Wigs without welfare: Lawyers in Nigeria earn below minimum wage, and it isn’t unusual
SIX hundred and thirty naira (N630). This was the amount Andrew Bello, a Lagos-based lawyer, received in one of the months he worked for a law firm in Ikoyi.
His total salary was supposed to be N20,000 per month, but his firm deducted N500 for each day he got to the office later than 8 a.m. Living in FESTAC town, ordinarily at least an hour away from the office, and coupled with constant traffic congestion, he had little choice. And so he often went home at the end of the month with an average of N4000, while the manager’s gardener, he’d learnt, was paid at least N35,000.
When he asked why he was receiving only N630 that month, he was told the monies deducted were for lateness, practising fee, as well as seal and stamp.
“The boss even told me they just gave me that money out of generosity, that I’m the one who was supposed to pay them that month,” the 28-year-old alumnus of Benue State University recalled.
He was also given between N100 and N200 anytime he had to go to the court. Though it was never enough, he was asked to produce proof of additional amounts spent if he wanted his money reimbursed. From November 2016 to December 2017, Bello endured not only exceedingly inadequate pay but also generally poor working conditions at the firm.
A few months into the job, he travelled to Akwa Ibom for a trial and by the time he returned, his house had been demolished, with no debris in sight. He lost all his possessions, and had only two shirts, one pair of trousers, and one suit. So he went to his boss and pleaded for a week-long leave to recover.
“Err… I’m sorry for your tragedy but, if you miss one day, don’t ever come here again,” she had replied.
For two months after that incident, he slept on plastic chairs at a bar in Obalende and went to the office every morning from there. He then moved in with a friend at the Nigerian Law School. There, he facilitated tutorials between 6 and 10 p.m. on weekdays and earned an extra N20,000. He lived on the campus for three to four months before moving to squat with another friend in Ajah.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I would leave Ajah by 5 a.m., get to the office by 8 a.m. so I don’t get N500 deducted, finish from Law School by 10 or 11 p.m., go back to Ajah, get there by 1 a.m., and then I’m up again by 4 a.m. And after all that, at the end of the month, I was always in debt.”
Today, Bello works in-house for the Seven-Up Bottling Company and earns well over N200,000. “Most people like to say I paid my dues, but man! I didn’t have to pay that much,” he chuckled.
Asked if he would study law a second time if he had an opportunity to travel back in time, he said yes—but only “because of the course itself”. He added jokingly, “If it was by the people in the profession, I would pick Police Studies so that I can deal with them under the guise of anti-robbery or anti-cultism.”
Bello’s ordeal may be behind him but thousands of legal practitioners across the country continue to face a lot of difficulty in trying to eke out a living. Many law firms are reported to treat their employees shabbily, particularly when it comes to remuneration.
There are firms on the Lagos Mainland for example, sources say, that pay as low as N10,000, nearly half of the previous national minimum wage of N18,000. Then there are those who just offer to pay “something” at the end of the month, often defaulting for long periods.
It is also common for lawyers to be employed without written contracts or terms of employment, though this violates section 6 of the Labour Act that states that such contracts must be given not later than three months after employment.
A young female lawyer in Ibadan, Oyo State, who preferred not to be named, spoke of how she was paid N25,000 by her boss. Worse still, he only paid after the first month, and she had to spend out of her pocket to work for several months till she finally quit. “That is the trend of how he does his own things,” she said, implying he used that approach for his other employees too.
Again, last year a video that went viral showed two policemen hitting, dragging and threatening to shoot a lawyer, Olakunle Kareem, who had gone to his former employer, Oluyomi Olawore LLP, a law firm in Onikan, Lagos, to request for his unpaid salary.
It is suggested that the only reason lawyers are not massively seeking job opportunities in other countries, like their counterparts in the medical field, is because they are limited by country jurisdictions.
The narrative is the same irrespective of state. Believing legal practice is not enough to meet his needs, Stephen, an Abuja-based lawyer in his fifth year of practice, has also delved into the information technology (IT) space.
“I had to go learn IT,” he said. “I am a web designer. I run a tech. company with a couple of friends, and that is where I augment from.”
Young lawyer goes to his former employer to ask for his outstanding salary and this happened! Law firm: OLUYOMI OLAWORE LLP.
