In all spheres of the Nigerian labour market, the relationship between employer and employee is a pretty complicated and intricate one, and in many instances, it turns out to be a very touchy subject. This is particularly so, given the notoriously high rate of unemployment in the country, as well as the trigger-happy nature of employers, simply put, their tendency to hire and fire at will.
With respect to the legal profession, an analysis of the relationship between employers and employees provides observers with a slightly different perspective. In theory, the relationship between employer (Principal) and employee (Associate/Junior Counsel) is symbiotic in nature; the Associate learning the ropes of legal practice from the more experienced Principal, and the Principal having his workload reduced and equally benefiting from the Associate’s input, fresh ideas and all.
In reality however, the employment terrain is a lot murkier. Besides the big firms in the nation’s major cities where law firms are run as partnerships, most law offices around the country operate as a sole proprietorship business, with a pretty loose hierarchy. To this effect, terms of contract are relatively loose, remuneration is abysmally poor (especially considering the cost of acquiring the degree), and the life of an employee in the legal profession is largely nomadic, hopping from firm to firm until he meets satisfactory conditions, while at the same time gaining the necessary experience.
With the loose organizational structure and low remuneration found in more than a few law firms, one would think that employers would be absolutely slow to dispense with the services of a junior lawyer, but that assumption is not a hundred per cent correct. Sure enough, senior lawyers who double as employers are not as eager to lay off workers as their counterparts in other professions, but they are equally not shy to make it obvious that a particular employee is surplus to requirements. For a variety of reasons, ranging from perceived laziness, inability to keep up with payment of ‘stipends’ (the money is usually too embarrassingly little to be called a salary), suspected disloyalty (like attending job interviews while still in employment), to recommendation from the Principal’s wife – yes, some lawyers’ wives can wield that much influence – lawyers who employ labour may decide that they may not want a particular person working for them anyone. As earlier mentioned, they are not eager to sack, but they register their disenchantment in subtle ways, so it’s up to a wise junior lawyer to wake up and smell the coffee.
The following signs are not exhaustive or even generally applicable, but they serve as a sure guide for (apparently) unwanted Associates to know when to use the door:
- Your boss no longer assigns any serious case files for you to handle. You don’t even get to move simple motions in court anymore. At best, you are sent to take adjournment dates, otherwise, you are made to sit idly in the office, almost converting you to an unofficial clerk.
- You may find out that several weeks have rolled by without you making a court appearance. This is particularly painful in a firm that is usually busy in nature. Imagine a day where your office has about five to six cases on the diary, and you do not get to feature in any!
- You find that you often get excluded from any work that is even slightly financially rewarding. From drafting of documents, to securing police bail, to filing of court processes, you are frequently left out, forced to wallow in idleness.
- Your boss and/or his wife respond to your pleasantries in a very lukewarm manner….but forget to greet loudly, and you risk a real hair-dryer treatment from your superior.
- Even on the few occasions you eventually get to make an appearance in court, your boss is almost always reluctant to give you appearance fees as he used to. He begins to complain of the economy, or pushes you to the client, who would in turn evade payment by claiming that he has paid your boss already. (Many clients are like this, but when your boss consistently gets evasive and reluctant to pay you, it’s a red flag.)
- Whenever you don’t perform so well on one of your (rare) court appearances, your boss is quick to give you a dressing-down, sometimes even in front of the client. Rather than defend your integrity in front of the client and correct you afterwards, he shows that he is not bothered about whether his verbal onslaught leads to feelings of embarrassment and humiliation on your part.
- He becomes very reluctant to pay the usual monthly stipends (the pay is not worthy of a better name, as earlier stated), and in extreme cases, goes on to pay your colleagues while leaving you out, citing all kinds of excuses.
- Every single thing you do goes to irritate your boss. He picks on you for showing up late to work even when others arrived after you, he chides you for not taking a more convenient adjournment date, he screams at you for a minor clerical error, and on a really sour work day, he could go as far as questioning the validity of your degree certificates.
- He discusses randomly (but deliberately) to your hearing, about issues such as the economy, downsizing, unemployable graduates and other topics keen to bruise your ego.
The above signs may have suffered from a little exaggeration, but you can’t put anything past Nigerian employers. A junior lawyer who consistently notices any one or more of these signs is faced with two options: stick it out and watch work become hell, or decide that you have had enough and proceed to use the door. For those brave enough to use Option B, not to worry, your boss is used to seeing people leave, so he will not miss you. Then again, unlike other professions, a lawyer does not stay redundant for long. There are scores of other law firms in that city where your services will (hopefully) be better appreciated, and who knows, there could even be another firm waiting with open arms across the street.
This country is devoid of jobs, it is true, but that is no reason for employees to settle for less. Ultimately, it is important for lawyers (and other professionals in general) to know their worth, and know when to choose dignity over job security. As a caveat though, be sure to secure (or at least be halfway through to securing) an alternative job before tendering your letter of resignation; nothing is more depressing for a professional than being stuck in that muddy well called Unemployment.