Lawyer of the Week – Chief Arthur Obi Okafor, SAN
Our Lawyer of the week is Chief Arthur Obi Okafor, SAN. A friend of the Bar, he’s the Principal Partner at Arthur Obi Okafor, SAN & Associates and has his practice in Dispute Resolution. In an exclusive interview, he discusses a handful with us, including the rising interests of lawyers exploring and specializing in novel areas of law, the problem of un/under-employment in the Nigerian Legal Profession, inter alia. Kindly follow our chat below.
Q: Can you kindly describe your journey so far in Dispute Resolution?
A: It is a worthwhile experience that encourages justice for all. You see our litigation system in Nigeria is adversarial in nature and once parties are in court, they see each other as enemies. But through the application of alternative dispute resolution mechanism, everyone ends up having a feeling of satisfaction and to me as a lawyer, I feel happy and satisfied that disputes are resolved without causing bad blood. Dispute resolution provides a win-win platform for parties.
Q: What aspect of practice keeps you going?
A: I am a litigation lawyer, with a bias for alternative dispute resolution. My clientele base is made up of people from different walks of life and by the grace of God, we have been able to successfully handle several contentious cases across diverse areas of law such as receivership and company proceedings, land matters, election petition matters among others. The fact that we are able to deliver satisfactory legal services to our clients keeps us going, as they recommend others. Some of our notable cases at the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court are reported in several law reports in the country.
Q :What is your counsel for those who wish to delve into arbitration?
A: Arbitration is an interesting area of law in Nigeria, but it requires competency, integrity, courage, compassion and commitment. For anyone who is interested in arbitration to do well, such a person must be ready to learn and understand the subject matter in dispute and take on the problem, applying the facts and the law to the issues at hand. For instance, if it is a business related dispute, the arbitrator must be able to acquaint himself with the required knowledge of the sector before arbitrating. Also, he must be a good human manager, as the process of arbitration involves dealing with parties who feel aggrieved and look up to up to him to solve the problem,so he has to be very competent. Integrity is very important in arbitration as in deciding cases, the arbitrator must endeavour to be objective, fair, just and neutral. He should be able to deal with issues according to the dictates of the law and should not allow himself to be influenced by sentiment. So for anybody that wants to delve into arbitration, he must assess himself objectively, develop the passion for it and be committed.
Q: Did you always have it in mind to set up your own law firm?
A: The truth is I knew that I will one day be on my own and as such, I had to prepare for that time. As a person who believes in the development of my personal capacity, I threw myself in to learning the rudiments of law practice after my law school in 1992, and was fortunate to be exposed to the best of litigation, practice and procedure in diverse aspects of Nigerian law by my mentor, the Late Chief Dr. Chimezie Ikeazor SAN, OON, who was the founder of Legal Aid Scheme for the Poor in Nigeria. Chief Ikeazor led me as a young counsel in some of the most celebrated cases of that era and sensing my passion and commitment, gave me additional responsibility as his Personal Assistant which became an additional platform to learn different facets of law practice. So to answer your question, I knew that I will set up my own law firm and I prepared myself for that. By 1995, when I left his firm to establish Arthur Obi Okafor and Associates, I was well prepared to start running on my own.
Q: For law students and young lawyers who wish to specialize in novel fields like sports and entertainment law, what is your candid advice?
A: I am a strong advocate of lawyers exploring and specializing in novel areas of law that are not in vogue here. Back then, the general conception was that a lawyer’s work begins and ends in court, dealing with criminal and civil causes, however, with time, the society and even, we as lawyers have seen our relevance in other novel areas of law. Take for instance in Nigeria, before the advent of GSM, most lawyers did not know that they could play vital roles in the telecoms industry; but, today the story is quite different. Look at the oil and gas sector and the maritime sector; lawyers are key players in these sectors. It is my belief that lawyers should delve into other areas like entertainment, sports, antitrust, advertising, admiralty, cryptography, space law and a host of other emerging areas of law. Look at the entertainment industry for instance, one of our highest exports as a country is entertainment; millions of dollars are generated from this sector, anywhere you go, you will always find Nigerian music. Musicians like Tuface, Wizkid, Olamide, D’banj, Don Jazzy, Tiwa Savage, P-Square and a lot of other Nigerian musical artistes are households names across the globe. How are we lawyers tapping from this industry? What about in the area of sports? Why do our sportsmen and women enter into contracts that ultimately destroy them? I encourage lawyers to develop themselves and delve into these areas of law and tap from the fortune there.
