The growing trend of lawyers practicing beyond the borders of their native jurisdictions is no longer a hypothetical scenario, it is fully anticipated in the provisions of international conventions such as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA). The reaction of the Nigerian legal community to the ratification of the AfCFTA charter has ranged from a tingling sense of anticipation on the part of some, to cautious optimism on the part of others, to outright trepidation on the part of yet others.
Why these varying reactions? And what should be the proper response of the Nigerian legal community to the emergence of a borderless legal marketplace? How can Nigerian lawyers fully exploit the opportunities presented by this trend, as well as minimise its threats? These were the issues before one of the panels at the 2021 Law Week of the Lagos branch of the Nigerian Bar Association. Moderated by Wolemi Esan, a partner at the law firm of Olaniwun Ajayi LLP, the panel had a distinguished faculty of contributors, some of who participated virtually in the discourse.
Speaking on the likely impact of a borderless legal marketplace, George Etomi, principal partner at the firm of George Etomi and Partners, listed two major areas in which to achieve the best outcomes from the trend under review. One, he said, was the need for Nigerian lawyers to push for equity, and also the enforcement of the nation’s local content regulation – not just to actualize the former, but also to drive capacity among Nigerian lawyers and enable them adhere to global best practices. A member of the International Bar Association’s committee on trade in legal services, which helps prepare law firms for globalisation, Etomi urged national policymakers to open up the legal space, but only according to their current and long-term goals. They need to firm up their regulatory framework, so that in the face of such opening up, they did not lose control of their market.
This has to be done, in the words of Muhammed Dele Belgore, SAN, who is a founding partner at the law firm of Sofunde, Osakwe, Ogundipe & Belgore, in a manner that doesn’t drive away foreign expertise, but rather focuses on our educational institutions as regards reforming their instructional curricula to catch up with modern times. He lamented that the content of legal education in our universities and law schools has not changed from he was himself an undergraduate. Otherwise, he warned, the tide of encroachments by foreign interests would continue unabated.
The imperative of developing capacity was also stressed by Chief Anthony Idigbe, SAN, senior partner at the law firm of Punuka Attorneys & Solicitors. He cited the tendency by national jurisdictions elsewhere to situate their nations in terms of corporate entities with specific interests. The notion of ‘Nigeria, Plc’, he said, entails the need for policymakers to take a national position driven by our strategic interest. Like the previous speakers, Idigbe also harped on the importance of building individual capacity, adding that any lawyer desirous of playing in this market must also belong to a network (as isolationism was a professional death-knell in this day and age). Most importantly, he said, lawyers must leverage on technology to enhance their productivity and competitiveness.
Other contributions were also made by Dayo Idowu, a partner at the law firm of Olajide Oyewole LLP, while Mrs. Mfon Usoro, managing at Paul Usoro & Co. and a scheduled panelist, was unavoidably absent.
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