that requisite expertise, sound knowledge, and professionalism would be mandatory for any possible partnerships. We must appreciate the fact that so long as our economy is lagging behind the rest of the world, large investors into our economy would be foreigners, who obviously would initially consult with law firms within their own jurisdictions. So for now, we must develop our firms with the ability to work within the standards of international law firms in aptitude, style and ethics.
Notwithstanding the introduction of assisting remedies such as the Local Content Bill and the Cabotage Act etc, international corporations would still require local firms to compete in ‘beauty contests’, with firms with the right ethos being selected.
Firms would also have to compete for good legal talent within corporations who would be seeking to develop and expand their in-house legal departments. There is no gain saying that at this point, there would be an urgent need for general appraisals of employment packages being offered to recruits. The era of paying young lawyers poorly, all in the excuse of ‘training’, would need reviewing.
With regard to training, a common sore amongst senior lawyers is the quality of graduates being turned out of universities in recent times. It is worthy of note though, that in many cases, universities have retained the same lecturers who taught some of the best lawyers in the country today. The point here being that although the quality of lecturers remain the same, several of our universities today are ill-equipped in terms of resource materials and even comfort of environment. It is also generally suggested that the issue of training should be shared by both law firms and the universities, but more importantly, the NBA should get involved with the development of curriculums and course content at university level.
I recall a major point made by Mr. Norman Clark of Walker Clark LLC, a USA based firm of business advisors and counselors to the legal profession at the Section on Business Law conference held last year, that we as Nigerians, must learn to sell our jurisdiction. The general practice presently is for Nigerian lawyers to flood the International Bar Association conferences, generally marketing themselves. This being all well and good, but according to Mr. Clark, if the international business community is not drawn to our country, there would be no need for lawyers here from that sector. We must develop the skills and appreciate the need to sell Nigeria as a country with large business potentials, in order to attract business to our country. The obvious repercussions will be beneficial to all.
Meanwhile, all this would be meaningless, unless our governments are ready to observe and uphold the rule of law. Any firm that has had to work for foreign corporations would inform you, that one of the first questions asked by these foreigners is usually regarding the enabling law for their businesses, and how well our judiciary and government can enforce and respect these laws.
As a profession, there is a need to confront government on these issues. Businesses would not come to Nigeria in the multitude that our economy requires except these basic issues are addressed sincerely.
In conclusion, I would like to state that it is sometimes up to professional bodies to confront the ills of society. Just as the media took on the failed third term agenda last year, other professionals can do likewise. An example of this would be Paraguay, where the legal profession decided to take a stand against corruption, by imploring its members neither to give nor offer bribes. It is reported that there has been tremendous success with this plan of action. Would this work in Nigeria? Time would tell.