How Nigerian Lawyers Can Significantly Increase Their Revenue and Improve Access to Justice

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This study by The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (Hiil) shows that Nigerians face 25 million legal problems every year, but only 8% of the legal problems in which resolution was sought were resolved through courts or lawyers. Most Nigerians resolve their legal disputes informally, or not at all. Lack of awareness of legal procedures, financial constraints, and time are some of the reasons people gave for not resolving their issues through the legal system. However, people who resolve their problems through the judicial process report getting the most satisfactory outcome.

If people do not access the justice system because of limited financial resources, and delays in the system, what can lawyers do to see that the more than 90% of cases not resolved through the judicial system (and this does not include the 30% of legal problems for which no resolution is attempted) are resolved through courts and lawyers? The answer lies in exploring cheaper, speedier alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation discussed in this post and in lawyers considering contingency fees for civil wrongs.

Given that Rule 39 of the Nigerian Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners now allows, subject to certain restrictions, lawyers to advertise and promote their practice, an entrepreneurial lawyer in Nigeria will significantly increase his or her revenue by taking the following five steps:

Diligently Promote Their Practice

Lack of awareness of legal rights and remedies is one of the reasons Nigerians don’t attempt to resolve their legal issues. Consequently, a lawyer who educates the public on their rights stands a better chance of being retained by people with legal problems. Femi Falana, SAN, the foremost human rights lawyer in Nigeria is popularly known because he speaks out on matters pertaining to human rights. Professor Itse Sagay is prominent for constitutional law because he has established himself as an authority in that area of law. In like manner, a lawyer who consistently comments on the law and educates the public about the law, even through a forum as basic as Facebook, grows his practice more aggressively than one who relies on old-fashioned word of mouth referral.

Most tenants facing eviction for non-payment, for example, do not know that uninhabitability of a leased apartment may be a valid ground to fight eviction in some states; a truck driver injured in a crash in the course of his employment may not know what rights he may have under workers compensation laws and may settle for peanuts even though he is permanently disabled. Likewise, surviving family members of a deceased in a wrongful death case may be unaware that remedies available may include not just funeral costs, but loss of the deceased future earnings, loss of companionship suffered by the widow, etc. Similarly, female employees sexually harassed by supervisors may not be knowledgeable of the civil remedies available for their employers’ inaction and may choose rather to quit their job rather than address the wrong. The above examples show that to increase the number of cases that go through the legal system, lawyers must do the hard work of educating the public on their rights and the extent of monetary damages recoverable.

The Hiil study previously referred also found that less than 10% of Nigerians receive information about their legal problems online. This, despite the fact that about 50% of Nigerians use the internet. Again, a lawyer who takes proactive step to provide information to the public is likely to attract potential clients. Since there are still some restrictions relating to lawyers advertising in Nigeria, the best way for a lawyer to promote his or her practice is through content marketing which I discussed in detail in this article on Bellanaija. An immigration lawyer I worked with, following the guidelines in the article, has reported generating businesses from all over the world because of her articles and LinkedIn presence.

If you are a lawyer and you do not promote your practice online, you are missing out on potential clients. A simple step like updating your LinkedIn profile and periodically updating the page with timely relevant resources in your practice area will yield result in due time.

Be Open to Contingency Fee Remuneration

A contingency fee is a type of remuneration that is based on outcome. In other words, a lawyers does not charge a client legal fees until a favorable result is obtained.

Most civil cases in the United States are prosecuted by attorneys on a contingency fee basis because the average American cannot finance a lawsuit. Imagine all the wrongs that will go unaddressed if the average working class American were expected to come up with tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees prior to settlement or judgment. Contingency fee remuneration is an ingenious idea that ensures increased access to justice. Keep in mind though, that contingency fee remuneration is appropriate mostly for civil wrongs but not for some practice areas like criminal law. In the U.S., the percentage of the proceeds retained by attorneys are sometimes as much as 45% of the settlement or judgment.

In Nigeria, Rule 50 of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners allows contingency fee remuneration as follows:

  1. (1) A lawyer may enter into a contract with his client for a contingent fee in
    respect of a civil matter undertaken for a client whether contentious or noncontentious: Provided that –
    (a) the contract is reasonable in all the circumstances of the case including the risk
    and uncertainty of the compensation;
    (b) the contract is not –
    (i) vitiated by fraud, mistake or undue influence; or
    (ii) contrary to public policy; and
    (c) if the employment involved litigation, it is reasonably obvious that there is a
    bonafide cause of action.
    (2) A lawyer shall not enter into an arrangement to charge or collect, a contingent
    fee for representing a defendant in a criminal case.
    (3) Except as provided in sub-rule (1) of this rule, a lawyer shall not purchase or
    otherwise acquire directly or indirectly an interest in the subject matter of the
    litigation which he or his firm is conducting; but he may acquire a lien granted by law
    to secure his fees and expenses.
    (4) A lawyer shall not enter into a contingent fee arrangement without first having
    advised the client of the effect of the arrangement and afforded the client an
    opportunity to retain him under an arrangement whereby he would be compensated
    on the basis of a reasonable value of his services.
    (5) In this rule, “contingent fee” means fee paid or agreed to be paid for the lawyer’s
    legal services under an arrangement whereby compensation, contingent in whole or
    in part upon the successful accomplishment or deposition of the subject matter of
    the agreement, is to be of an amount which is either fixed or is to be determined
    under a formula.

