By Nonyerem Ibiam Esq.
The expectation is that legal practitioners should live above board and maintain the highest professional standard at all times.
To be called to the bar, you must not only excel academically but also be fit and proper for the legal profession.
In Nigeria, there are many conducts regarded as unprofessional and which can get a lawyer in trouble.
Many lawyers tend to avoid financial misconducts while ignoring other unprofessional conducts frowned upon in the profession.
The following are some unprofessional conducts and common mistakes among lawyers in Nigeria.
Selling Land and Other Commodities.
Many lawyers run afoul of this provision by engaging in personally selling land and other commodities while practicing as legal practitioners.
Although some experts have wondered how selling land is incompatible with the practice of law, the Supreme Court has however upheld the provision.
In NBA v Ibebunjo (2013) 18 NWLR (Pt.1386), 413, the Supreme Court upheld the de-robbing of a lawyer when it held that the business of selling land is a trade or business incompatible with the practice of law.
Rule 7 of The Rules of Professional Conduct provides as follows:
(1) Unless permitted by the General Council of the Bar (hereinafter referred to as the “Bar Council”), a lawyer shall not practice as a legal practitioner at the same time as he practices any other profession.
(2) A lawyer shall not practice as a legal practitioner while personally engaged in –
(a) the business of buying and selling commodities;
(b) the business of a commission agent;
(c) such other trade or business which the Bar Council may from time to time declare to be incompatible with practice as a lawyer or as tending to undermine the high standing of the profession.
Using Barrister as Title.
This is perhaps one of the most flouted rules of professional conduct as many lawyers and judges breach this rule.
The law school teaches lawyers that using “barrister” as a title is wrong and unprofessional, however many lawyers still use it before their names.
The courts have also held the practice to be improper. In NBA V Ofomata (2017) 5 NWLR (Pt. 1557) 128 at 133, it was held that:
“The appellation of ‘Barrister’ as a title before the name of a legal practitioner is unprofessional and improper”
It is not uncommon to find someone introduced as ‘Chief, Barrister, Dr., Sir, C. N. Joseph’.
Another common professional misconduct is improper dressing. This is common among younger legal practitioners.
Rule 36, Rules of Professional Conduct provides that:
“When in the courtroom, a lawyer shall –
(a) be attired in a proper or dignified manner and shall not wear any apparel or ornament calculated to attract attention to himself.
Proper dressing is one of the traditions of the legal profession. People expect lawyers to always dress well both in and out of the courtroom.
The tradition of proper dressing is, however, being threatened by some lawyers who bring popular dressing culture into the profession.
It is therefore not uncommon these days to find male lawyers who come to court wearing black jeans and chinos, or not wearing socks.
You also find female lawyers wearing skimpy skirts and outlandish hairstyles with their wigs perching on their heads.
Improper dressing is unprofessional conduct that can make you draw the ire and reprimand of judges or worse.
Going to a Client’s Place to Take Instructions.
Rule 22, Rules of Professional Conduct provides that:
“A lawyer shall not call at a client’s house or place of business for the purpose of giving advice to, or taking instruments from, the client except in special circumstances or for some other urgent reason preventing his client from coming to his law office”.
Some lawyers in a desperate move to make some money are ready to meet a client anywhere if the pay is good.
Except where a client is ill, elderly, or where your presence is required, a lawyer should meet his/her client in the office.
It is sad these days to find lawyers who work so hard from morning till evening but with very little to show for it.
Undercharging has become the bane of many lawyers who bring the profession into disrepute by charging inadequate fees.
Although a lawyer can offer his services for free, it is, however, professional misconduct for a lawyer to undercharge a client.
Rule 52 (1), Rules of Professional Conduct provides that:
“The professional fees charged by a lawyer for his services shall be reasonable and commensurate with the services rendered; and accordingly, the lawyer shall not charge fees which are excessive or so low as to amount to undercutting: Provided that a reduced fee or no fee at all may be charged on the ground of the special relationship or indigence of a client”.
If you do not want to be broke in your legal career, you should learn how to charge proper legal fees.
Standing Surety for a Client.
There has been some controversy over the propriety of a lawyer standing as a surety for his client. While some say there is nothing wrong with the practice, others disagree.
Those against lawyers standing as sureties for their client rely on Rule 31 (1), Rules of Professional Conduct provides that provides as follows:
“Where a lawyer undertakes the defence of a person accused of a crime, he shall exert himself, by all fair and honourable means, to put before the court all matters that are necessary for the interest of justice, but shall not stand or offer to stand bail for a person for whom he or a person in his law firm is appearing”.
Those in this school of thought believe that the most a lawyer can do is to recommend a suitable surety for the client and not to stand as the surety.
Those who see nothing wrong in the practice opine that the Rules of Professional Conduct only prohibits lawyers from being sureties for accused persons on bail in any COURT in Nigeria. According to them, by excluding detention centers like DSS, EFCC, Police Station, ICPC, etc, a lawyer is free to stand as a surety.
Although the rule specifically mentioned standing as a surety in court, a lawyer should be careful of exposing himself to the dangers inherent in standing as a surety anywhere.
Collecting Appearance and Professional Fees in Court.
Some lawyers have formed the habit of demanding and collecting their appearance and professional fees from clients in court.
It is unprofessional to see lawyers arguing with their clients over the adequacy of their appearance and professional fees in court.
