by Rotimi Fawole
When I quit my old job to go into solo practice, I looked for every single piece of advice I could find, to be sure I wasn’t being foolish. There was a lot of material on the internet about “flying solo” but it was all from the UK and the USA, which is fine until you remember that many of your colleagues studied law thinking life would be like Matlock after graduation. We all realise, a little too late, that Nigerian legal practice is nothing like Matlock.
I was 6 years post-call at the time and while most colleagues, family and friends thought it was “brave” and “a good decision”, the Partners at my old job advised against it and urged me to reconsider my decision for different reasons. One thought it was premature, another suggested I would be unhappy with the type of work I would “regress” into and yet another predicted that a liquidity crunch was coming and even they were apprehensive of what the year ahead had in store for them.
At the time, vanity convinced me they just didn’t want me to leave their employment but, three years later, I see that there was some objectivity in their remarks. The almighty liquidity crunch did come (seemingly to stay) and there has been significantly less M&A/Financing/transactional work than I’d anticipated/had grown accustomed to. Was my departure premature? Not really, but I see what my old boss meant.
My Constitutional Law lecturer, the late Professor JD Ojo, would frequently observe in his classes (and also in his capacity as dean of the faculty) that “the practice of law is for the rich”. We were in our late teens and early twenties at the time and reactions to the statement were varied. Prof Ojo studied for his masters and doctorate degrees at the University of London but wasn’t himself a “wealthy” man by most standards, at least not before the Abdul-Salam/Obasanjo transformation of the wages of academics. Thus, people wondered whether or not he saw the irony in his remark. Others were angry at what they perceived a condemnation to a life in penury, given their humble backgrounds. When it was made mandatory for law students to dress in monochrome with proper footwear and we all protested (at different things, including the cost of new wardrobes), Prof Ojo reminded us “without any apologies” that law is for the rich. I have come to agree with him, in a sense. I will return to this point later.
Given that I haven’t been flying solo for that long yet, is there any advice that I can give to someone considering leaving the nest? Let me try.
1. When is a good time to quit the old job and fly solo?
People leave big law firms for different reasons. Some are terminated and physically pushed out of the nest. Some grow tired of the monotony. Some find themselves on the cusp of an opportunity and need to be masters of their own time to effectively pursue it. Others are fed up with verbal abuse from their bosses.
It’s important to leave for the right reasons and at the right time. I think the best time to leave is when you can afford to leave: young enough to start a business and, in the event that it fails, still be young enough to be employable; if you have a family, they need to be able to remain comfortable while you find your feet; or you leave when you’re already earning so much money on the side that you’re no longer dependent on your salary (kind of like Lagos and Rivers States re federal allocations).
Unless you’re from a wealthy family, with a wealth of ready connections to people in positions that can dispense quality work, it’s likely your stabilisation period will be fairly tough. This is probably where I agree with my old dean. It is much easier to practice law properly with a safety net(work) of family pedigree and all the perquisites that come with it. Otherwise, you need to keep plugging away at it. Persevere Until Success Happens (*kind of stolen jingo*).
3. “Dirty work”
There is a great deal of sleight-of-hand and smoke and mirrors out there. You keep seeing this chap who was called two years after you, yet he’s driving Range Rovers and Jaguars. If he’s not a trust-fund baby, chances are he’s a property wheeler-dealer (big ticket transactions rarely trickle down that low). Now, the purist in me hates showing people round empty houses – that’s an estate agent’s work. But there’s an opportunity cost to being a purist. And, positioning yourself to contend with bigger law firms costs money. Sometimes, therefore, you do what you have to do. Again of course, who you are, who you know and who you’ve come to know are also all very important here.
4. Be an authority – Be the “Go-To”
If you’re keen to practice law properly, it’s probably best to be well-renowned in your field of practice before you go solo. Yes, your Partners and the name of their firm attract the work while you’re with them but to survive after you leave them, enough of the big-paying clients had better realise that you’re the brains of the operation. That way, they may come looking for you when you leave the nest.
5. Keep improving yourself/the business
At some point, if the business doesn’t fail, work will come and you need to have the capacity to deliver at “big law” level if you want to retain the client. Capacity, both in the context of intellectual manpower and of technological hardware. You must personally be ready for that time, as must your business.
6. Consider staying in the Nest
The image that hardened my resolve to give self-employment a go was a 10yr+ Senior Associate almost on his knees (figuratively, at least) begging for a bonus from the Partners. And then there was the time a senior lawyer was let go without warning. But for every senior associate that carries on in an antithetical way to your ideal, for every seemingly decent lawyer let go, there are another 3 or 4 who rise through the ranks and eventually make Partner. At the end of the day, there’s no rule that says everyone must own their own law firm. Worth considering.
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