For many of us, being called to the Nigerian bar was a crowning moment. The cheers, the high necks of our proud fathers and the floating shoulder pads of our even prouder mothers when they attended that graceful ceremony would likely still be very vivid for us. Six years of study was rewarded by our official circumcision into the largest bar in Africa as Barristers and Solicitors of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. In effect, that day we justified all the ‘the Bar, the bar’, our friends and well-wishers hailed us as earlier.
But the reality for the majority of new lawyers (new wigs) is that legal practice in Nigeria (especially litigation practice in a solo man firm) would send initial shockers down your spine. After the dopamine of the call to bar ceremony wears off, real life as a young lawyer in Nigeria begins.
A number of young lawyers have the good fortune of getting into the top-tier law firms at the earliest opportunity in their careers and this totally changes the trajectories they travel and opportunities they become exposed to. But not everyone will or can get into a top-tier law firm in Nigeria. And this is largely because the top tiers can’t hold the about 5,000 new wigs sent into the legal services market every year.
So, in real sense, many young lawyers have and will see various forms of shege. Pardon my nomenclature (the shege) please. It is just the current reality on ground. And this reality has caused a number of young lawyers to abandon the profession and rather engage in other endeavors.
However, despite this shege, is the curious position that the young lawyer does not know law or is a bundle of catastrophe waiting to be unleased on an uninformed client. I largely disagree with this position.
With that last sentence, one experience immediately comes to my mind. I started my practice in a solo firm and the first time, I visited my former Boss in chambers, I was welcomed. Mind you, I was not welcomed with a rousing speech that got me all motivated to work. I remember the scenery fairly well and what my Boss said. He said something to the effect that I was comparable to this large wardrobe that was empty (even after graduating from university and Law school) and it was now that the knowledge of the law was going to be stuffed into my head (the wardrobe that is). This was a shocker for me. And to say the least, it was not encouraging.
Expectedly, this perception held by my Boss then reflected in the tasks he routinely gave me. So for the first few months, I was the one assigned to appear in Court for matters that were not going on. The morning of the matter, he would usually brief me as to the excuse for the matter not going on. For some days, I came back with costs, not crushing costs though but for the most part, my applications for adjournments were duly granted. But the point is, I felt that I was not growing per se.
As a green wig, you must concede that you do not have the years of experience the senior lawyer has. But your have a lot of advantages going for you as well. One being your youth and familiarity with tech. The truth however is you have to think it so for yourself and take steps to maximally utilize as many advantages that you discover in your arsenal of practice.
Besides to my mind, being inexperienced is vastly different from being incompetent. And the green wig is not automatically incompetent, after all he has a qualifying certificate that screams otherwise. For whatever it is worth, that certificate should be prima facie evidence of competence. But as certificates go these days, we really don’t trust them. That aside, the truth is anyone can gather experience, if he diligently seeks to do so. If I should draw an allusion; How do quack lawyers do it and look so real? They simply learn quickly on the job.
Being a green wig therefore puts the young lawyer in the position of a lifelong learner – the same position the Senior Lawyer is in. Many times, there are two things to learn in every work environment namely – how to get things done and how not to get things done. The first limb yields itself to an easy explanation. How not to get things done is simply observing what your current boss isn’t doing optimally when compared to others and learning from others instead. I am not advocating an abandonment of your Boss. No. Rather a comparison of the excellence level of the output he puts forward and the output put forward by others as well.
Why do I think that being a young lawyer isn’t necessarily a disadvantage unless one makes it out to be? I’d give an illustration from my experience as well. So, when I left that my Boss – yes, the one with the wardrobe analogy, I joined another law firm. Another culture shock hit my spine. Over in this new firm, new wigs actually handled matters. I only accompanied a senior to Court once and within a month or two I was sent for a matter slated for cross examination. See me and my village people in Court that day. The entire ocean was even under my legs. To say the least, I was flustered. And the lawyer on the side? He was a senior lawyer of course. But, I knew the facts of the case and our trial strategy. Also, I was mandated to draft cross examination questions and they were reviewed by my senior in chambers. Armed with those questions as well as a few other lessons I proceeded to cross examine the witness successfully. I was barely a year at the bar then.
This brings me to the issue of mentorship as well. There is a whole lot a young lawyer can learn on his own. But there is a whole lot more he can learn from Seniors who he considers to be mentors.
The long and short of this piece is self-evident; being a young lawyer does not equate incompetence and it would never be if you don’t let it. I would have borrowed a few words from Anthony Ekundayo’s Hint on Legal Practice to end this piece, but I think the entire book and all the words therein are best read. So I overcome the temptation to borrow and enjoin any young lawyer reading this to read the book.
Instead, I will send with a few words of mine from my practice journal;
No one is born with the knowledge of law crested on his brain. Even the most admired jurists had no knowledge of law at birth. The bright lights we have seen and will yet see in the sphere of law and legal practice that do all the admirable things we applaud them for, do so with their ‘acquired’ knowledge of law. They simply built key competencies and displayed these acquired competencies to our admiration and adulation. The same can be done by any new wig. After all, from the day of call forward, all ‘wigs’ grow old and not younger. The green wig soon turns yellow and maybe grey and if unattended to, the wig grows bald.
Written by Nkobowo Frederick LLB, BL
 Prof Irving’s ten rules of Cross examination – available on youtube and Prof. Yemi Osinbajo’s Cross Examination; the trial Lawyers most potent weapon for the most part.