Contigency fee remuneration ensures lawyers take up only cases that have the greatest chance of success, and since they have a stake in the outcome, lawyers tend to prosecute such cases diligently with an aim to obtain a resolution as quickly as possible. Contrast this with the current practice, as I experienced when I practiced in Eastern Nigeria, where even plaintiff attorneys have no sense of urgency in prosecuting cases and ask for adjournments without valid reason so they can collect more legal fees for appearances, etc. Therefore, incorporating contingency fee remuneration into one’s practice may potentially make one a better lawyer.

Go After Defendants Who Have the Means to Remedy the Wrong

A lawyer considering taking up cases on a contingency basis must evaluate every case not just for possible liability but for potential for recovery. Cases against defendants with insurance coverage, corporate entities, employers, landlords, licensed professionals, etc. are more likely to yield results than cases against less buoyant persons including people who have declared bankruptcy. A good case to take on a contingency basis will be, for example, one against Dangote Cement for this crash that killed six people this past April amidst the lock down. Therefore, to start out, a lawyer who wants to use content marketing as a promotional strategy may choose to educate the public about wrongs most likely to be committed by defendants with deep pockets. Obtaining monetary judgment against an impoverished defendant, except judgment is obtained as a matter of principle or to prove a point, is often futile and tantamount to winning a battle but losing the war.

Explore Alternative Dispute Resolution Methods for Civil Recovery

In the U.S, most civil cases settle prior to trial, about 95% for automobile cases. Parties settle because it is better for them to have a say in the outcome, than to have a third party, or parties in case of jury trial, decide their fate. They keep in mind that however clear the issue of liability may seem at first in any given case, judges’ individual biases, contributory negligence, act of God, failure to mitigate damages are factors that may weaken an otherwise strong case. Moreover, settling a case as soon as a reasonable offer is made spares both sides from spending time and money on litigation cost.

Therefore, before filing a lawsuit, a lawyer should brainstorm what alternatives to litigation may exist to obtain recovery. For example, in a previous post I mentioned how  Lagos Citizens Mediation Center, from January to December 2015, mediated 20, 966 cases, resolved 19, 464 and collected N752, 974, 217  on behalf of parties. Mediation services offer low-cost, speedy resolutions and should be considered for civil wrongs. Mediation is beneficial for the additional reason that defendants readily comply with settlements but would appeal judgments to frustrate execution of judgment.

Utilize Enforcement Power of Government Agencies

Government agencies in Nigeria are often associated with inefficiency and corruption, but from my experience, they can prove quite effective. In this post, I wrote about how I applied for my certificate of good standing from the Supreme Court via email and without any payment from me whatsoever, yet the registrar had it promptly sent to California.

Whenever possible, attorneys should consider using services provided by the government to enforce their clients’ rights. For example, besides the mediation service by Lagos State government previously mentioned, the state Ministry of Justice’s website also shows they help people illegally disposed of their land and represent free of charge people who are unlawfully detained or arrested. Using these government services, in addition to pursuing civil remedies, often guarantee speedier resolution than litigation alone.

Another instance where use of government enforcement action would come in handy is in cases against licensed professionals like doctors and lawyers in malpractice cases and in complaints against regulated institutions. Sometimes, a licensed professional or entity clearly in the wrong may settle a case not out of a desire to right their wrong but to avoid a possible enforcement action by a licensing entity. Some of the licensing agencies in Nigeria which receive complaints against professionals include Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria , the Nigerian Bar Association. Complaints against banks can also be filed with the Central Bank of Nigeria via their email cpd@cbn.gov.ng.

With increasing online presence, most of these agencies are now responsive. Using the enforcement power of these agencies can be one more tool lawyers may use to advance their clients’ interest for speedier resolution of disputes.

Increasing access to justice is an honorable goal every lawyer should aim for. It becomes more appealing when that also leads to increased earnings for lawyers. As a lawyer is first and foremost an advocate – one who pleads the cause of another, every lawyer’s primary goal should be to represent their clients’ interest in the most effective and efficient way possible. Even where a lawyer is unable to help a prospective client, they should consider referring the client to other alternatives that may provide some sort of remedy, yes, even when the referral does not benefit the lawyer. I hope this article encourages more lawyers to play their parts towards achieving a more egalitarian society.

Anne Mmeje is a lawyer with an interest in alternative dispute resolution and digital marketing. To contact her, email annemmeje@yahoo.com.

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