By Innocent Anaba
CHIEFÂ Theodore Ezeobi, SAN, a former chairman of Lagos branch of Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, in this interview with Vanguard Law and Human Rights, spoke on his family of all lawyers, the Bar and Bench, discipline in the legal profession, success in the profession and the call for the abolition of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria by some lawyers. He recently celebrated the call to Bar of his five children in Lagos
What has been the source of your motivation and strength in the practice of law?
My motivation has been, one, from my family because my father was a community leader, a foundation Christian and the foremost man in my town Awgbu, in his own days. He died in 1972, thereafter, I challenged myself not to be anything less a personality than my father.
The same thing with my elder brother. He is probably the first citizen of Awgbu right now no matter how you look at it. So, you can now see that I had a personalÂ challenge to match my father, to mach my elder brother who I said had remained my mentor and finally being a product of Government College Umuahia, I had a challenge to match the performance of Government College products, who include the Chinua Achebeâ€™s. Most of the Nigeria authors in the 70s were products of the Government College Umuahia and I donâ€™t think there is any other College in Nigeria that has produced four Managing Directors of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC.
How would you compare discipline in the profession now with what it was in your early days of practice?
For clarity, I chair the panel of the Disciplinary Committee of the NBA in Lagos. Talking about discipline, I can tell you that indiscipline in the legal profession now is proportional to the number of lawyers that we have. There has always been indiscipline, but you didnâ€™t have this number of lawyers, therefore, the incidents of indiscipline are bound to increase as the number of lawyers increase. I can also confirm that the profession is sensitive to ensuring discipline within its rank now as it was before. Again, the Nigerian society is battling with indiscipline also and it is from the Nigerian society that we have all these lawyers.
I can tell you that bye and large, things are not out of hands, but definitely, the caution that if one must remain a lawyer, he must conform strictly to the guiding rules of the profession. The profession continues to streamline, the machinery for discipline within its rank and file. I can also tell you that the Legal Practitioners Act, which regulates the profession is about to be reviewed by a committee that has been set up by the Body of Benchers along with the NBA. You can take it that the disciplinary regulation will be one of those aspects of the Legal Practitioners Act that the profession will take the opportunity to tighten up.
What do you consider to be the essential requirements for a successful law practice?
What will make a lawyer successful is very simple. First is determination. Second is hard work. Third is starting off well. Starting off well means that you donâ€™t just jump out to start doing cut and nail thing, no, you must get yourself associated with one of the established law firms. Just like every other trade, you canâ€™tÂ be a good carpenter if you go and waste your time with a cut and nail carpenter. You cannot be a good carpenter if you go and start on you own without somebody showing you what carpentry is all about.
And in the same vein, if you want to be a good tailor, you go to one of the famous tailors in town. Now even schools, parents send their children to the best schools both Primary, Secondary and Universities, because it is there you have the libraries, good teachers, laboratories sports, equipment and so on.
Therefore, for one to have a chance at all in law, when one graduates and is called to the Bar and the personâ€™s purpose is to succeed as a lawyers, the thing to do is to seek out a good legal practitioner, a good law firm and start life there. Not starting life there to earn all the money you need in that place, no, you start there to learn the trade. And it is only from there that you can hope to be like the late Chief Rotimi Williams.
If you look closely, you will find out that a lot of Bar leaders today passed through Chief Rotimi Williams Chambers. Of recent, if you count the Nigerian Senior Advocates, you will probably find out that quite a number of Senior Advocates in this Lagos passed through Chief Rotimi Williamâ€™s Chambers. Some passed through other great lawyers, like the Fani Kayodes, the Onyiaukes, the Kehinde Shofolas, the G.Oo.K Ajayis,Â the Mbanefos, etc.
A large proportion of present day Senior Advocates you see today passed through these chambers.
Some lawyers have called for the abolition of rank of SAN, what is your reaction to this?
