SOLICITATION OF PROFESSIONAL EMPLOYMENT AND THE LEGAL IMPLICATION

Abstract

In the legal profession, ethics and integrity are paramount. Lawyers are expected to uphold the highest standards of conduct, and any deviation from these principles can have severe consequences.

However, until last month, many legal practitioners probably never imagined that the Rules of Professional Conduct will take its full effect when a lawyer solicits for professional employment. Many are guilty of this misconduct. However, the climax of this misconduct reached its zenith following the recent incident where Adekunbi Ogunde, a partner in the law firm of Wole Olanipekun and Co has been accused of soliciting a brief from SAIPEM, a multinational oil servicing company. This brought about a lot of controversies, and along with it, debate on where the line lies between soliciting and business development. This development has sent shockwaves through the legal community, serving as a stark reminder that the rules are in place to protect the integrity of the profession and maintain public trust. This disbarment demonstrates that the legal profession will not tolerate any conduct that undermines its values.

In this article, we will delve into the law on Advertisement and Improper Attraction of Business (Solicitation) in the legal profession. We will further discuss the circumstances surrounding this disbarment and finally explore the implications for the legal profession.

Introduction

The Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2023[1] (the New Rules) is the most recent iteration of the codified rules of ethics that members of the legal profession in Nigeria are required to comply with. The rules of professional Conduct is made pursuant to the Legal Practitioners Act. Before the advent of the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 and 2023, advertising in any manner whatsoever was to a large extent prohibited in the legal profession. This is because the revered law profession is a noble and honourable one and the overriding notion is that one’s work should speak for them. To buttress this, the Supreme Court in NBA v Ohioma[2], noted that the profession should be undertaken with seriousness and lawyers have the duty to maintain the very high standard required in the practice of the profession. This is why the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners in Nigeria (RPC) exists. In LPDC v Fawehinmi[3], the Respondent after editing a book, advertised in the paper stated as follows: A NEW BOOK ON NIGERIAN CONSTITUTION TITLED NIGERIAN CONSTITUTIONAL LAW REPORTS 181 Volume One Edited by Chief Gani Fawehinmi, the famous, reputable and controversial Nigerian lawyer.” The office of the Attorney General of the Federation brought a two-count charge of professional misconduct against the Respondent on the ground of advertisement contrary to Rules 33 and 34 of the Rules of Professional Conduct 1979.

The Law on Advertisement and Improper Attraction of Business (Solicitation)

The Rules of Professional Conduct 2023 appears to condone some form of advertisement subject to the provisions of the Rules. Under the Rules, there are both acceptable and unacceptable modes of advertising.

Acceptable Mode of Advertising

Rue 31(1) of the Rules of Professional Conduct 2023 provides that a lawyer may engage in any advertisement or promotion in connection with his practice of the law provided it is:

  1.  fair and proper in all the circumstances; and
  2.  complies with the provisions of these Rules.

The Rules did not provide when advertisement or promotion is fair and proper in all the circumstances However, certain provisions of the Rules stipulates when advertisement and promotion can be said to comply with the provisions of the Rules. They are:

  1.  Publication in a reputable Law List or Directory[4]

A lawyer may publish in a reputable law list or law directory, a brief biographical or informative data of himself, including all or any of the following matters – a) his name or names of his professional association; b) his address, telephone number, telex number or email address, etc; c) the schools, colleges or other institutions attended with dates of graduation, degrees and other educational or academic qualifications or distinctions; d) date and place of birth and admission to practice law; e) any public or quasi-public office, post of honour, legal authority, etc; f) any legal teaching position; g) any National Honours; h) membership and office in the Bar Association and duties; and i) any position held in legal scientific societies

  • Note-papers, Envelopes and Visiting Cards[5]

A lawyer may cause to be printed n his note-papers, envelope and visiting cards – a) his name and address; b) his academic and professional qualifications and title including the words, “Barrister-at-Law”, “Barrister and Solicitor”, “Solicitor and Advocate”, “Legal Practitioner”, “Attorney-at-Law”, and c) any National Honours.

  • Signs and Notices[6]

A lawyer or a firm may display at the entrance of, or outside any building or offices in which he or it carries on practice, a sign or notice containing his or its name and professional qualifications, provided that the sign or notice shall be of reasonable size and sober design.

  • Books and Articles[7]

Where a lawyer writes a book or an article for publication in which he gives information on the law, he may add his professional qualifications after his name.

