Being a Paper Delivered at the Meeting of the Young Lawyers’ Forum of the Nigerian Bar Association, Akure Branch on 14th November, 2019.
It gives me great pleasure to address this gathering today on such topical issue of discovering ourselves as young lawyers. I am still a young lawyer, so it gives me huge pride and sense of responsibility that I was given the task of speaking today on a topic that affects everyone here, including the speaker.
As a young lawyer, it is not really easy to discover yourself and it is understandable to get confused at the early years of your career. What I have noticed overtime is that as young lawyers, we allow the circumstances we find ourselves in control us, for instance; the firm we are privileged to work with, the jurisdiction we find ourselves etc. Too many young lawyers tend to let their careers develop by accident. I am aware of many young lawyers who accept a job right after law school, diligently do the work and then watch 5 years go by before they start to consider what kind of career they want to have, which is a long day to go. We should be in control of our dreams and not let the circumstances we find ourselves in control us.
We young lawyers are more obsessed with the short term (chasing money, conducting legal research, preparing pleadings, next hearing etc.) But what about the long term? I don’t mean next month or even next year. I am talking about the rest of your life. What legacy do you want to leave behind? To lead a fulfilling life as a lawyer means more than meeting the next deadline. It means having dreams and living for them.
It is important for you to look out for your own career. There is this saying that no one cares about your money as much as you do. It is the same with your career, no one cares about your career as much as you do. Life is going to be really tough at the early years of your career, because you are yet to figure out the right from the left, however, this is the stage for you to discover yourself by periodically accessing where you are, where you want to be and how to work smart to get there.
Whether you are in a law firm, corporate establishment, government employment, etcetera, wherever you find yourself, you are going to be surrounded by people who are motivated by their own interests and agenda and you are going to be really lucky if someone picks an interest in you. You cannot count on someone looking out for you. You may however choose to go with the flow of where you find yourself, but you would only end up okay, because you have allowed others control your professional destiny.
To discover yourself as a young lawyer, you owe it to yourself to first become a better lawyer, to constantly improve your skills (whether it is your writing, your research, taking a deposition or arguing a motion) The following factors have to be put into consideration if we want to truly discover ourselves as young lawyers and be in control.
- Evaluate your strengths and weaknesses:
To discover yourself, you need to start by being honest with yourself. You can even sit down with a pen and paper and write down a list of your strengths and a list of your weaknesses. Know where you are good at and where you are not. You cannot be good at everything the same way you cannot be bad at everything.
- Build on your strength:
Pick one or two of your strengths and commit yourself to making them even better. If your strength is advocacy, don’t just be a good advocate, be a great one, don’t be good at conducting trials, be great at it.
- Address the weaknesses:
As you are building your strengths, also pick one or two of your weaknesses and commit yourself to working on them as well. Set realistic goals on how you can overcome your weaknesses and commit to achieving those goals. If your writing is average, set realistic goals on improving it such as reading from senior colleagues, not necessarily senior colleagues from your office, law reports etc.
You might be a smart hardworking whippersnapper but having someone who has been around the block to help guide you is a tremendous advantage. Having a mentor can help open doors to opportunities that would not have been otherwise available.
Most of us have mentors, but the question are; “do we have a meaningful relationship with our mentors? When last did you have a meaningful conversation with your mentor? Trust me; your mentor is no good to you if he is a mentor in name only, he is only good if he is in fact a mentor. If you have a good meaningful relationship with your mentor, he might discover you even before you discover yourself. The following factors have to be considered to build a lasting, meaningful relationship with your mentors because they have a lot to teach and we also have a lot to learn from them.
- Meet regularly:
It is easy for your mentor to get busy, the same way it is easy for you to get busy as well. However, it is important to schedule regular meetings with your mentors, you might consider meeting once a month or more, most especially if your mentor is within your jurisdiction.
- Communicate regularly;
Asides from pursuing face to face meetings, call and email your mentor, most especially when you are not in the same jurisdiction. Email is a great way to get much needed advice because you can always send in your questions at your convenience and your mentor can always send in his answers at his convenience too.
- Ask your mentor the hard questions:
Your mentor is worth his weight in salt because he can likely answer your hard questions. Your career questions, ethical dilemmas, case strategies, and even office politics. Ask him. His experience makes him equipped to answer them. That is why he is your mentor and that is why you need to be strategic and very careful in choosing a mentor, don’t choose someone who hasn’t figured out his own life to be your mentor, hence you would be setting yourself for doom.
- Learn his experience:
There is this saying that we are a composite of our experience. Learn your mentor’s experience, the life he has lived, the challenges he has faced, how he faced them, what steps he has taken to get to where he is, because all these would give you insights on how to face your own.
It is important to study your mentor. What does he do that you are not doing and more importantly, what does he not do that you are doing. Whatever he did right to get to where he is, figure it out and copy it. For instance; if your mentor’s life revolves around office and home, and you are the type that likes to cut bottle, it would be better you emulate your mentor’s lifestyle today.
- Start mentoring others;
In mentoring others, you tend to further discover yourself. As a young lawyer, you may think you have not amassed enough experience to mentor someone else. You are wrong. If you are 5 years at the bar, mentor a new wig, if you are a new wig, mentor a law student or even a high school student who has a whole lot of questions.
- Dream Big: The first step to discovering yourself as a young lawyer is to know what you really want from this profession. As a young lawyer, don’t be afraid to dream big. The pertinent question to always ask yourself is; where do I really want to be in 10-15 years from now? Do I want to be at the same firm? Do I want to be a partner at the firm? Do I want to be considered an expert in a particular field of law? Do I want to establish my own firm? What type of firm do I want to establish; small firm, medium firm or a large firm? Do I want to get silk? Do I want to be on the bench? Do I want to be a senior lecturer or a professor of law? Do I want to be the Managing Director of a company? The list goes on and on….
