CHUKA AGBU, SAN, FCIArb (UK), Founding Partner, Lexavier Partners sat down with Legal Business to discuss his recent conferment of the rank of Life Bencher. In this interview, he talks about the prestige and responsibility associated with the title of Life bencher, his journey in the legal profession and his advice for younger lawyers at the bar.
The Act establishing the Body of Benchers states that the body is made up of legal practitioners of the highest distinction in the legal profession in Nigeria. Life Benchers are appointed from members of the body upon the recommendation of a committee from among themselves. How do you feel about being honoured with the status for life as a Bencher?
The appointment to me is a call to further service in upholding the ideals and ethics of the profession. It does come with rights and privileges such as the exclusive right to sit in the Inner Bar and to mention any motion, in which the Life Bencher is appearing, out of turn on the cause list; rights which I have had the privilege of benefiting from for years as a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. So, this one is really a call to serve a profession to which I owe so much. As a member of the screening committee of the Body of Benchers in the last five years, I have actively participated in the screening of thousands of candidates for suitability to be called to the Nigeria Bar as fit and proper persons. This has been done at the expense of my personal comfort and resources, as the discharge of the duties assigned to me sometimes entailed travelling out of my primary base.
One of the responsibilities of the Body of Benchers is to take all measures necessary for maintaining the traditional values of the legal profession. As a Life Bencher, do you think that traditions still have any role to play in the transformation of the profession in a virtual and digital era.
The emphasis is on values, particularly the core values that lawyers should hold dear such as belief in the rule of law as enshrined in the Constitution, independence, confidentiality, integrity alongside other values others, in preference to conduct that is unethical and compromising. As for traditions, they die hard in our profession. From the strict dress code to good mannerisms, etiquette, carriage and command of the English language to consummate intellect. Let us take just one example from History on how tenacious traditions have been in the profession. Queen Mary, who jointly ruled with her husband Williams 11 of Britain died of smallpox in 1694, more than 300 years ago, and to mourn her demise, judges and lawyers wore long black robes in mourning. To this day, lawyers in Nigeria – which sometimes has an incredibly hot climate and suffocating heat – still adorn the erstwhile black funeral robes for the courtroom and other ceremonial outings. This tradition is not about to change. Chief O.C.J Okocha, SAN, chairman of the Body of Benchers in 2020, still wears his robes elegantly. Chief Christopher Alexander Sapara Williams, first indigenous Nigerian lawyer, called to the English bar on 17th November 1979 wore his black robes with dignity. On a lighter note despite the call from some quarters to discard some aspects of our rich tradition in the profession, there is the perception in our traditional African context of a fully robed Barrister being akin to a big masquerade in a court appearance. It is a paradoxical blend of the imported tradition and the native. I once witnessed, during a Benchers procession, the joyful tears of some proud parents seeing their daughter decked out in the coveted wig and black robes on the call to bar day. I wonder if a lesser offering could have evoked such emotions.
You have had an illustrious legal career spanning more than three and a half decades. What experience have you found most gratifying?
This year marks 38 years of unbroken private practice of the law for me, having been called to the bar at the age of 21. My experience is versatile and cuts across most areas of practice in Nigeria. I was particularly opportuned to have practiced with two titans of the profession – Dr. Olisa Agbakoba SAN and Dr. Wale Babalakin SAN, two gentlemen who I will describe, with due respect, as huge brains and very talented. My take away from these associations many years later has been the appreciation of courage as the most important attribute of a lawyer. It is more important than competence or vision. Courage propels you to seek to break new grounds in the profession and makes it imperative that you must have the matching knowledge for your objective. I found my admission to the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) very satisfying. From facilitating the business law class at the Lagos Business School (LBS), I was inspired to undergo a three-year programme of the Swiss Business School (SBS) where I was awarded a Doctoral Degree in Business Administration. This is particularly satisfying. I do not count the litigations I have handled; but I should mention that in 2010, my firm Lexavier Partners obtained over 2,500 judgements for the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria which has enhanced their remarkable debt recovery rate in no small way. Recently, I chaired the Blockchain and Virtual Financial Assets Committee set up by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to look into regulations for the Virtual Financial Assets space (inclusive of cryptocurrencies) in Nigeria and my committee of dedicated industry experts completed the task within the given time frame and presented its report. It is very satisfying that the SEC recently released a Statement drawing from this report, which is presently positively agitating that space for the economic progress of the country.
What is your advice to younger colleagues at the Bar?
The terrain is changing at a very fast pace. Everything is going virtual and digital. Acquire as much knowledge and skills as you can of the current technology in relation to legal practice in order to enhance and open up income streams, but remember that no other profession sets higher ethical standards and rules of discipline than the legal profession. Guard your reputation jealously. The bar has that sacred obligation to lead the way in obeying the laws and maintaining the highest ethical standards. Take to heart the words of Earl Warren, United States Supreme Court Justice who said that, “In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics. Each is indispensable for civilization. Without law, we should be at the mercy of the least scrupulous. In fact, without ethics, law will not exist.”
Dr. Francis Chuka Agbu SAN, FCIArb (UK) is the Founding Partner of Lexavier Partners with almost 40 years’ experience in the legal practice across sectors. He chairs the committee set up by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to advice and produce a draft of regulatory provisions relating to the emerging area of digital assets in the Nigerian Capital Markets.