  • Change of Address[8]

Where a lawyer changes his address, telephone number or other circumstances relating to his practice, the lawyer may send to his clients, notice of a change and may insert an advertisement of such change in a newspaper or journal.

  • Associate and Consultant[9]

Where a lawyer is available to act as an associate of other lawyer, either generally or in a particular branch of the law or legal service, he may send to lawyers in his locality only and publish in his local journal, if any, a brief and dignified announcement of his availability to serve other lawyers as long as the announcement is not designed to attract business improperly.

  • Press, Radio and Television

A lawyer may write articles for publications, or participate in radio, television programmes in which he gives information on the law, but he shall not accept employment from any such publication or programme to advise on inquiries in respect of their individual rights[10]

Where a lawyer is instructed by a client to publish an advertisement or notice, the lawyer may put his name, address and his academic professional qualifications.[11]

Unacceptable Modes of Advertisement

Unacceptable modes of advertisement in the legal profession are provided in Rules 39 (2) and 46 (2) of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Rule 39(2) provides that a lawyer shall not engaged or be involved in any advertising or promotion of his practice of law which –

  1. is inaccurate or likely to mislead.
  2. is likely to diminish public confidence in the legal profession, or the administration of justice, or otherwise bring the legal profession into disrepute.
  3. makes comparison with other lawyers or other professions or professionals.
  4. Includes statement about the quality of the lawyer’s work, the size or success of his practice or his success rate; or
  5. Is so frequent or obstructive as to cause annoyance to those to whom it is directed.

Rule 46(2) provides that a lawyer shall not –

  1. Insert in any newspaper, periodical or any other publication, an advertisement offering as a lawyer to undertake confidential inquiries;
  2. Write for publication or otherwise cause or permit to be published except in a legal periodical, any particulars of his practice or earnings in the courts or cases where the time for appeal has not expired on any matter in which he has been engaged as a lawyer; and
  3. Takes steps to procure the publication of his photograph as a lawyer to the press or any periodical.

Improper Attraction of Business

  1. Soliciting

Soliciting refers to any statement or conduct by a lawyer which is calculated to lure a particular person or group of persons to give a brief to the lawyer. It involves directly (asking a possible client to employ the lawyer) or indirectly (through suggestive handbills, circulars or even through third parties who tout for the lawyer with his knowledge) seeking for employment by a lawyer.

Unlike advertising, soliciting in whatever form is out rightly prohibited by the Rules. The Rules considered the following activities by a lawyer as soliciting: soliciting by the use of circulars, handbills or advertisements; soliciting for employment through touts; soliciting by means of personal communication or interview; furnishing, permitting or inspiring newspaper, radio or television comments in relation to his practice of the law; procuring his photograph to be published in connection with matters in which he has been or is engaged, or concerning the manner of their conduct, the magnitude of the interest involved or the importance of the lawyer’s position; permitting or inspiring sound recording in relation to his practice of law; such similar self-aggrandizement like all other self-praise by the lawyer or other persons with the knowledge of the lawyer.

Adekunbi Ogunde and Circumstances surrounding Her Disbarment  

On June 20, 2022, Ms. Adekunbi Ogunde, a United Kingdom-trained lawyer, sent a three-page letter to Saipem’s top executive, Francesco Caio soliciting for offer of legal services in a criminal case instituted by Rivers State Government against Saipem SPA, Saipem Contracting Nigeria Limited, Mr. Walter Peviana and four others. The letter, Ogunde disclosed, was the outcome of a weekend research she did on a number of complex cases on-going in various law courts in Nigeria where she felt the services of Olanipekun & Co where she is a partner, could be required. The document she emailed to Saipem’s Caio to scout for the brief later turned out to be a ‘letter-bomb.’

In the Saipem case, Rivers State Government had filed criminal information against the foreign firm of conspiring to cheat and with intent to defraud it of the sum of $130 million being advance payment for the construction of the OCGT power plant in Port Harcourt. The charge was filed at the registry of the state High Court in Port Harcourt by an Abuja-based lawyer, Chief Godwin Obla, SAN, on behalf of Rivers State Government on November 19, 2021.

In June 2022, after the case was long dead, having been settled out of court, Ms Ogunde, clearly oblivious of the status of the case, did a proposal to Saipem’s top executive, Francesco Caio, advising him on the need for a more influential lawyer/law firm to handle the criminal matter for them.

