Today’s legal practice is utilitarian. It requires us to approach it with a socio-economic understanding, and this also means that to be a good law professional, one’s knowledge of law must necessarily conform with and be creatively applied to solve real issues to which clients are confronted. Law has arched into wider circumferences. The current landscape of legal practice is different from the terrains on which our ancestors traversed in yesteryear. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, to be a lawyer did not require much. Armed with the Queen’s License, a Gown and the Lawyer’s Remembrancer, the best lawyers were simply those who mastered the art of proffering complex legal arguments to befuddle and astonish their clients, those who understood the language of conveyancers, the clauses in a contract, or those who knew how to utilize the legalese of the constitutionalists. Law has morphed over the years controlling systems and institutions in a more advanced manner and responding to a wider collection of socio-economic, socio-legal and political needs and with this new, vast areas of legal practice have emerged. These changes we witness today in the practice of law have altered perspectives and approaches so much that lawyers – both the old wigs and the greenhorns – are in an ever-increasing need for clarity in their chosen career paths to meet up to speed or stay consistently progressive in practice.
In recent times, there have been many events and awareness packages focused on helping law students and lawyer alike, to chart their career paths for themselves, become more sensitized about how much more there is to explore in the legal market apart from Disputes Resolution. This work therefore focuses on a major decision that lawyers make very early into their careers as legal professionals, sometimes even as law students while they are yet to graduate – the decision of which career path they should navigate into or which areas they should deem as “core areas of practice” in preference over others.
Very often, we find law students on their social media platforms displaying interests in areas such as Fintech Law, Entertainment Law, Energy, Taxation or Maritime, sometimes without really knowing jack about these areas; some of these areas are yet to be developed by laws in Nigeria. This may be a good thing. In most circles, there is the subtle dismissal that graduating law students or new wigs get when it appears that they still have not found an area of practice to devotedly align with – they appear clueless about legal practice. So, the effect is that not a few students quickly find a fancy aspect of law to subscribe to, concentrate on and ultimately align with as their prized areas of practice. Despite all the advantages this could have, this work intends to deepen the perception of these early debates on career paths and nearly impulsive career decisions by exposing some negative effects to it, without trying to disprove that indeed, there are fair instances of students blessed with the fortune to know from the outset what they want to thrive in with a very accurate and logical assessment of their convictions, capacities and interests.
We cannot run away from making decisions – it is perhaps the most difficult aspect of adulthood. But with decisions as heavy as the career path in which we wish to be experts in, it may be necessary to be more cautious and give room for more flexibility in approach and consideration. The profession admits of so many ambits, so, what is very much obtainable is that young law students choose their interests on premises that may not be solid enough to justify their choices. The premises range from the uninformed to the utterly ridiculous – such as a beautiful rendition by a professor on a subject at a seminar, an unverifiable belief that one area of law is more lucrative than the other, or that one area of law attracts much more ease than the other or others. In this article, this article then seeks to highlight a few points for consideration when or before making regimented decisions as to career paths:
- Your Understanding of the Required Skills for a Chosen Path Might be Inaccurate:
In my interactions with some law students, I have discovered that while many are deeply interested in their chosen paths, these passions lie on quite shallow, sometimes unfounded ideas of what the chosen careers demand. For instance, I have encountered law students who say that they do not pay much attention to moot and mock activities because they want to be “corporate lawyers”. It is even difficult to define who a corporate lawyer is, but what is amusing is the belief that the skills one acquires from indulging in moot and mock activities are not particularly required by corporate lawyers. Indeed, this is a common misconception. The truth is that law is so delicately woven, and the best lawyers have a bit of every possible legal skill. Fighting shy of certain practice areas (and the skills that come with them), becomes disservice to oneself because in the grander scale of considerations, these skills, regardless of which practice area they each feature more prominently in, eventually aggregate rather interestingly to forge the millennial lawyer. You may dislike court room practice and make mental vows of how you will never set foot in court but the skills therefrom will be applicable to your chosen field of legal practice. For instance, as a “corporate lawyer” advising companies and boards, you will find the confidence, oratory and courtiership that lawyers learn in court, useful in your visits to company or board meetings. There are dozens of meetings you will attend that are as formal as court room engagements and these skills apply. Besides, corporate law practitioners approach the courts for many reasons including making arguments for grant of one order or the other.
The student who has developed a liking for taxation law, believing court room arguments to be mundane, may soon find himself at the Tax Appeal Tribunal to make the same submissions he so dreadfully abhors. Interactions with law students also reveal that many have developed a belief that the emerging areas of law are easier, or more lucrative and definitely have nothing to do with conventional court room practice. Indeed, paths such as Fintech Law, Maritime Law, Aviation Law, Oil and Gas Law, Intellectual Property and Entertainment Law, seem to endear the admiration of many law students. But, Maritime, Aviation and Intellectual property law experts find their ways into court every so often to argue their applications on behalf of clients. In fact, the reality is that very few law firms in Nigeria with a wealth of expertise can afford to have consultant lawyers in these supposedly “choice” areas of practice who do not dabble into litigation from time to time. Also, the nature of the briefs that might warrant only legal advisory services or documentation preparations in highly specialized sectors of the economy (such as aviation, Oil and Gas and Maritime) are fat – and fat briefs are the exclusive preserve of a rather select few practice firms. The confidence and oratory of the court room lawyer is essential to the craft of the business lawyer whose daily routine involves meeting different businessmen and women across the globe; the meticulousness and attention to details of the constitutional draughtsman are vital to the work of the lawyer whose business is to prepare documents for huge financings and syndications – in fact, this meticulousness traverses all sectors. Is it the listening skills of the company secretarial lawyer that is not immensely useful to the litigator? Are there lawyers who would not be better off if they tore from the pages of the litigator whose interrogating skills, earned from cross-examinations, are matchless?
