By Bartholomew Madukwe
Tani Molajo is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria who places a high premium on the training and grooming of young lawyers particularly in the area of persuasive communication through the development of effective speaking and writing skills. In this interview, he speaks on ways of improving the quality of legal education and its future in the 21st century digital age and other matters.
SOME senior lawyers have argued that there is need to improve the quality of legal education and of the performance of young lawyers in Nigeria. What is your position on this?
I am in entire agreement with that observation. I have for a long time watched with increasing dismay the deterioration in the quality of the work of too many of our young colleagues. It has engaged my attention.
What are the effective strategies for improving the quality of legal education and young lawyers in Nigeria?
There are two essential elements which will drive the pursuit of excellence in the legal profession. Firstly, a good command of language. Secondly, giving a good impression of yourself.
Let us start with command of language. You see, from time out of memory, ever since the legal profession was established, words have been the lawyers’ tools of trade. If you don’t have the tools of trade there is no way by which you can even begin to strive towards excellence in your chosen profession.
To succeed in the law profession, you must remember that when you want to address a court, I am talking about advocacy, be it in writing, as is becoming increasingly the case in this country, or orally, it is by your words that you will hope to establish the strength of your case. The same is true of your letters, opinions or pleadings. The words in which they are couched are of crucial importance, they can make and they can mar.
Of course, you must pay close attention to tense, number, gender, syntax, punctuation and spelling. All these may sound rather obvious but it remains the fundamental bedrock of communication at the Bar. Again, I have watched, with growing trepidation, how strange expressions have somehow crept into our use of the English language, even at the Bar. For example, the use of the word “now” with reference to a past event or action, when what is really meant is the word “then”. l have found too many of our young colleagues who say “I now told him”, when what is meant is “I then told him”. Yet again, the use of the word “severally”, when what is meant is “several times”. For instance, “I went to court several times last week”. It is not correct to say, “I went to court severally last week”.
Even the press has become aware that there is an incremental decline in the use of the English language. I read a few months ago a report by the Academic Staff Union in which it was stated that 300 level students could not write ordinary letters. I was alarmed by that report because it confirms my concern about the abysmal level to which the standard of education, generally, has fallen.
Basic rules of grammar
As I said earlier, communication remains both oral and written in our legal system. You will observe that appellate briefs of argument and first instance written addresses have become the way by which we must address the courts. I have read too many briefs of argument and too many written addresses which have been badly written with scant regard for the basic rules of grammar. I have no doubt that judges notice and that the textual quality or lack of it of a lawyer’s written efforts make an impression in each case, whether favourably or unfavourably. Would it not be a pity if a lawyer knows the content of the law but lacks the language by which to communicate that content to the court? By his deficiencies in his command of language, he could lose a case, though in his knowledge of legal content, he is otherwise competent.
What do you think the Law School should do to improve on the falling standard of legal education or declining quality in the performance of young lawyers?
I think what the Law School must do is to introduce courses by which the English language is taught as a subject in itself. We must begin to train up our young lawyers in speaking and writing because without those skills, they can never practice law effectively. Let me share with you some of my own experiences and I will split these into two. First, addressing the court. Speaking requires much practice; perhaps even more than writing. You should of course as a young lawyer cultivate the habit of preparing your notes in advance of addressing the court. Even after you have filed a brief or written address, you ought to have notes which form a précis of what you have filed in order to guide you in highlighting and emphasizing those key areas of your brief or written address. It is essential to make those notes because they will guide you. Notes will also afford you a sense of security. They will ensure that you do not become flustered or confused and lose your way in the proper sequence of argument in the heat of advocacy. Also, pronunciation is so very essential. You must pronounce your consonants. The ends of your words must be audibly pronounced. Don’t slur your words and don’t speak so fast that you give the impression that you are in a hurry to finish your case and bolt from the court.
Second, how do you acquire these skills? Again, I will give of my own experience. I had the privilege of practicing under the tutorship of my own father, Emmanuel Adetunji Molajo, SAN, God bless his memory. He encouraged me to read as widely as possible, not only in the law, but in general literature. He put into my hands, from very early, a wide range of English literature, which included Shakespeare, Milton, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens etc. Some of those books I first read as far back as 1962 or 1963 and continue to read today and they formed a veritable grounding for my chosen profession- which is the law. It also helped in developing an appetite for reading because in legal practice you will have to read a large volume of written matter.
In school, I was introduced to Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel Okara, Christopher Okigbo, John Pepper Clark; each one a legend in his own right. It did not stop at that. I even read literature in my own language – Yoruba Authors like D.O. Fagunwa, Amos Tutuola. In acquiring proficiency in communication, you must not be limited to the command of English language alone but aspire to acquire the power of self-expression generally – and even in your own language.
The more you read, the more you will want to read. This is what should be inculcated in our young lawyers. You must create and feed an appetite to read.
Of course, there are the Law reports, which provide an excellent inspiration and indirect instruction for fine speaking and writing. And you will do well as a lawyer to cultivate the habit of reading the Law reports. And then as a young lawyer, take the trouble to do the very best that you can. Don’t be satisfied with being good, strive for excellence. Do not leave your work alone until it is as near perfect as you can make it. All these principles should be taught at the Law School.
Are you saying that the Law School does not have English language as part of its curriculum?
No! It is assumed that language, particularly the English language, has been taught from primary school through secondary school and tertiary institutions. By the time the law graduate gets to the Law School, the focus is on the law and the development of practical knowledge for legal practice, forgetting that an essential and fundamental ingredient of successful legal practice is proficiency in the English language. That must be taught. It must become an essential part of the curriculum.
What do you think is the future of Nigeria’s legal education in the 21st century digital age?
We must continue to improve ways by which we can increase the knowledge of lawyers in the use of the computer and cyberspace in general, for the purpose of research and communication. I look forward to the day when our courts will embrace more fully the concept of e-filing, where one can file papers for litigation online. It will make for speed, it will make for efficiency and that is the current tool for storage and retrieval of information which has proven to be effective in cost and in time management. You will find that many of the courts are now putting their archives on databases because the storage of paper has become obsolete; it consumes too much space. There is the real risk of deterioration; there is a risk of loss through theft and misplacement. A visit to the archives in some of our courts which are yet to be stored digitally, attest to the seriousness of the problem. So these tools must continue to gain the attention of those in the Law School and legal practice, as necessary in order to move this profession forward.