Let me reiterate the fact that my branch is the premier branch Lagos branch of NBA, but it is not right to say that a group from the branch is championing the abolition but some people are expressing the irritation of the majority of Nigerians with the present system of the appointment of Senior Advocates of Nigeria. No serious lawyer wouldnâ€™t want to be a Senior Advocate because the essence of it is that you want to shine and reach stardom, and the benchmark created by the profession is the rank of the Senior Advocate. So, I canâ€™t see a person who wouldnâ€™t like to reach that benchmark, or to rank among the best in his own profession. So, it wonâ€™t be right to say that they really want to abolish the rank.
What many people are irritated with is generally the manner of appointment of Senior Advocates. So, what they seek like many say is reforms. For instance, they want established certainty, that if certain parameters are given, you will get the positions. But many people who are some of the best lawyers in this country you canâ€™t adduce any good reasons why they havenâ€™t made the rank. It is not because they have not applied, it is only very few that have not applied.
How would you apply for 10 years and you expect the person to keep applying, not many people can stick out their necks as some of us did. They keep applying year after year without getting the rank and person who donâ€™t match the benchmark gets the rank.
Before now, you had three categories you had to meet to become a Senior Advocate in our own day. If you had six cases in the Supreme Court, you come into category one, if you had four cases in the Court of Appeal, you rank into category two and if you have four,Â some admixture, you come into category C.
Now it is taken that if you are in category A, you are automatically qualified for the award. If you qualify for category A,B,C, you are outstanding, there is no reason at all for you not getting it, unless there is some petition or some moral defect or misconducts disqualifying you, but in the absence of that, why should a person who qualified in category A, B, C. not be given the rank and you go and give it to somebody who qualified only in category B or you go and give it somebody who qualified in category C or even why should you give it to a person who qualified only in category A, when there are people who qualified in categories A, B, and C, what argument do you have to support this other than impropriety.
That is why people are complaining. And why should a person, who has been in this profession, who profession recognises as being sound not be given and a young boy who has just qualified in one of these categories is given. There is no explanation for this especially where there is no disqualification.
So people are saying this thing has to be transparent. This rank is being conferred by the Privileges Committee, why should somebody who became a Senior Advocate three or four years ago be a member of that committee? Why should such young boys be there when there are mature hands, Senior Advocates for 20 years, 25, years, lawyers for 40 years as Senior Advocates are there, why should you bring in the young boys who cannot even face a challenge? These are the things annoying people. And so, some people, instead of standing by are calling for reforms and want to throw away the child with the bath water. We say that is not right. A majority of lawyers in Lagos want transparency in the thing, and they want the status retained.
How did end up reading law?
I can tell you that I didnâ€™t initially set out to read law, rather consistent with my back ground, a product of the Government College Umuahia, which by and large, remains as one of the leading secondary schools in this country, was produced with a science bias, with an indication to read medicine. I left Umuahia in 1957, I came into Lagos early 1958 and then was exposed to greater awareness in which I discovered that most of the leaders in public life in Lagos then, were lawyers, therefore, I related that to my elder brother, who was my guardian at that time, Chief Christopher Ezeobi.
I exchanged notes with him as to the necessity of one of us reading law. I thought that my younger brother would take it up because he was arts inclined, but he declined, , so, I decided to change from reading medicine to law. I then took arts subjects, doing my Advanced level and by 1962, I gainedÂ admission as one of the foundation students to read law in the University of Lagos, UNILAG.
How many of your children read law?
All the five of them and I really feel great and grateful to God Almighty. I can say that all of them reading law is neither of mine nor my wife, Iyomâ€™s making. You may say that we wished them and exposed them to the discipline of law or the profession of law, but, that they each took to law, I canâ€™t ascribe it to my even dominant contribution, But let me tell you, that the glory of that first goes to God, that was why we went to church to do thanksgiving on Sunday, that all these could only have come from God.
Apart from that, let me say that it is my first daughter, Chinelo that will take the credit for the rest of them reading law. Herself and the second child also inclined to read law.Â The third happened to be a boy, Theodore (Junior) that again, we might have thrown in some guidance, some influence for him to consider reading law as an imperative. But when you come to the fourth and the fifth, I donâ€™t think anybody can claim that his hands worked it, it is really the grace of God. I think that it is also the challenge they had, to do what their elder brother and sisters were doing.