Before appearing in court, make sure your appearance fees have been paid at least 24 hours before the hearing of the matter.
Many clients are cunning and will sometimes disappear or tell you stories after you have represented them in court.
Aiding a Non-Lawyer in the Practice of Law.
Unfortunately, many lawyers knowingly or inadvertently aid non-lawyers or unqualified persons in the practice of law.
One area where this practice is rife is in the preparation of land documents or title deeds. Land agents have formed the habit of preparing land documents and getting a lawyer to sign and affix his/her stamp and seal.
Rule 3 (1) Rules of Professional Conduct provides:
“A lawyer shall not-
(a) aid a non-lawyer in the unauthorized practice of the law;
(b) permit his professional services or his name to be used in aid of, or to make possible, the unauthorized practice of law by any person not qualified to practice or disqualified from practice;
(c) share legal fees with a non-lawyer except as provided in the rule”.
Refusing to Sit When an Opposing Counsel Stands to Object.
Refusing an opposing counsel to make objection is a scenario that plays out in court every other day. You find two lawyers standing and addressing the court or each other at the same time.
The correct practice is that once a lawyer is addressing the court and the opposing counsel stands to object, the one addressing the court should immediately sit down.
But, these days, many lawyers refuse to sit down when objections are raised. Instead, some lawyers will tell the objector, “I am still on my feet”, or “I am still standing”.
Refusing to allow an opposing counsel to take an objection creates a tense atmosphere and falls short of the high standard of behavior for lawyers.
Being Rude and Insulting to a Court.
Rule 31 (1) Rules of Professional Conduct provides that:
“A lawyer shall always treat the Court with respect, dignity, and honour….”
Although lawyers should never be afraid of judges, they must, however, not be rude, discourteous, or insulting to the court.
A lawyer should always be civil in language and conduct even when he/she disagrees with the decision or conduct of the court.
It is also unprofessional and inappropriate for lawyers to walk out on the court when a decision is not in their favour.
It is inappropriate for lawyers to use foul language to describe a court whenever a decision or ruling of the court goes against them.
The court of appeal in the case of Etim V Obot (2009) LPELR-4128 (CA), frowned at the conduct of a lawyer who used the words ‘strange’ and ‘mysterious’ to describe the judgment of a lower court.
Being Rude and Insulting to an Opposing Counsel.
It is also unprofessional conduct for lawyers to treat themselves with contempt.
Rule 26 (1) Rule of Professional Conduct provides that:
“Lawyers shall treat one another with respect, fairness, consideration, and dignity, and shall not allow any ill-feeling between opposing clients to influence their conduct and demeanor towards one another or the opposing clients”.
Some lawyers are always in the habit of accusing their colleagues of deceiving, misleading, or lying to the court.
These remarks are derogatory of an opposing counsel and amount to unprofessional conducts not suitable in the legal profession.
Insulting a Witness.
Some lawyers see the chance to question or cross-examine a witness as an opportunity to insult and disgrace a witness.
Rule 36 (b) Rules of Professional Conduct provides that a lawyer shall:
“Conduct himself with decency and decorum, and observe the customs, conduct, and code of behaviour of the court and custom of practice at the bar with respect to appearances, dress, manners, and courtesy”.
A lawyer who knows his onions can get the answers he wants from a witness without insults or hitting below the belt.
Sharing Legal Fees with Non-Lawyers.
The Rules of Professional Conduct prohibits lawyers from sharing their professional fees with non-lawyers.
Rule 53, Rules of Professional Conduct provides that:
“A lawyer shall not share the fees of his legal services except with another lawyer based upon the division of service or responsibility….”
Some lawyers ignore this provision and share their professional fees with others who recommend clients to them.
This ugly practice also plays out when some lawyers promise some percentages to security agents for rendering some services.
Giving Bogus Assurance to Clients of Winning Their Cases.
The Rules of professional conduct does not allow a lawyer to give a bogus assurance to his/her clients of winning a matter he/she is handling in court.
Although a counsel should be confident of the way he/she is handling a matter, he/she shouldn’t say come rain, come sunshine, he/she must win the case.
When lawyers make bogus assurances, they cease to play the role of advocates and take up the role of the court.
Communicating with a Judge Handling Your Matter.
These days, some lawyers are quick to enter into correspondence with a judge over a pending matter in court.
It is unprofessional for a lawyer to discuss a pending case with a judge trying a matter, except the opposing counsel is present.
Rule 31 (4) and (5) of the Rules of Professional Conduct provide as follows:
“(4) Except where the opposing lawyer fails or refuses to attend and the Judge is advised of the circumstances, a lawyer shall not discuss a pending case with a Judge trying the case unless the opposing lawyer is present.
(5) Except as provided by a rule or order of court, a lawyer shall not deliver to the Judge any; letter, memorandum, brief or other written communication without concurrently delivering a copy to the opposing lawyer”.
Where, however, a lawyer is compelled to write to a judge handling his matter, the lawyer should copy the opposing counsel.
Wrapping It Up.
Legal practice owes its reverence and respect to a large extent on the observance of the rules of professional conduct.
A breach of these rules can result in penalties such as warnings, fines, suspension, and outright disbarment.
Lawyers should, therefore, be careful of observing these rules to maintain the dignity of the profession.
Written by Nonyerem Ibiam Esq, firstname.lastname@example.org
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