The year has been off to an interesting start and for many, work is well underway and normal has again been redefined with the pandemic seeping into history, hopefully without rebound.
We have been actors cum spectators in the wild world-wide interruption engineered by the covid-19 pandemic and if there is any lesson that has consistently been communicated, it is that the world is in a permanent state of flux; we are playing catch up. Professionally, the demands of work are also mimicking the global permutations that we have witnessed, and empirical research shows that professionals are also playing catch up in several aspects of work and life as the celerity of these changes are too hard to keep tabs with.
In the Nigerian legal services community, it’s more than a play to catch up as the outposts of our practice have been clearly shown out by the pandemic. More salient and I must say, beneficial, is the fact that these circumstances have shown how disconnected we are from the realities of preceding interruptions (engineered by technology, the expansion of the global legal services market and the changing demands of our clientele) thus presenting opportunities for reform.
For Nigerian young lawyers, this flux has changed the core of the reform conversation from just welfare or representation. More important emergencies such as, the acceleration of market-wide competence, the democratisation of opportunity and the urgent need to build and grow the market in tandem with the complexities that the business communities that we serve present, are the priorities. The one-strip model where lawyers learn and work within a box has only served to exclude us from the growth opportunities and is unsustainable.
There are gaps everywhere! For emphasis, there are gaps everywhere! Law firms and businesses are insufficient in number and capacity to absorb the number of graduates the legal education system is producing, but more alarming, is the fact that most of these graduates are not prepared for the new challenges and opportunities that the market presents. Statistics show that this severe divide will continue if there is no intentional intervention; by implication, continued scarcity is guaranteed. The solutions to this sectoral crisis are multi-tiered, but I would like to focus on the role young lawyers are to play in galvanising the latent potential yet to be tapped.
At the Young Lawyers Summit 2021, the President of the Nigerian Bar Association centred his charge on this looming crisis. He stated that he was alarmed at the rate of exclusion of the Nigerian lawyer from salient developments in business both locally and globally and charged young lawyers to take responsibility for reversing the trend. He opined that the world of opportunities presented by the expansion of global business remains available for the taking and no messianic intervention would suffice in the interim. He highlighted that the average young lawyer is absent at the tables that matter, severely unaware of the opportunities that the market presents, and is in large parts, not equipped with the skills required to convert these opportunities to value. More importantly, he emphasised how dangerous the impact of maintaining this status quo would be if young lawyers did not take responsibility for harnessing the potential of the next “mutation” of the business/legal services industry.
How many young lawyers have knowledge or are building the requisite professional skills that will enable commercial exploitation and venture into new areas of law and business such as cryptocurrency, virtual reality, biotechnology, data science, quantum computing, robotic process automation (RPA), machine learning, space exploration? All these are underpinned by law, commercial contracts, regulatory protocols, fiscal complications, and issues in dispute which lawyers can moderate and derive commercial value from and yet young lawyers in bulk seem to have no inkling of the urgent need to foray into these spaces and purchase personal real estate. It is an anomaly to garb as barristers and solicitors of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, if we are not equipped for problem-solving in these spaces which are fast becoming the essentials of the modern businesses which we serve.
While there are other essential factors that aid the growth of young lawyers, the responsibility to purchase personal real estate in these new areas of business venture cannot be outsourced. It is a responsibility vested at the call but even now, by necessity. More importantly, the perennial issues of income inequality, welfare and career growth can be obviated where lawyers in bulk are equipped to provide legal support to these business ventures.
As you set your goals and aspirations for the year, it would be good to consider the available real estate in the legal services industry and highlight new areas where you would like to play. This is not an option but a necessity as the longevity and success of your career in law depends on this. More importantly, the sophistication and innovation of the law will be largely driven by these efforts.
You may ask what taking responsibility or purchasing personal real estate really means; I share perspectives below. Taking responsibility means doing your part irrespective of the environment, the limitations of the collective and as someone succinctly put it, the rigged game. It starts with:
Awareness: put simply, this is consciousness of facts, issues, opportunities, and self. Unawareness can have debilitating impact on career prospects and results. You must groom an understanding of the market and determine what aspects work for you. This is a task that is only beneficial when repeated. The introspection must be continuous, and the changes made, thereafter, must be evidence based. It is a tough task but the more intentional we are about the discovery of our selves at work and pattern our decisions based on this consciousness, the better we are positioned for success.
Groom competence: We sell experience and expertise. The long-term game requires continuous grooming, knowledge updates, 100% production capacity and the capacity to see the needs of the ecosystem within which we work and work out solutions for them, preferably, in advance. You are not a litigator; you are a problem solver skilled in dispute resolution. These limiting name tags do not aid clarity of interpretation of our roles as they evolve. We are fundamentally problem solvers using law in its various spheres of expression as an instrument.
Network the ecosystem: young lawyers need to coagulate for value whether in small clusters of learning or by setting up organisations that are positioned to build for the future. Tutelage is essential but it takes different forms, so the networking responsibility is both vertical and horizontal. Horizontal implies building a network of peers who you give value to and derive value from. Peer mentoring is an efficient way to accelerate growth and stashing a resource of skilled peers is an essential resource. Vertical networking cycle has two prongs, there is the prong connected to more experienced lawyers and there is that which seeks to upskill younger lawyers and engage them for value as well. This three-way networking dynamic is the resourceful lawyer’s magic wand and the mentoring value derived therefrom cannot be quantified.
As stated earlier, there are so many gaps to fill and there is no better time than now to plug in your personal.
As is colloquially said, “May the forces go with you” as you launch and venture.
Oyeyemi Aderibigbe is a Senior Associate at Templars. She is also the Chairperson of the Young Lawyers’ Forum of the Nigerian Bar Association, Section on Business Law.