It was her argument in the emailed proposal that Saipem needed to consider using their firm (Olanipekun & Co) to prevent a huge pay out to the Rivers State Government. She argued that quick research about Wole Olanipekun & Co would reveal that the law firm was actually the leading litigation firm in the country with the track record of helping multinationals in sensitive and highly political matters in the past, adding: “The presence of our lead partner, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR, in the matter will significantly switch things in favour of Saipem. According to her: “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 other words, Chief Olanipekun, SAN, OFR is the Head of the entire legal profession in Nigeria.” She ended up saying: “We are aware that another law firm is currently in the matter but you will agree that highly sensitive and political matter requires more influence.”

It was not long before the letter-bomb which Ogunde emailed to Saipem was activated as the top management staff of the foreign firm gave their counsel and former Minister of Petroleum, Chief Ajumogobia, SAN, a copy of the letter from Chief Olanipekun’s Chambers.

At a time the two law firms thought the matter was over, the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, came in and filed a petition against the young lawyer before the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee.

Specifically, in the petition marked BB/LPDC/901/2022, NBA called on the LPDC to “on behalf of the Applicant that Adekunbi Ogunde of Wole Olanipekun & Co be required to answer to the allegations contained in the Statement/Affidavit.”

Mr Aikpokpo-Martins who signed the petition on behalf of the Incorporated Trustees of the NBA, which was dated July 19, 2022, said Ms Ogunde violated “the extant rules of professional conduct for legal practitioners (Rule 1 of the RPC) by soliciting for briefs and peddling the influence of the principal partner of her law firm, Chief Wole Olanipekun.”

He said members of the legal profession, particularly members of the NBA “were very disturbed by this infamous letter alleged to have originated from arguably one of the most successful, biggest, respected and most distinguished law firms in Nigeria.”

The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) eventually said it found no merit in recommending further investigations against the partners of the law firm of Wole Olanipekun & Co. on the alleged professional misconduct proceedings against one of their partners, Adekunbi Ogunde. The Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee (LPDC) directed that the name of Adekanbi Ogunde, a partner in the lawfirm of Chief Wole Olanipekun & Co be struck out from the roll of Legal Practitioners in Nigeria. That was after the Committee found her guilty of violating “the extant rules of professional conduct for legal practitioners (Rule 1 of the RPC) by soliciting for briefs and peddling the influence of the principal partner of her law firm, Chief Wole Olanipekun.

Implication of Solicitation of professional employment by lawyers to the Legal Profession

Those that have argued for Solicitation of professional employment has supported their argument with the following points: Positive implications: Increased accessibility to a wider range of clients, especially those who may not have known about a lawyer’s expertise otherwise; Fostering competition among lawyers, leading to improved services and potentially lower fees; Marketing and growth: Solicitation can help lawyers market their services and grow their practice, allowing them to take on more cases and make a greater impact.

However, it is important to note that Solicitation has many negative implications and should be avoided at all cost. The negative implications are:

1. Ethical concerns: Solicitation can raise ethical concerns, such as potential conflicts of interest, confidentiality breaches, or undue influence.

2. Over-commercialization: Excessive solicitation can lead to the over-commercialization of legal services, diminishing the profession’s integrity and reputation.

3. Unqualified practitioners: Solicitation can attract unqualified or inexperienced lawyers, potentially leading to poor-quality services and harm to clients.

4. Conflicts with professional norms: Solicitation may contradict traditional professional norms, such as the prohibition on touting or self-promotion, potentially eroding the profession’s values.

5. Public perception: Excessive or aggressive solicitation can negatively impact the public’s perception of lawyers, reinforcing negative stereotypes.


[1] The General Council of the Bar in exercise of the powers conferred on it by Section 12(4) of the Legal Practitioners Act and all other powers enabling it in that regard made the New Rules on the 6th of June, 2023. The General Council of the Bar introduced the New Rules for the purpose of maintaining a high standard of conduct, etiquette, and discipline amongst legal practitioners in Nigeria. The New Rules comprise 78 rules arranged into three Chapters. Chapter One deals with rules of conduct for Legal Practitioners, Chapter Two deals with Guidelines and Rules on Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism for Legal Practitioners, and Chapter Three deals with Miscellaneous Provisions.

[2] (2010) JELR 111712 (LPDC).

[3] (1985) JELR 46499 (SC).

[4] RPC 2023, Rule 39(4)

[5] RPC 2023, Rule 40

[6] RPC 2023, Rule 41

[7] RPC 2023, Rule 42.

[8] RPC 2023, Rule 43.

[9] RPC 2023, Rule 44

[10] RPC 2023, Rule 46(1).

[11] RPC 2023, Rule 46(3).

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