Don’t ask yourself where you expect to be, where life would likely take you or where the firm you are currently practicing would take you. Take charge of your life and direct it towards something bigger than yourself. If you want to one day be the Chief Justice of Nigeria, direct your life as a lawyer towards it, don’t think it is too big for you. People that are there today also started from somewhere, they were once young lawyers like us.
- Develop a plan: Once you know what you want to accomplish as a legal practitioner, figuring it out is the next step. If you dream and do not work towards it, it is a vague dream. You need to figure out how to get there. It is when you develop a plan to achieve your dream that you would not jump at every opportunity that comes your way because you already have a mapped out plan on how you want to achieve your dream. It is not a bad idea to have a journal wherein you state out what you want to get out of this profession and the plans to be put in place to achieve that. We really need to learn how to strategize. If today you are doing A, tomorrow you are doing B, next tomorrow you are doing C, if you are not careful, you would lose all. (Today, there is a PA vacancy, you are there, tomorrow there’s a legal adviser, you are there, next tomorrow there’s a company secretary, you are there, then there’s a vacancy in Lagos, you are there) this simply means you don’t have a plan set out to achieve your dreams.
- Decide how to reach each benchmark: Once you have decided upon short and long term goals, the next step is to decide what tasks you need to perform to reach each benchmark. If you want to be a Judge or a Senior Advocate, what steps do you need to take to achieve this? You need to set your goals. If you put your goals out of your reach, you are setting yourself for failure. It is important to note at this point that each step we take every passing day, we are writing the script of our career life. However, to get that fulfilled ending, our individual acts have to be thought out and achievable.
When we look at our young Senior Advocates, the likes of Bode Olanipekun SAN (35 years), Kehinde Ogunwumiju SAN (36 years), the first thing every random person would say is that they got there through connection. However, it is important at this point to emphasize that if these people did not have the requirements, even if their link was the Chief Justice of Nigeria, the so called connection would be meaningless.
As young lawyers, it is important for us not to make the same mistakes our seniors made. How do we do this? “By being informed.” To reach your benchmark, you need to set your goals, be informed of the steps to take to reach there and work towards it. If for example, you intend to one day be a SAN, know what it takes to get there and start planning it now, if you want to one day be on the bench, start planning it today, if you are yet to start, start today.
Back to not making the mistake our seniors made, most of our seniors spent years getting “experience” so to say, without planning their future.
Another step on how to reach your bench mark is experience. The word ‘experience” is a big word and there are 2 types of experience (Right and wrong). Getting the right experience through pupillage is very essential as it makes you discover yourself even faster than you would have if you were on your own.
Many young lawyers are out there getting the wrong experience. Once you know what you want, don’t take every opportunity that comes your way all in the name of getting experience, hence you would keep getting the wrong ones. You can’t do everything, if you want to be a SAN, don’t go to a company as a legal adviser because you see it as an opportunity to get experience. If you want to one day become the Managing Director of a company for example, and you have 35 years to be in service or 60 years, whichever comes first, don’t spend so many years in legal practice all in the guise of getting experience, because by the time you decide to follow your dream, you would retire at managerial level, and wouldn’t be fulfilled. If you want to be a Professor of Law, don’t spend years as a Company Secretary, have a deep think today and find your route. You don’t have to be 10 years at the bar before you know what you want to get out of this profession. (It is not when you are 10 that you would now start thinking; okay now I am 10, let me check the LPPC Gazette, what requirements do I have, what do I not have?)
If for example, you are in a law firm where after a few years, you are still precluded from conducting cases unaided under the guise of still being under pupilage, you need to take some thoughts. Frankly speaking, before you know what is going on, you are 10 years at the bar and already you might have spent not less than 7, 8 years under “pupilage”. When you now start seeing your colleagues at 10 getting silk, bench etc., you begin to wonder what happened and you resort to the connection phrase.
Whereas what you would not know then is that those people planned how to get to their bench mark. How do you now plan your benchmark if you happen to find yourself in this type of situation, which obviously is the situation we young lawyers in this jurisdiction find ourselves? My 2 cent is for you to find a way to build career towards attaining your dream. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying you should quit your job, there are so many criminal cases of indigent accused persons, get them and defend them pro bono, if you have the means, defend it all the way to the appellate courts, before you know what is happening, you are gaining your experience while building your career and by the time you are 10, 12 years at the bar, you already have all the requirements needed to get to the peak of your career.
If you just want to make money, that’s the easiest, gain your experience, be good at what you do, be vast in the law, maintain a good reputation, you don’t need to be a SAN to be the best in your jurisdiction. There is a growing trend of unpalatable reports of young lawyers extorting defendants especially at the Magistrates’ Court. Your reputation is important and it cannot be over emphasized that we need to maintain a good reputation. You can make money, in fact you should, after all, money makes the world go round. In making money however, let us be extremely careful and not run afoul of the tenets of our beautiful profession.
In conclusion, upon discovering yourself as a young lawyer, never rest, never be satisfied with what you have accomplished. If you stand still, your mates would run past you. Know that they are getting better as you stay the same. Eventually, they would pass you and your great skills by comparison would not be so great anymore. Also, be humble because as a young lawyer, you do not know everything neither do you have all the answers. The practice of law generally no matter where you find yourself is a humbling experience. Stay humble, remain focused, keep improving and with diligence and hard work, we will all reach the pinnacle of our careers.
I thank you all for listening.
Omotayo is an Associate at Wale Omotoso & Co, Akure.