Q:The problem of unemployment and under employment has become more prevalent in the contemporary Nigerian legal profession. In your view, what steps can be taken to curb these ills?
A: The legal profession doesn’t exist independent of the society; the economic downturn in the country also affects lawyers who are also faced with a highly saturated labour market. The legal profession unfortunately is not like medicine, which enjoys government support for newly qualified medical doctors, through the housemanship programme. Government funds newly qualified doctors to undergo further training, while enjoying juicy cash allowances from the public funds. In the legal profession, once a lawyer is called to Bar, he is left to his fate and must eke out a living for himself and by himself. You see, population explosion has hit the legal profession, as such the large turnout of lawyers every year causes lawyers to struggle for the few available spaces. So there is bound to be a high rate of unemployment in our sector. Also, most firms do not pay their lawyers salaries or allowances, hiding under the guise that nobody can pay a lawyer his worth. I must commend those firms that are paying junior lawyers working there, such firms have taken the bold steps at addressing the issue of underemployment in the profession frontally. For those who are of the view that you can’t pay a lawyer his worth, my take is that it is very true! But you can make him at least comfortable, a lawyer needs money to keep body and soul together and maintain his dignity. If a senior lawyer cannot place the junior lawyer on monthly salary, he should be allowed to enjoy the appearance fee. Take for instance, in a busy firm, a young lawyer goes to court four times in a week, and for everyday he is in court, the firm allows him take the appearance fee say maybe five thousand naira per day. At the end of the month, he may be able to have some money; he can boldly call his money earned. It’s pathetic that some of us senior lawyers believe that junior lawyers are under training and can only learn under hardship. Also, we need to diversify, let us look at other areas of law and go into these novel sectors. Once you go into a new area in the profession, you will be sought after and instead of being an employee, you will be an employer. The beauty about our profession is that no matter how young you are at the Bar, you are a learned colleague and it is your proficiency that will speak for you.
We should also look at getting the federal government to also support lawyers financially during their period of pupilage. This is not something that can happen overnight, as it will need statutory backing. However, I believe with proper planning it is achievable.
Q: Of late, darts have been thrown at the Nigerian judiciary for corruption. Is this problem institutional or one that has to do with personnel?
A: The issue of corruption in the judiciary is one that has been over amplified in an attempt to undermine the independence of this sacred institution. I know that there is corruption in Nigeria, the judiciary is part of the country, and corruption is not restricted to the judiciary alone. It is also in the executive and the legislature, so you find it everywhere. It is true that like every system, there exist individuals who are corrupt in nature and abuse the offices they are privileged to occupy. The judiciary is not exempted from such people; however, it does not make the entire institution corrupt. I know that our judiciary is blessed with one of the finest sets of judicial officers in Africa and this accounts for why some African states still reach out to us to help build their judiciary. The judiciary has its self disciplining mechanism and it does not hesitate to apply same on erring judicial officers. The problem is that the public is usually influenced by sentiments, especially in this era of media trial, so that they misconstrue their views to be the position of the law. Where a judgment doesn’t go the way they expect, then the judiciary is corrupt. We cannot judge the institution using the measurement scale of the public.
Q: What are your hopes for the legal profession in the New Year?
A: I want to see the legal profession play a very important role in the sustenance of our hard earned democracy. As you are aware we practice constitutional democracy in Nigeria, no arm of government should be allowed to undermine the other. As custodians of law, the society expects a lot from us; we should be the voice of the ordinary Nigerian and should do everything possible to promote the rule of law in our country. In this New Year, we should make the welfare of members of this noble profession paramount on our agenda and every member should count.