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N15,000 salary: Low pay tops Nigeria young lawyers’ major problems

When Aisha Dolapo Ajekigbe, 31, got an offer of employment as a young lawyer with a salary of N15,000, she thought it was a joke.…

When Aisha Dolapo Ajekigbe, 31, got an offer of employment as a young lawyer with a salary of N15,000, she thought it was a joke. It was not. 

A career website owned by DELTAQUEST Media (Ireland) Ltd, reviewed the top ten countries with highest paid salaries for lawyers, and concluded that “an American lawyer with a mere one to four years of experience can bring home a whopping £166,510.23” (that’s about N75million per annum). 

The website used data from Forbes Magazine and Robert Walters’ 2016 Salary Survey in coming up with its top ten list. It listed the United Kingdom as number 10 on the list, where it said fresh graduates from prestigious law schools can, for instance, make £120,000 or on the average £74,111 per year.  

The website identified South Africa, fourth on the list, as Africa’s second wealthiest country (after Nigeria) and lawyers there “make an annual salary of £140,332.44 (about N63 million), with just 1-3 years of experience.” 

Ajekigbe’s experience mirrors that of many other young lawyers in the country who have been told getting paid from senior lawyers is actually a favour.  

Called to bar in 2013, she said she could not start practice immediately due to marriage and child bearing, but after starting her one year compulsory youth service in Rivers State, she moved to Ibadan, Oyo State to complete it. 

“I moved to Ibadan in 2015 to complete my service and it was in the course of finding where to do my primary assignment that I got the law firm where I first worked. It’s a very popular firm in Ibadan.

“The man offered to pay N12,000 as stipend per month as a corper which I gladly accepted. I worked full time like all the full staff  I met there.”

She went further to say “It was after I completed my service and decided to stay that I went to meet him (the principal). He offered me N15,000 salary when I asked him to retain me. I thought he was joking and I even asked the older lawyers I met there and they said they earn N20,000 per month. I was speechless.” 

She said she tried other law firms and the story was more or less the same, with some even paying only commission without salary, so she decided to stay with the N15,000 offer until she got a better offer with a commercial law firm in Lagos.  

“You cannot get an average on how much lawyers are earning in Nigeria because some are paid stipends, some are paid when the firms do quarterly sharing, and some are paid on commission based on the cases they are able to bring to the law firm, while some are paid specifics. It’s like a pendulum ball”, Ajekigbe said. 

Another young lawyer, Kosy Herbert Nduka, said after his call to bar in 2015 he was fortunate to get an offer from a top commercial law firm in Lagos, before travelling to the United States for his LLM.

He said though his experience with the firm was good, he was able to learn a lot in the little time he spent with it, the same has not been the experience of many of his colleagues and friends.

“Lawyers who have spent at least 6 years to get their degree earn as little as N15,000 to N20,000 per month. I know a lady who was pregnant, lived in Ayana and was working for a law firm in Victoria Island with a monthly salary of N20,000.That ordinarily would not be enough for her transportation to and from work,” Nduka said.

Outside the salary challenge, Osaretin Edosa, 26, called to bar in 2016, who earns above N100,000 in his place of work in Lagos, said for him, the challenge as a young lawyer is the “voice to be heard.” He said the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) “is not necessarily doing much to help or assist the young lawyers. Health care, better pay made necessary by the law firms and good working environment, can make things better.”

An Abuja-based female lawyer who prefers anonymity said, “As a lawyer of almost 3 years post call, I must say it has not been easy. I work in the chambers of a Senior Advocate of Nigeria. We are 17 lawyers in the chambers, but believe me when I say there are just four lawyers who lead in court.

She said the reason for this was because the firm has “very big and influential clients, ranging from politicians to rich investors. The office openly shows their distrust in our abilities to defend or prosecute on behalf of such clients. This has in a way killed the motivation I have when preparing for cases. No matter how well you study or work on a case, you are never going to be given the opportunity to have a day in the court. They send you for non contentious applications and to get adjournments. These in a way affect the self-esteem of we young lawyers.”

She added that there is  a firm also in Abuja owned by a former contestant for the post of NBA president “where young lawyers are not even allowed to touch files.” She said all they do there is to “attend meetings, proof read documents and contracts, follow up on cases.”

On the low pay, she said, “Young lawyers are forced to engage in private practice such as having personal clients and engaging in corporate practice in order to make ends meet. This in turn has an adverse effect on young lawyers. It affects their concentration and dedication to their primary assignments at their place of work.”

Barrister E.M.D. Umukoro, who has been in active practice for almost 10 years, said younger lawyers, regardless of what they are facing, must make the most of the opportunities available. “It is obviously trying and some principal could be a pain in the neck, but for you to be up to 3-7 post call you need the experience,” he said.

Sharing a similar view, Abuja-based lawyer, Hameed Ajibola said “even if young lawyers are paid like N250,000 monthly, without the necessary discipline, it will lead them to no success. And I fear that insistence on high salaries for young lawyers might degenerate into greater unemployment  and professional underutilisation to the detriment of the nation and the public.”

A former president of the NBA, Chief Joseph Daudu (SAN) said it is contradictory that young lawyers are complaining of low pay and mentorship at the same time, “Because the young lawyer is not in a position to offer quality services for the amount that they want to get. In those days when we started, anything your principal gives you, you take, because you are learning.

“Wages are paid to people who supply you services, while mentorship is an extension of the law school. So, how do you pay somebody for offering him services? Mentorship is put in another way, ‘I am teaching you because your education is not yet complete for you to be able to stand on your own. So, what you are not taught in the law school, you are seeing it practically.”

Daudu, who is also the Chairman of NBA’s Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC), said the education of a law student is not complete until ten years after call to bar for any lawyer that wants to be in active legal practice. He said after five years, a young lawyer should be preparing to stand alone and start having own clients within the firm. “From the moment your principal finds you valuable, he begins to pay you more ,because he doesn’t want to lose you to another chamber,” he added.

In partial fulfillment of his campaign promises, the NBA president, Abubakar Mahmoud (SAN) set up a committee to look into the welfare of lawyers and the committee said it “noted with serious reservations the present poor remuneration of lawyers across the country” in its report submitted at the March, 2018 NEC meeting in Ilorin, Kwara State. 

And to engender an improved welfare by way of better remuneration for the young lawyers in Nigeria, it recommended, among others, a minimum of N50,000 salary for young lawyers, and that “lawyers undergoing the compulsory National Youth Service scheme should not be paid any sum below N25,000 by any employer, be it private or public during the period of their service.”

The committee also “recommended one year compulsory pupillage for every lawyer newly called to the Bar. It was further recommended that the young lawyers undergoing pupillage should be remunerated during the course of their pupillage. Therefore, law firms are to be encouraged to pay such amount as may be sufficient to take care of transportation and feeding of the young lawyers, during the course of the pupillage.”

On the importance of promoting pension scheme policy amongst lawyers and law firms, the committee suggested that the NBA should institute policies that will ensure compliance of law firms with the existing laws in Nigeria.

While Ajekigbe was able to secure another job offer with a better pay after enduring the N15,000 initial offer, if nothing is done urgently by the NBA in implementing these recommendations and others, Divine Eze, a Lagos-based lawyer, said more young lawyers may follow the part of his friend who left the profession to become an Uber driver.

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