FOREIGN NAMES, BLUE-COLLAR WAGES – WHY DO LAW FIRMS PAY SO POORLY?

Whether the story is similar in other Third World countries is fairly debatable, but one incontrovertible fact is that labour dynamics in Nigeria constitute a very murky terrain. The rate of unemployment in the country has no regard for the laws of gravity, graduates are spewed out at all times of the year into a congested labour market, there are too many hands for too few jobs, and the result is that desperate adults who just want to earn enough get by – with many even shouldering the responsibility of taking care of their families – find themselves at the mercy of employers who, aware of their superior bargaining power and advantageous position, subject Nigeria’s youths to their whims and caprices.

The most painful part, however, is that somehow, this sad state of affairs extends to more than a few law firms in Nigeria. For a set of people who are supposedly versed in labour laws and take up cases involving the violation of workmen’s rights across other industries, lawyers happen to make the worst employers.

In the first weekend of April 2020, a Nigerian lawyer took to Twitter to express his displeasure at the practice of Nigerian law firms operating with fancy names but paying meager salaries, writing thus:

Dear Nigerian law firms, if you can’t pay at least 100k monthly to your junior associates, please don’t give yourselves English names.

In a series of replies that concurred with the assertion of the original poster, other lawyers alluded to their experiences of being paid peanuts that were not commensurate with the demanding nature of their respective job descriptions. In jocular fashion, many law firms were called out for negotiating abysmally low wages for employees, and on many occasions, “Arguing salaries like they’re pricing pepper in the market”.

If the accounts of many young legal practitioners on social media are anything to go by, then it would seem that the situation is more horrible outside the country’s two biggest commercial cities, and that some employers of labour in the legal services industry deem it fit to not pay the lawyers who work for them. According to a female lawyer based in Port Harcourt, “Some law firms don’t pay anything; they’ll claim they are offering you office space and a chance to grow under a senior colleague”.

Sometimes the nature of the vacancy advert reflects the environment and conditions of work at many of these firms: there is no mention of specialisation, there are no pretentious hints at career development, it’s just a case of slaving away for months on end. Senior lawyers see through the desperation of young wigs, and exploitation is the order of the day. Employees at law firms are worn out physically and subjected to psychological torture, all for a pittance! The years roll by, and there is neither any meaningful career stride nor any real financial weight gathered. In a good number of cases, it doesn’t take long to find out that the information on the firm’s website is bogus, that the number of available staff are far less than what was represented on the firm’s letterhead, and that the office space is much smaller than what the Managing Partner held it out to be on the day of the interview.

Many calls have been made for the Nigerian Bar Association to review the salary structure of law firms across the country, but in advancing this argument, however, many factors have to be taken into consideration: the economic reality in the country differs from state to state, and lawyers who are employers of labour simply cannot pay salaries beyond the budget that their profit allows them to create. Nevertheless, the idea that some lawyers do not get paid for the services they render is distasteful in nature, and employers who take pleasure in delaying salary payments in spite of generating huge revenue figures have a lot of explaining to do.

Obsession with foreign names

In all this, another small matter that bears mentioning is the tendency of these firms to adopt foreign names which are not only untraceable to their founders or managing partners, but have absolutely no bearing on their operations. Some argue that this is purely borne out of a colonial mentality and an attempt to bear a semblance of poshness, while others have opined that such nomenclature goes to holding out a not-so-true appearance to prospective employees, who would be taken in by the name and probably decide to send in an application for employment.

Reacting to this, a lawyer contributing to this discussion on Twitter reacted thus:

No matter how much they pay, I will never understand the colonial obsession with foreign names. Not like they are even names of any of the partners. 

Another legal practitioner, unwilling to hide his distaste, had this to say:

And they will refuse to bear their local names jeje. Rather you will be hearing names like Dustin and Parker….sounding like DUSTBIN AND PACKER when you hear the salary.

Whatever this case, it beggars belief that certain law firms, after adopting names that would pass them pass for a law office located in another jurisdiction, would go on to offer wages that are significantly shy of the prestige which their name seeks to convey.

Conclusion

Employment in Nigeria is a total cesspool, but if there are many employers who are acting in ways that adversely affect the quality of life of their subordinates, it should not be lawyers. The legal services industry is in dire need of evaluation.



Jerry Chiemeke
Author: Jerry Chiemeke
Jerry Chiemeke is a lawyer, editor, columnist and art enthusiast. Per his legal practice, his interests include Regulatory Compliance, Legal Advisory and Finance. He is a widely published writer whose works have appeared in journals and publications around the world. Jerry loves commenting on music, film, art and everyday happenings around lawyers. He lives in Lagos. He can be reached on chiemekejerry5@gmail.com.
Yes No