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Cases now settled in police stations, spiritual homes due to delays in court system – Phillip Umeh, Legal Practitioner

Chief Phillip Ndubuisi Umeh is the Senior Partner at Phillip Ndubuisi Umeh & Co; a Solicitor and Advocate of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. He started legal practice in 1981. After serving for one year at the Federal Ministry of Justice as a youth corps member, he underwent professional tutelage at Felix Chuks Okoye & Co for a number of years before incorporating his own firm. In this interview, he reflected on legal practice in Nigeria and offered a word of advice to budding lawyers and more.

Could you tell us about your early experiences as a lawyer?

It was quite a rewarding experience. Felix Chuks Okoye had a very big clientele; his was a very busy law firm. We were exposed to quite a lot of matters and various aspects of law and proceedings. It also offered me exposure and after working with them, I became more confident, more versatile. I was able to launch out successfully on my own. The law firm really prepared me for my present role as the principal partner of this law firm in terms of discipline.

Okoye died a year after I joined his firm and we took over the running of the firm; myself and my colleagues who are my contemporaries. We continued the practice. His death left a very big void which was not easy for us to fill but we had to rely a lot on his goodwill and some friends of the law firm who acted as consultants and made themselves available to us. From time to time, if we had any problem professionally, we consulted them and that was how we were able to cope.

We had to read voraciously in order to catch up and satiate the needs of clients. Maintaining the standard of that law firm was not easy at all and I was stretched to my limits, because I was exposed to matters, which ordinarily would not have come to me if the boss were to be around. I now became the boss and had to find solutions to legal problems and systems. It made me to grow and mature faster. I really coped well, because more or less, I did not lose any client I took over from my former boss. We kept all of them. We also kept the operations in the law firm going; members of staff were paid and so was the rent.

You left Felix Chuks Okoye & Co to incorporate your law firm. How did you do it, did you borrow money from the bank?

I come from a middle class family and I remember when I joined Okoye’s law firm, he wanted to give me a car loan. My father said he shouldn’t bother that he would give me a car and he did.

As a young lawyer, I had support from my family and the economy then was quite good compared to what we have now. Looking back, apart from my salary, I was getting some private briefs and the money I was generating was enough to sustain me and to set me up and I never really had to borrow money or look for further assistance from family. I had enough.

You can’t believe it, after three months, I bought a Mercedes Benz.

Can you recollect your first breakthrough as a young lawyer?

As young lawyers, we did quite a lot of solicitor’s jobs and a few corporate cases. I can’t remember details now but there was one job I did for Nigeria Industrial Development Bank (NIDB) and it was quite substantial. It was a matter between First Bank of Nigeria Plc and NIDB. 

I think the two banks were contesting priority in terms of a legal mortgage; of security documentation affecting one client. It was very big at the time. After a few appearances in that matter, I delivered an opinion to NIDB that this matter be successfully settled without their continuing in court. Surprisingly, my opinion was accepted. That was how the matter was settled. That brought me some handsome money. That was between 1984 and 1985.

I remember also, one case I did for Nigeria Ports Authority. Something interesting happened at NPA. A member of staff was bald and went abroad to do some skin grafting in order to look more handsome but he claimed he had an “accident abroad and underwent head surgery.” He came back and filed a huge claim against NPA and brought several receipts to support it. I think the authority refused to pay and he took them to court.

It seems immediately he came back, he was terminated and he started making claims about his termination and surgery.

We were about to start the trial and I suggested we invited his doctors to come and testify in court; I thought let me alert them that they were likely to come to Nigeria to testify on account of the surgery they performed. When we called them, they said they never did any such surgery.

That what they did was mere skin grafting. That they were dermatologists and they were not neurosurgeons. What they did was cosmetic skin grafting.

I now requested them to confirm that in writing and they now did.  As soon as we tendered that in court, the plaintiff disappeared and stopped coming. The matter was dismissed. As a young lawyer, I used to argue cases for Nigeria Airport Authority (now FAAN) in far away places like Maiduguiri.

What would you say is the most crucial challenge lawyers face in Nigeria?