RT till it gets to the right people pic.twitter.com/E9lw7wFbi8
— Gentleman in Skirt (@bjspesh) July 4, 2018
According to the newly passed amendment to the national minimum wage law, employers who pay less than the minimum wage, which is now N30,000, may be sued at the National Industrial Court. On conviction, section 9 states, the employer shall pay a fine, all outstanding arrears of the worker’s wages, as well as additional penalties for each month of continued violation.
From law to tailoring
When Bisola Ogunsola, 27, participated in the compulsory one-year National Youth Service Corps scheme in 2016, like many of her colleagues she was offered neither stipends nor accommodation. They were treated like burdens in their places of primary assignment.
“We thought NYSC would soon pass and things would get better,” she said, “not knowing that many of us will so much miss the N19,800.”
Studying law was a trying experience for the graduate of University of Ibadan. Due to no fault of hers, she spent eight years, instead of the usual six, in getting a law degree. She was in her first year when her dad got diagnosed with lung cancer. His expensive treatment and subsequent death in 2011 left the family of eight in financial hardship.
Ogunsola took on three part-time jobs just to get through school. She was a tutor at a JAMB tutorial centre and worked for a home tutor business. She also sold jewellery and trained others interested in the trade.
Her mother had to secure a loan to pay her tuition at the Nigerian Law School. Life was simply a transition from one struggle to another. But, after her service year, her hopes of reaping the fruits of her hard work still did not materialise, in spite of how celebrated and highly competitive her profession is.
The firm she joined in Akure, Ondo State, told her they don’t pay salaries but only allow their staff to have appearance fees in order to promote hard work. But she soon discovered, to her dismay, that most clients wouldn’t pay the fee after proceedings, and requesting yourself could get you a scolding.
Those who paid only gave between a thousand and two thousand naira to cover transport expenses. As a result, she earned an average of N2000 every week and, with fares and call cards expenses deducted, only ended up with about N3000 each month.
“The principal will personally go for briefs where the appearance fee is attractive and push juniors to stingy clients,” she narrated.
Her search for jobs at other law firms did not bring a better offer. Many promised salaries but would not pay for months, and then you would have to let go. Some assure you of attractive appearance fees, but prevent you from going to trials. At times, they also lie that they’re handling a matter pro bono (free of charge) just to mislead their employees into thinking they are not making huge profits, she said.
So how did Ogunsola cope with other expenses? Her answer: “Business and donations from family.”
“Most young lawyers live on business. Most female lawyers are selling one thing or the other. At least, some people will patronise out of pity,” she explained. “I’ve never been a fan of sole income since my childhood. I just had to pick up from where I stopped.”
She is into the fashion business now, she added, and is training to become a seamstress. With her free time, she builds her private practice by holding briefs for clients and other lawyers outside the jurisdiction.
Another young female lawyer who narrated her experience of psychological abuse and being overworked told The ICIR she has left practice for the position of company secretary at a micro-finance bank in Lagos. From there, she hopes to delve into human resources after successfully getting inducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management in Nigeria (CIPMN).
Not a global problem
Compared to other countries, including some in Africa, lawyers in Nigeria are not doing very fine. Based on a 2016 survey reported by Delta Quest Media, an American lawyer who is just one to four years at the bar can up to a £166,510 (N75.8 million) in a year. Lawyers in Switzerland earn an average of N69.7 million, and those in South Africa with only one to three years of work experience earn up to N63.8 million.
Tsholofelo Tsholofelo, a lawyer in Botswana, confirmed that lawyers in the country do not get paid below the national minimum wage of about $85 per month (and there are talks of raising this to $350). Lawyers who are maltreated report to the Botswana Law Society, which holds lawyers and firms accountable.
“It is very active,” he added. “You can get disbarred for unacceptable behaviour.”
Ayomide Shittu, a US-based lawyer and graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, also told The ICIR lawyers in the United States are not an exception to the national minimum wage of $1,160 (N419,000) per month and there is no prejudice against so-called junior lawyers.
“US lawyers are paid better because the US is a more successful country and the laws about wages are enforced,” she explained.