Lucrativeness of an area of law – or the sheer belief of it – inspires these decisions often. No one wants to suffer. Yet, it may not be advisable that this should mainly inform a career path. Whether an area of law is lucrative or not is relative and whether it will be lucrative to a budding lawyer depends on the coherence of several factors which simply are not peculiar to the chosen field. For instance, the location of the lawyer, the caliber of clientele he is fortunate to attract (this is highly unpredictable), the number of qualified precursors who have made goodwill in the field and are still in active practice, the quality of the lawyer’s delivery of services, the open market expectations of a lawyer willing to practice in the field in terms of qualifications and shifts in government policies are all indices that vary the extents to which lawyers benefit from a field. So, that one knows five or even twenty Maritime lawyers who have risen to financial stardom is not good premise to lay the important decision of a career field on.
In the end, one would find that there are no skill sets particular to a field of legal practice and the point stressed under this rubric is that unless one has a full grasp of all it truly entails to engage in a path and consistently excel in it for a long period of time, it becomes hasty to make a decision as to one’s career path. Sadly, many students do not understand or realise how areas of law overlap one another. In loathing a field and the skill sets that come with such field, they may settle hastily for some other preferred field which, in reality, requires just as much the same skill sets as those conferred by the ignored field.
- Specialization is a Journey and not an Absolute Destination:
Experts say that it takes 3 to 5 years to become an expert in a field. This may be tongue-in-cheek; this may be accurate also. What is important is that it is perfectly okay to spend some time before delving to specialize in an area. A decision to be utterly stuck to a path should be informed and this entails an absolute understanding of what the area entails; it also involves a fair assessment of other paths and what they entail as well. Logically, one cannot opt to specialize in a field that one knows nothing of. Passion, in this wise, is not enough. Often, people come with different levels and depths to their abilities and with marked idiosyncrasies. In appreciating a career path, it is important that however nuanced such a path is, it comes easy and naturally to the person who has chosen it. Therefore, one cannot claim to hate several other paths without having dabbled into the patterns that make up those paths. It is a closed mind that abhors what they have no idea of; the most one should do is be indifferent.
No doubt, there are students who, without having to enquire into what other career paths seem like, already know their choosing. This would come usually with marked successes (theoretically and practically) in courses relating to those areas or prior hands-on experiences that shape more appreciation of the law in those areas or some other deep-seated reasons. This category of students is often an exception and even in this exception, some later have regrets; some might have wrongly assessed the profundity of and the premises for their convictions. It is therefore safer and probably beneficial that students should be guided to have a fair idea of what other career paths are made of before they pigeon-hole their interests into cute little boxes of uninformed admiration and preferences. They must understand that they run no material risks in giving themselves time to properly appreciate several career paths or areas of specialization before choosing to practise one.
- Haste in Decision Making may Stunt Creativity and Limit Versatility:
It is important to re-state that logically, one cannot detest what they have no idea of; one may be indifferent. Understanding this makes for an open mind and with an open mind comes the need to try new areas, activate some level of creativity and expand versatility. A flexible approach to the question of what career path one wishes to traverse is a safer approach because that way, one is open to the possibilities of gaining new insights that may recalibrate one’s position probably to a path where one’s abilities are more effectively utilized. Also, with less haste, a young lawyer is more likely to better consider the legal market and how to pitch an area of practice and blend his legal knowledge to achieve excellent service delivery. Indeed, a lawyer who hankers after corporate/commercial law practice and leaves no room for flexibility may fair poorly in evaluating the needs of a particular market and how to blend in efficiently, if such market is not a predominantly commercial location. Flexibility helps people realize that the legal career is a long journey and it may not start off respecting the terms that make up our lofty dreams all at once. The flexibility is important, and a hasty career decision has the negative effect of making students ignore so much knowledge that would have encouraged versatility – the versatility they might need to make some good fortune of early inconveniences or crises in legal practice.
This work justifies the on-going agitations for a more qualitative legal education for the quantifiable lot of law students and lawyers in Nigeria. If students had more practical interfaces in the study of law, they would understand that it is only prudent to make calculated assessments in reaching important decisions such as the choice of area(s) of practice. Many law teachers focus more on the bony stalk of legal abstractions and ignore (sometimes genuinely) the need to broaden the depths of legal understanding by the use of more practical, socio-economic realities and in the long-run, the quality of education impacts on the mentality with which students approach core decisions such as career paths. Students should be taught to know that legal practice today has even transcended into consulting and tax advisory services. In Magic-circle law firms in the UK, there are joint practices with big tax firms. Lawyers should also be equipped to fit into these related business outlets; it promotes eclecticism and absorbs the upsurge of unemployment of lawyers. There are private equity firms that lawyers continually thrive in – legal education should bring these to the knowledge and appreciation of students long before they become distraught with the tedium of choosing career paths for themselves.
Students should be invited to think decisions through and be patient where necessary. Patience as a term, is a tiring cliché and clichés are enemies to literate people. Although the term is overused, the message is always worth revisiting and for decisions lofty enough to alter your trajectory to life – such as decisions as to one’s career path, there are many considerations to be evaluated some of which are pointed out above. Bringing it down to legal practice, the degree of caution is quadrupled because it is a rather broad set of practice areas. It is therefore okay to be unsure of an area of specialization at the nascent stages of practice or as undergraduates. Where one is reasonably certain of an area of practice, it is also beneficial that one does not ignore the knowledge and experience that accrue from other areas of practice. The interplay between these areas is almost divine.
About the Author
Destiny Ogedegbe is a Trainee Associate at Banwo and Ighodalo. He is a published author and a young law scholar with interests in Disputes Resolution and Corporate Law Practice.