By Innocent Anaba
MRS Boma Ozobia, is the Vice-President of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, CLA. The association is scheduled to hold its 17th Conference in Hydrabad, India, next month. In this interview, she spoke on some of the issues likely to dominate the conference, which includes roadmap to credible elections, transformation of law practice and the globalization of legal practice.
Who are members of the commonwealth Lawyers Association?
The Commonwealth Association, CLA, is an association of lawyers practising in Commonwealth countries. Recently Rwanda, which used to be a French colony adopted the common law and joined the Commonwealth Lawyers Association as well. We’ll welcome them officially in India during our conference next month.
Why was the association was formed?
The Association was formed to enable us, as lawyers in the different jurisdictions, sharing the common law as our root, to work together, exchange information, exchange ideas as to how to develop the law and jurisprudence in the best way possible to serve the best interest of the society and those countries that we come from.
How does one became a member?
The association is made up firstly, of institutional members belonging to Commonwealth countries. The Institutional members are the Bar Associations of those Commonwealth Countries. For instance, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, is an Institutional member of the CLA, the Bar Councils of England and Wales are Institutional members, so also is the Law Society is an institutional member. The Canadian Bar, Kenya, Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone and so on are all members.
Then of course, we have individual members and the individual members are made up of lawyers, judges and magistrates of Commonwealth jurisdictions. So long as you have been called to the Bar and qualified to practice is any commonwealth country, be it on the bench or in private practice, you are qualified to become a memberof CLA.
What are the objectives of the association?
Promoting the rule of law in member countries is one of the our cardinal and fundamental objective. The rule of law and democracy in the Commonwealth countries is of great importance to us. Also, we seriously pursue the doctrine of separation of governmental powers in the member countries because the concentration of governmental powers in one person or body of persons, is the highest definition of tyranny. We don’t encourage this at all as an association.
Separation of powers is the core root of any democracy, so we preach, promote and believe in it.
What do you mean by the doctrine of separation of powers?
By this I mean the separation of powers between the three arms or organs of government, namely the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Each arm of government must perform its statutory functions and non of them should interfere with the functions of the other arm. The last but not the least, is promoting the practice of the profesion.
2011 is critical to Nigeria because of the forhtcoming general elections. What role is the association going to play to ensure that we have credible elections in the country?
The CLA has participated in elections monitoring in the past in other jurisdictions. I have already raised it in our council and said “Can we ensure that we participate in election monitoring in Nigeria, because this is a key democracy in this region and indeed, the whole of the commonwealth. If we don’t get it right, indeed the impact will be across the commonwealth and beyond the shores of this country.
And if we get it right, the samething will apply.
We intend to monitor this election and actually participate in that capacity. The association will be making contact with the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, to go through the required processes as election observers. And we will be working with the European Union, EU, and the commonwealth secretariat.
What is the relationship between the association and the Bar Associations of its member states?
The Bar Associations of the member countries actually recommend the council members, so the Governing Council of the CLA is made up of individuals recommended by their Bar Associations, so they actively participate in the governance and running of the CLA by electing their individual representatives. Nigeria, for example, has a council member and indeed when it comes to electing officers, you cannot be elected as an officer without your Bar Association nominating you.
As the Vice President of CLA, can you give us a little insight into your activities in the association?
I have always been active in the regulatory aspects of this profession because I don’t believe that I can practice the profession and ignore my regulator.
If there are issues that I am not satisfied with, the only way I can make that change happen, is to be part of regulation, put my ideas forward, assist in the work that has to be done to make sure that we have a better profession. After my qualification, I was involved with the Law Society of England and Wales for the same reason. During the cause of my involvement there, I was then nominated into the council of the Association of Women Solicitors, which is a recognised body of the Law Society. I served on the council and eventually was elected chairperson of that association. Beyond that, I have been very active with the NBA, the sections, the fora and any area that I feel that I can contribute my time by giving my ideas. I do so without reservation because it is so important to me that we have a better association.
How did you get involved with the CLA?
I was serving on the board of the British Nigeria Law Forum as a member of the executive council when the then treasurer of the CLA said to me, I like the way you work, I would really like you to come on board as a member of the executive council of the CLA. So, following up on that, the next time was the council election, the NBA nominated me to serve on the council. After that, I was elected in 2009 Hong Kong as the Vice-President of CLA.
How do you see the issue of specialisation in law practiced ?
I am a commercial lawyer and a commercial lawyer in dealing with companies, advising them from the formation, incorporation, through their transactions to dissolution or winding up. I totally agree with the concept of specialization in practice and I advocate that because you cannot do everything and do them well.
It is because of that, that we uphold that actively within our law firm and the way we practice. We are all specialists in different areas. It is the future of the profession, it is the only way we can compete globally. The world has become a global village, the profession has to fallow suit, we have no choice in the matter. With the internet, our clients in Nigeria are not limited to instructing us alone here in Nigeria. They can as well send an e-mail to anybody anywhere in the world and an opinion will be a mailed back to them without that lawyer touching the shores of Nigeria. So, we have to look at our competition and see it beyond the shores of Nigeria.
How would you compare law practice now with what it was in your early days at the Bar?
I was called to the Bar almost 23 years ago, so law practice has come a long way since that time. At the time I was called, the firm structure was almost unheard of, you might have what appeared to be partnership, but the reality was that Nigerian lawyers really practised in a chambers structure.
So, the there was effectively the head of chambers, who was the sole owner or the sole proprietor of the practice and lawyers working with him or her, who were effectively tenants and they had a fee sharing arrangement, some were on salary, but on very how salary, and then they were allowed to take on their own briefs, so that was the traditional way of practice then.
But what is happening now, is still the norm rather than the exception. But there are more law firms practicing the way we do, which is using the firm structure, like the solicitors in England do. It is a different ball game entirely, it means that it is a true partnership.
You all earn funds for the firm and then have a way like profits distribution on agreed time frame. It means that those who are working with you can buy equity or earn equity depending on how you structure it and it means that it is also easier for you, the founding partners to exit and leave a standing structure for those who are there to continue because it is not personalised in the way the chamber structure is personalised.
It is widely believed that law firms or most of them die with their founders, why is it so?
It is true. I know that one of the things we have been busy complaining and moaning about is how a law firm dies with the founder, it is because of the structure. But thank God, that is changing, so, we are going to be seeing more and more law firms surviving their founders, those that operate or run this type of structure that I am talking about.