By Emmanule Majebi

At the recently concluded Nigeria Bar Association National Delegates Conference held in Lagos, the most rowdy session of the conference was the one that tried to discourse the motion as to whether or not the prestigious rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN)  in the Nigerian legal profession should be scrapped or retained.

Even though the acceptance or rejection of the motion by the meeting was going to be a mere academic exercise; since the law will remain until legally scrapped; the debate was till fiery. The anti and pro SAN camps were equally tenacious in marshalling points to support their positions.

At the session to discuss the matter emotions got very high and the meeting virtually ended in a stalemate with the NBA President skillfully avoiding a showdown when he said that it was a very sensitive matters and as such further action e deferred till the next meeting of the National Executive Committee of the NBA.

But really what is this storm in a teacup all about? The anti SAN proponents led by Mr Gomez marshaled their points very masterfully. They see the position of SAN as creating a cult or carte with in the legal profession, they also feel that the existence of the rank in the profession does not allow for a level playing ground amongst lawyers as it is discriminatory against junior lawyers and non SAN lawyers.

According to this group the situation has become so ridiculous that calling a lawyer to Bar or the lawyers intelligence or industry is no longer sufficient to guarantee a person a successful career as a lawyers; as he must also strive to be a SAN to achieve ultimate success. They also aver that as far as the members of the public(non lawyers) are concerned there are only two classes of lawyers in Nigerian the SANs (the do wells) and the “Charge and Bail” lawyers (never do wells) thus once you are not a SAN people tend to see you as an unsuccessful or struggling lawyer that one is best advised not to patronize. As a corollary to this they point out the fact that in court the cases being handled by SANs  enjoy accelerated and expeditious hearing  whilst those handled by non SAN lawyers  suffer several and sometimes unnecessary adjournments.

Another evidence of discrimination in favour of the SAN which they highlighted is the fact that  SAN are allowed to have exclusive access to the front row seats in our law courts, whilst the rest of the lawyers are cramped in the backs seats with some of them even having to stand to handle their matters, in this kind of situation they argued that the observing public will tend to look at those allowed to comfortably seat in the front row as superior to those who
are made to cram them selves like sardines in the little space left at the back.

Another point which the anti SAN lawyers have is that having successfully made the class of SAN into a goldmine there has been a careful design to reduce the award of SAN from a merit based award  into a hereditary award or an award to be given to lawyers in some particular selected law chambers.

They site the example of a lawyer like Femi Falana; generally acknowledged in the profession as accomplished and aver that he was more qualified than most of those who were awarded the rank of SAN in the 2008 list, and yet for some inexplicable reasons Falana  did not make the rank. Not to mention the travails of an excellent legal luminary like Gani Fawehenmi before he finally was awarded the rank of SAN a few years back.

To round off their argument the anti SAN group aver that the discrimination which favours the SANs makes it practically impossible for junior and non SAN lawyers to make a success of practice as all the juicy briefs will as of necessity be offered to the SANs by the public leaving the juniors or non SANs with nothing or at best crumbs. They also aver that these discriminatory ranking of lawyers  have been abolished in Ghana and is no existent in most West African Country or even America whilst the United Kingdom the calls for the scrapping of the equivalent position of Queen’s Counsel(Q.C) is growing louder by the day.

Of course most of the pro SAN lawyers are made up of SAN and at the rowdy session they put up a stout defence in favour of the continued existence of the rank of SAN; vehemently opposing the motion to scrap the SAN rank. Their argument in favour of the position is that if scrapped the prestige of the (law?) profession would be eroded. They also aver that the scrapping of the rank would kill the impetus amongst lawyers to work hard as the award for SAN is the ultimate reward  for hard work.

They submitted that rather than abolish the rank the conditions for it’s award should be amended (no details were given for this position).In my career as a lawyer I have spent long years away from active legal practice(litigation and chambers work) keeping busy in the corporate sector of the economy as In House Legal Adviser and Administrator of various companies. I must confess that one of the things that killed my initial love for practice was this much vaunted
discrimination at the Bar! Believe me it is real.When I was called to the Bar I was full of excitement. I wanted to spend my whole days in the court room.

As a youth corper my original posting was to the legal dept of a bank in Kaduna but back then the craze for working in banks was not yet high, and my love for practice would not have allowed me sit down idly pushing files on the desk in any office, so I had my self reposted to a private law firm where the allowances were lower. I  was lucky to have been posted to a law firm whose boss had a policy of  encouraging young lawyers to quickly develop the court room courage and I learnt very fast.

I learnt so fast that as a youth corper I handled one or two cases on my own up to judgement stage before High Courts and
made a few appearances in the Courts of Appeal in Kaduna and Enugu. But later in life I had to practice in Lagos and that was where my love for practice
finally died.

On a good day in the  morning you go to court and there are over 40 cases on the cause list and your case is like number 25… and as we endlessly wait for our cases to be called the SANs jump in and begin to call their cases out of turn, by the time all the SAN and other senior lawyers have finished mentioning their cases out of turn the judge handles only a few other cases and is tired and asks everyone to take a date. Of course on the adjourned date the chances are that as a junior lawyer you would again be faced by that discriminatory mentioning of cases all over again.

In those days you were very lucky as a junior lawyer in Lagos if you get your cases concluded in 2 years. In one particular case a Plaintiff brought a very ridiculous case against our client and as soon as I got the summons on my table from my boss I knew what I had to do. I quickly filed a preliminary objection which would have had the case struck out.

But in 10 months I could not get to move the preliminary objection as the case kept getting adjourned because of cases being mentioned out of turn and us being asked to take new dates. I later resigned from that chambers and after about 1 year away from that chambers I met a colleague of mine who took over the case from me and he said that my preliminary  objection still had not been moved.

The greatest humiliation I had as a junior lawyer was when one client asked my boss to please personally handle his matter… “why?” asked my boss.


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