“If someone pays you less than minimum wage, you can report to the US Department of Labor and they will sue them. Also, no one is going to even take that job so the employer won’t offer it. Law firms are serious companies. No one is going to pay you less because they feel like they are doing you a favour.”
Section 13 of Nigeria’s amended National Minimum Wage Act empowers trade unions to demand compliance with the law on behalf of their members through the court. Complaints may also be filed with the minister of labour and employment.
Benson Upah, the NLC’s head of information, said the law is not fully operational yet and processes are still ongoing to ensure its implementation. He also said the Congress has not had records of companies in the past not paying, but it plans to exploit remedies available to it in seeking compliance including going to court where necessary.
Likewise, the labour ministry’s deputy press director, Rhoda Iliya, told The ICIR that aggrieved persons who visit the ministry’s headquarters at the federal secretariat or send an email will be appropriately directed.
What is the NBA doing?
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) is the professional association of all Nigerians admitted to the bar. Aspirants for key positions at the NBA have often included better welfare for junior lawyers as part of their campaign promises, but do close to nothing after elections.
“Every candidate comes with the mantra and says he will bring back the minimum wage for lawyers, but they don’t really mean it. They just say those things like typical Nigerian politicians,” Stephen remarked.
NBA president, Paul Usoro, in his acceptance speech last year stressed the need to motivate, take care of, and improve the compensation packages of young lawyers. His predecessor, Abubakar Mahmoud, in his 2016 inaugural speech was also particular about developing “a minimum standard and practices for the employment of younger lawyers in law firms across the country”.
Towards fulfilling this, the NBA under Mahmoud’s leadership set up a 13-man committee to formulate a framework on the issue of welfare for all lawyers. Headed by the then NBA vice president, the committee proposed a minimum salary of N50,000 for young lawyers and N25,000 of corps members.
It recommended the establishment of a Welfare Monitoring Committee to act as a task force and watchdog in ensuring that the new policies are adhered to. It suggested also that there should be awards to recognise firms with a friendly disposition to welfare.
Isiaka Olagunju, former NBA general secretary, however, confirmed that the National Executive Council has yet to approve the committee’s blueprint submitted to it in February 2018.
Improve the economy, enforce wage laws
It is the view of Shittu that the fortune of lawyers in Nigeria is a direct reflection of how well the larger economy is performing, and it is not only lawyers who are victims of the system.
“Lawyers are underpaid because everyone is underpaid,” she suggested, adding that “this is so because there is no enforcement of minimum wage laws.”
Laditan Adekunle, a senior state counsel for the Lagos State government, has a similar assessment. He advised that one way to improve lawyers’ financial welfare is for the NBA to ensure that perfection of titles at the land registry can only be done by legal practitioners.
Another crucial step towards improving the financial conditions of lawyers, according to Kemi Sulyman-Akanbi, is to diversify legal practice, which is presently limited compared to what is obtained in other countries. Exploring untapped areas of law will open the doors to new career opportunities, she said.
“The rate at which lawyers are being churned out year in year out is huge, and the opportunities for work as far as Nigeria is concerned are not commensurate. There’s too much manpower, and fewer opportunities to absorb it; and that will affect the pay because if a lawyer says he is not going to take a job, there are thousands more who are willing to,” said Akanbi, an expert in labour law and lecturer at the University of Ilorin.
“Globally, there is what we call super specialisation in law. In some law firms in other countries, they focus only on energy law, artificial intelligence, humanitarian law etc. Here, we just have essentially criminal law, civil law, and a few other areas. There is, therefore, need for reorientation to open up new areas.”
She agreed there should be a minimum wage for lawyers but expressed doubt about it—as well as proposals to make law a second-degree course—bringing a lasting solution. Particularly, a minimum wage might lead to a reduction in firms’ workforce so as to cut costs and a greater number of unemployed lawyers, “if my earlier recommendations are not in place”, she said.
Akanbi also emphasised that the bulk of the burden of putting an end to poor remuneration lies with the NBA. She wonders why, lawyers who are interpreters and ultimately drafters of the law allow themselves to be cheated, despite the clear provisions of the Labour Act.
“It is the lawyers themselves that need to act; there is little the government can do. We need lawyers to take their fortune into their own hands.”
*Some of the names used were changed on request