Union Bank Plc and the future of law practice

Kaine Agary([email protected])

Two weeks ago, on April 16, 2018, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) put out a public notice on “the Legal Advisory Services and Alternative Dispute Resolution Offered to the Public by Union Bank Nigeria Plc.” This was in response to a notice released by Union Bank offering the public services which include: company incorporations; SCUML registration, NAFDAC registration, SON registration, other registrations; contract drafting, review and negotiation; perfection of titles to land; mediation and arbitration, debt recovery and general problem solving.

The NBA in its public notice cited Rule 5(5) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners which states that, “It shall be unlawful to carry out legal practice as a corporation.’’ The argument, therefore, is that Union Bank being a corporation is excluded from engaging in the practice of law. The NBA went further to urge members of the public to disregard Union Bank’s publication and refrain from patronising them for the said services.

Although the rules are clear, this is definitely a sign of the times. Times are hard, businesses are looking to diversify their business; and distinguish themselves in the market by offering something that no one else in their business segment is offering. It is about the bottom line. Legal practice, being a professional business, is also about the bottom line. There are those who will argue that the practice of law is not a business but rather the pursuit of justice. Well, even in the pursuit of justice, the legal practitioners must still be able to pay their bills and that include their personal bills as well as the bills for the operation of the practice. With technology and new practice models, around the world, the practice of law has changed tremendously and is still changing. Some of the change is forced by circumstances and others have been the natural evolution with time and advances in society.

The legal profession has not been immune from the pressures of business bottom line. On the one hand is the desire to provide legal services, faster and cheaper for the benefit of the client and the bottom line of the legal practice. On the other hand, there is also the growing global trend to take the practice of law out of stuffy law offices and into arenas where the common man can easily access legal services.

What we see as the legal profession today is the descendant of a very elitist ancestry. In some jurisdictions it is a club of the old-monied. It is not a profession that opens its doors wide and calls out, “Come in, one and all, ye men impassioned by the quest for justice.” The gatekeepers are strict but time has weakened them somewhat.Besides, there is pressure at the gates. To meet the needs of today, they have no choice but to open the gates a little wider.

There are some legal practitioners in our jurisdiction who get offended when you refer to law practice as a business. But that is exactly what it is. They may be more comfortable if it is referred to as a professional business, but a business it is. The game of business is survival and business-minded legal practitioners in places like India have found ways to plug into the value chain of legal services worldwide. Just as tech companies outsource the manufacturing of component parts to places with cheaper labour, India has made itself an integral part in the delivery of legal services. India has been described as the hotspot for Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO). Being part of the common law tradition, Indian lawyers are strategically placed with the necessary knowledge and skills to offer services to top law firms in the UK, America and other common law jurisdictions. Over the years, these lawyers and legal businesses have armed themselves with the skill and technical knowledge required to comply with the requirements of different jurisdictions such as the European Union. The benefit for firms in these jurisdictions is a reduction on their operating costs, which is good for the bottom line.

In 2011, alternative business structures (ABSs) were officially given the nod by the Law Society in the UK through reforms that were referred to as Tesco Law. The aim of ABSs is to promote competition and innovation in the delivery of legal services. One of the arguments in support of ABSs is that the traditional legal process is mysterious and intimidating to the public, which makes utilisation very low and services uncompetitive. The focus for ABSs is the consumer. How does the public want to consume legal services and how best can we deliver it to them?

Traditionally, as is stated in Rule 5(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners, “A lawyer shall not form a partnership with a non-lawyer or with a lawyer who is not admitted to practice law in Nigeria, if any of the activities of the partnership consists of the practice of law.” This means that a non-lawyer cannot own or invest in a law practice for the purpose of sharing profits. This is one of the main characteristics of ABSs. Tesco law in the UK allowed this.

Of course, quality control is one of the reasons for regulating the practice of law and prohibiting certain relationships in legal practice. ABSs apply to and are licensed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority in the UK. Although companies such as KPMG, PwC and BT all got licences in the early days of the implementation of the reforms, the response has been like setting fire to wet wood. Maybe people do not want “drive-thru” legal services after all. What is important though is for the legal profession to be innovative.

The looming threat to legal practice is Artificial Intelligence. Everything, including legal practice, is going digital and national borders are disappearing in the delivery of services. The question is, how prepared are our legal practitioners and regulators for what is ahead?

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