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Senior Advocate of Nigeria: To be or not to be

By Udemezue Sylvester

The motion moved by one Chief Tunji Gomez, an 80-year old man who is said to have practised law for about 50 years, for the abolition of the title of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) has certainly triggered off a national debate on the continued relevance of the title in the light of present realities in the country.

Moving the motion on Thursday, 20 August, 2009 at the Eko Hotels & Towers venue of this year’s Nigerian Bar Association (NBA)’s annual National Conference holding in Lagos, the learned senior colleague argued that the SAN title was “now perceived as hereditary and portrayed as a cult,” adding that “it does not present a level-playing ground for all the lawyers in the country.”

Chief Gomez submitted further that the title had become a symbol of oppression, and the process of awarding it bastardised; he cited as examples, among others, the cases of Chief Gani Fawehinmi who had to endure for a very long time before being conferred with the prestigious title and of Mr. Femi Falana who surprisingly is still on the waiting list for the accolade. A situation where the SANs corner all the big legal briefs and yet pay only peanuts to their juniors in chambers, he concluded, does not augur well for the future of the legal profession.

*Chief Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN), NBA President with Justice Idris Kugiti, Chief Justice of Nigeria
*Chief Rotimi Akeredolu (SAN), NBA President with Justice Idris Kugiti, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN)

No doubt, there are obvious flaws in the process of award of SAN, which have called to question the continued usefulness and relevance of the title in the legal profession. I therefore agree that some of the concerns raised by the octogenarian lawyer have merits. But, I disagree with him that these flaws are sufficient grounds for a total abrogation of the title.

With due respect to the learned senior and members of his school of thought, I think the solution to the pitiable plight of junior lawyers in Nigeria does not lie in the abolition of the title of SAN. Besides, some of the reasons advanced by Chief Gomez to support his motion are bereft of cogency. A few examples will suffice.

First, mentioning cases out-of turn in court is not an exclusive preserve of SANs; it is open to all our senior legal colleagues. The issue of who is a senior, and therefore entitled to mention case out-of turn on a particular day in court,
generally depends on the circumstances; a lawyer who is only five years at the Bar could become a senior for this purpose if all the other lawyers in court at that moment are his juniors.

Again, there are immense benefits derivable by junior lawyers from their seniors mentioning cases out-of-turn in court: there can be no better ways of acquiring the experience necessary to become a successful legal luminary than watching your senior colleagues present their cases in court and learning from their own dexterity and skills as well as flaws and pitfalls; this was even partly the theory behind the phenomenon of mentioning cases out-of turn in the
first place.

Further, the issue of who gets which legal briefs today in Nigeria does not depend solely on whether or not one is a senior advocate; after all, most of the richest lawyers in Nigeria are not SANs. The issue is clearly dependent on so many variables, including previous dealings, specialisation, competence and exposure, retainership, social relationship, among others. By and large, clients prefer lawyers who have previously handled their briefs
diligently and honestly to unfamiliar ones; in fact, some establishments insist on briefing only lawyers on their retainer irrespective of their status.

Similarly, most individual clients would prefer their briefs to go to legal practitioners with whom they are accustomed or whom they consider proficient or competent, notwithstanding their status. Moreover, the SANs are not solely responsible for the poor remuneration and abysmal condition of service being endured by junior lawyers in Nigeria. Only about 5 per cent of Law Office proprietors in Nigeria are SANs; yet, more than 80 per cent of these law offices
treat their juniors so poorly. Why then blame only the SANs for the sins of almost all senior lawyers, majority of whom are not SANs? What is more?

Some have alluded to the unbecoming conduct of some SANs to explain the campaign for total abolition of the title; but, looking at it dispassionately, why would you punish all SANs for the misconduct of only a handful of their colleagues? If the title of SAN should be abolished simply because of the misconduct of just few of them, then, maybe, the legal profession itself should be abolished because there are many non-SANs whose conducts leave very much to be desired.

I think the bottom-line is, there are very many disciplinary bodies in the legal profession; anyone who thinks that any lawyer, SAN or non-SAN, has acted contrary to the ethics of the profession, owes the profession a duty to report such erring member before appropriate bodies.

For God’s sake, you do not advocate the destruction of an entire community simply because few of its inhabitants are bad! Or, throw the baby away with the bath water. With regard to the argument on “bastardisation” of the process for the award of silk in Nigeria, it is common knowledge that the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee and others (responsible for the award of the title) have in recent times continually reviewed the guidelines for the award
with a view to making the process more transparent and acceptable.

Experience all through history has shown that no system or process established or operated by human beings is flawless. One would therefore have expected a more progressive approach of suggesting how best to improve on the system on ground rather than the option of total abrogation.

Such suggestions would include, among others, an upward review in the number of lawyers awarded the exalted title annually, considering the large number of applications received yearly and the number that ultimately qualify for the award; a situation where only 25 or thereabouts out of the over 100 lawyers who qualify for the award every year are actually conferred with the title is hardly acceptable.

The existing argument that giving the title to too many lawyers a year would diminish the prestige of the office and high standing of the law profession is untenable. After all, there is really no justification for denying some deserving applicants of the title if truly it is based on merit; what is good for the goose is equally good for the gander.

However, notwithstanding the perceived flaws, the usefulness of the title is still tremendous; it encourages hard work and commitment, as most lawyers strive assiduously to attain the elevated status of SAN, which is considered the pinnacle of the legal profession. Besides, there is hardly any profession without an equivalent of the SAN: there are Fellows in the Medical, Engineering and some other professions; the legal profession must not be an exception. Even in the United Kingdom, the title of Queen’s Counsel, which is the equivalent of SAN in Nigeria, is still in vogue.

Finally, there are more important and pressing motions deserving to be moved than that calling for abolition of the SAN. Nigeria is at present beset with so many frightening problems that call for much more urgent attention than the call by Chief Gomez: from the resource control and militancy crisis in the Niger Delta; Boko Haram imbroglio in the north; kidnap-for-ransom mess in the East and some other parts of Nigeria; ASUU-FG rift and the attendant toll on the
innocent Nigerian student; the quandary in the banking sector; the electoral reform hullabaloo; crises in the power sector, which has forced Nigeria into a generator republic; bad roads and general poor infrastructure; the excruciating economic realities currently staring the ordinary Nigerian in the face; alarming rate of crime and criminality; total dependence on petroleum products importation by a country seen as the world’s sixth largest producer and
exporter of crude oil, just to name a few, the NBA should have so much more important issues to discuss, debate, and act upon in order to help our dearly beloved but obviously drowning country. Abrogation of the SAN is certainly the least among our worries, except one is suggesting that the SANs are part of Nigeria’s problems, which though will hardly be plausible. As they say in my village, he whose house is on fire does not pursue rats.


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