The delay in the court system. It takes so long for a matter to start and finish in court. And it affects our income, our performance and even our health. More cases are today settled at police stations; people go to Baba lawo, they go to spiritualists instead of coming to court, because they feel coming to court will take them ages.

You find out that probably, cases that come to court are people who are not used to or don’t believe in the aforementioned.

What’s the remedy for the delays in the adjudication of cases?

A lot can be done. Government should prepare emergency remedies in the justice sector and as such embark on serious reform across the entire sector. When I talk about the justice sector, I’m talking about the police, the prisons, the ministries of justice, the courts and tribunals.

All these bodies make up the process of the administration of justice.  The problems plaguing the sector include lawyers asking for adjournments, because the IPO handling the matter has been transferred and he’s yet to be replaced or asking for adjournment because the prison authority has not released the Black Maria or the Black Maria has not arrived, that is, the accused has not been brought to court. You cannot start a case when a party to a suit is not in court or when the accused persons are not in court. 

You asked further, why are they not in court?  And you hear excuses like “the Black Maria broke down”; “we have only one Black Maria”; “there’s no fuel”; “the driver is sick” etc and the whole day will be lost. Other times, it could be the problem of the lawyer asking for adjournment or the judge not feeling well. Those are human problems.

Ministers of justice may say they have no attorney general like in the case of the Senate president some time ago, which is true. It’s a Nigerian problem. In a more organized society, government will put all these things properly in place. 

You have to be strong willed, resilient and tough to be a private legal practitioner in Nigeria. There are very daunting challenges, which can demoralize you, put you off  or frustrate you out of the system. But somehow, when the going gets tough, the tough gets going. You usually have to be tough to make it and last as a private legal professional in Nigeria. The rewards are there but the challenges are quite heavy.

Tell us about your first day in court?

I was a bit scared and wasn’t this confident, but I must tell you in those days, we had judges who were very empathetic. They understood, you would naturally have that problem. You were given all the latitude to make mistakes and continue.

I was never put off by any fright. The judges I met in those days in court were very encouraging. Judges like A.B Adeniji and B. Famakinwa.

Since I was in a big law firm, I was led and accompanied my seniors to court and gradually gained confidence. Then I was being given simple matters to handle. It was a gradual process of exposure and growth. All the same, I still had some awkward moments I reflect on and laugh off. For instance, I filed a process without a heading.

How do you unwind?

I relax with my family. I watch television with my wife. My children are all grown up and one is a lawyer working with me here. My first son is taking after me as a lawyer; the second one is an engineer in Canada where he studied. Our only daughter is a medical student in the United States of America.

What’s your advice to budding lawyers?

As a lawyer, particularly a private legal practitioner, you have to work really hard, because you need to satiate the expectations of your clients and it’s not easy to do just that. Law is a very dynamic subject, ever changing; you have to keep abreast of developments. You cannot keep abreast if you are not hardworking. It’s only when you are hardworking that you can be competent and relevant. Then you can satiate the expectations of your clients. Things keep changing, if you are not hardworking, you cannot be abreast of these changing situations and you become an archaic lawyer, you become obsolete and you can’t meet up.

My advice to young lawyer is to work hard, read hard, and be nice to yourself and other people.

Law is a profession that recognizes goodwill. Not only the goodwill of your client, but the goodwill of the bench and goodwill of others. If you are a lawyer and you don’t have that kind of goodwill and connections you may not make it. Above all, believe in God.

You have to be prayerful; whatever you are doing if God says yes, your efforts will show. There are people who work very hard but it doesn’t show as much as others and there must be something responsible for that.  I have a friend who told me he has never worked more than four hours daily in the last 20 years.

He is among the richest Nigerians I know. He said on medical grounds, he has never worked more than four hours, yet money keeps coming from left and right. So, you find that at times, it’s not how long you worked. Whatever you do, you must seek God’s blessing.

Is your wife a lawyer too?

No. My wife runs an NGO. She has an MBA (Finance) degree. She used to be in business but now she does charity work. She runs Ola and Genny Foundation. Her name is Rose Nonye Umeh. Genny is our daughter and Ola is my brother’s daughter.

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