“SWITCHING MERCHANTS” OF THE LEGAL PROFESSION: HOW WOLE OLANIPEKUN & CO. ALLEGEDLY WOOED A MULTINATIONAL FOR BRIEF

To attract briefs, law firms around the world activate legitimate strategic systems to achieve this objective. This is particularly the case for law firms operating within jurisdictions that place considerable restrictions on advertising like Nigeria.

However, wooing a prospective client for briefs could be risky sometimes, especially in view of Rule 28 (5)(a) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, 2007 which provides that “…a lawyer shall not: (a) communicate, cause another to communicate, on the subject of the representation with party he knows to be represented by a lawyer in that matter unless he has prior consent of the lawyer representing such party or is authorized by law to do so.” 

In other words, where there is a matter pending in court and the parties are represented by their respective counsel, no lawyer is permitted to communicate with any of the parties in the case regarding the matter. 

Recently, Adekunbi Ogunde, a legal practitioner and the Partner leading the oil & gas practice area in Wole Olanipekun & Co., appeared to have found it fashionable to breach aforementioned provisions. The Learned Counsel sought to woo a multinational company, Saipem Nigeria, a subsidiary of Saipem S.P.A. From the email correspondence making the rounds, Adekunbi Ogunde requested that her law firm, Wole Olanipekun & Co. should be briefed by Saipem with respect to the ongoing  USD130 Million case at the Rivers State High Court brought by the Rivers State Government against the company.

The reasons adduced by the Learned Counsel in support of this illegitimate request to be briefed are quite interesting. According to the Counsel, Saipem should consider the need for:

1. a more influential lawyer/law firm such as Wole Olanipekun & Co. to prevent a potential huge payout to the Rivers State Government;

2. Wole Olanipekun & Co. is the leading litigation firm that has helped other multinationals in sensitive, highly political matters;

3. Wole Olanipekun & Co. has also helped other multinationals, such as in the famous cases of  MTN tax dispute, Shell Petroleum,  Equinor (former Statoil) dispute etc. avoid huge payouts in more complex and politically  sensitive matters.

In addition, and more importantly, the Learned Counsel also laid out what she felt was a compelling “selling point” for the Firm in alluding to the fact that her Firm was a “switching merchant” in the legal profession. According to the Counsel:

…The presence of our lead partner, Chief Olanipekun SAN, OFR,  in the matter will significantly switch things in favour of SAIPEM. Chief Olanipekun SAN, OFR is currently the Chairman of the Body of Benchers, which is the highest ruling body in the Nigerian legal profession, made  up of Supreme Court Judges, Presiding Justices of the Court of Appeal and Chief Judges of all State High Courts, including the Rivers State High Court. In order words, Chief Olanipekun SAN, OFR, is the head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria.

In other words, considering the pedigree of their Lead Partner as the “head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria”, “everything and anything” is possible as the highly revered Learned Senior Counsel seems to possibly have his hands on the switches in the administration of (in)justice. 

But what could have inspired Adekunbi Ogunde, a fine lawyer with an outstanding profile, to embark on this distasteful journey? Perhaps, the pressure to bring in briefs, or the feeling of overconfidence? The possibility that this could be a common approach which often turns out successful may not be entirely ruled out.

Notably, the Learned Counsel never asked that the Counsel on record for Saipem, Ajumogobia & Okeke, should be disengaged. Rather, according to the Counsel, “We are aware that another law firm is currently in the matter but you will agree that highly-sensitive and political matters require more influence. We are happy to work with the current lawyers to achieve the desired results.”  

Thus, the Counsel was requesting that Wole Olanipekun & Co. should be brought in as “mercenaries” to switch things in favour of Saipem. Clearly, no matter how it is construed, this approach is equally against the Rules of Professional Conduct in Nigeria.

Indeed, Wole Olanipekun & Co., is a leading law firm in Nigeria. Chief Wole Olanipekun SAN is arguably one of the finest advocates in the history of Nigeria. The Firm has produced a significant number of lawyers who have attained various heights both at the Bar and at the Bench. The contribution of the Firm in the advancement of law in Nigeria is unrivaled.

Wole Olanipekun & Co. as a firm has denounced, but not denied, the correspondence by Adekunbi Ogunde, a Partner in the Firm. According to the Firm, the offending correspondence by their Partner was unauthorized and unapproved. Expectedly, the Firm condemned the correspondence in strong terms. 

Notwithstanding, the Body of Benchers and the gatekeepers of the legal profession in Nigeria are currently faced with a test case. How it is handled will definitely set the pace for the kind of precedent that will be archived in the history of the legal profession in Nigeria. What would have been the approach if it were a young lawyer/firm that was involved in this scandalous situation?

Whatever the case, a starting point might be for the current holder of the office of the Chairman of the Body of Benchers to step aside.



Stephen Azubuike
Author: Stephen Azubuike
Stephen is a lawyer with expertise in Commercial Dispute Resolution and Technology Law practice. He is a Partner at Infusion Lawyers. He has successfully argued cases from the High Courts of various jurisdictions to the Appellate Courts on behalf of financial institutions, other corporate bodies and multinationals. He has worked with a number of startup tech companies. He tweets @siazubuike.
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