“Female Lawyers Must Be Supportive of Each Other“

“Female Lawyers Must Be Supportive of Each Other“

Hard work, diligence and integrity are necessary prerequisites to getting to the top of any profession. For the legal profession, these characteristics are doubly indispensable. Folashade Alli, SAN, is classical example of one who possesses these attributes. The Learned Senior Advocate, in this chat with Onikepo Braithwaite and Jude Igbanoi, shared her professional experience of her journey to the top of the legal profession, while she discussed the increase in the use of ADR, what is required to make Nigeria an arbitration hub, and why pupillage and mentorship in the legal profession must be encouraged 

Please, share the story of your journey to the top of the legal profession, as a Fellow of the Institute of Arbitrators, and now a Senior Advocate of Nigeria? I have been fortunate to have had a remarkable journey, characterised by challenges, growth, and grace. As a first child, my father, the esteemed Legal Luminary, Aare Afe Babalola, CON, SAN, instilled in my siblings and I, a profound appreciation for education and a relentless pursuit of excellence. His training and unwavering belief in the transformative power of hard work served as a guiding principle, shaping our values and instilling within us a strong commitment to success.

 I commenced my legal career in 1986, following my call to the Nigerian Bar. I subsequently did my National Service at the Ministry of Justice, Jos, Plateau State. I got my first insight into litigation during that period. That experience was short-lived, as I left Nigeria to pursue a Masters Degree, LLM in Corporate and Commercial Law at the University College London. Upon completion of my LLM, I worked as a legal assistant at Maxwell Solicitors and the New Nigeria Bank, London.

 In 1990, I was admitted to the English Bar and became a member of Lincoln’s Inn. I was fortunate to secure a tenancy at the Chambers of Robert Skyes QC from 1990 to 1992, specialising in criminal litigation. 

 I got married thereafter, to my beloved husband, Mr Deji Alli, and returned to Nigeria in 1995. I joined the law firm of Aluko and Oyebode, where I headed the Intellectual Property Law department for five years under the tutelage of Gbenga Oyebode. I left Aluko and Oyebode in 1999 to take on the role as the General Counsel and Group Legal Adviser for the Bollorre Group, a French Multinational Company, where I was overseeing the legal departments of five companies.

 In 2001, I established my own law firm, VATad Solicitors, Nigeria’s first law firm to specialise in foreign VAT recovery. I also joined the Chartered Institute of Arbitration UK and started my career in arbitration. Through hard work and perseverance, I qualified as a Fellow of C.Arb (UK) in 2008 and a Chartered Arbitrator in 2015. The firm, VATad Solicitors metamorphosed into what is now known as Folashade Alli and Associates, a full-service law firm. I also resumed active courtroom advocacy.

The key factors that contributed to my success in arbitration include, maintaining visibility and prioritising continuous learning. I actively participate in both local and international training programmes and conferences, which have proved invaluable to my growth in arbitration.

 My commitment to excellence and service culminated in my appointment to various national and international constituted arbitral panels, as well as numerous leadership roles within the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). I am currently a Council Member of the NBA Women Forum, the Vice-Chairperson of the NBA-SLP, and Chairperson of the Law Firm Management Committee amongst many others.

 Reaching the pinnacle of the Nigerian legal career has always been an ambition for me, and being conferred with the distinguished rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria in 2023, at the age of 60, was God’s plan. I firmly believe that no dream is unachievable, if one is willing to put in hard work. Failure should not be deterrence, because failure is an important part of learning. I am grateful to have been surrounded by a great support system, including my family, my friends, the staff of my firm, and mentors who took my hand and guided me through the process.

In this journey to the top, share with your fellow female Lawyers how you were able to strike a balance between the challenging environment of legal practice, running a busy law firm, raising a family and social life? How can women get into more leadership roles?

I have always maintained a work-life balance, and a structured daily routine. I begin my day at 5am with daily prayers and then proceed for my one-hour daily exercise, before going to work. I make sure to be at work between 8:30 to 9am, and I close by 5:30pm. I reserve my evenings for my family. Our family tradition of having dinner together, has enabled us to bond. This gives us time to discuss our activities of the day. This has been my daily schedule, for the last thirty years.

During the formative years of my loving children, Moni and Mofe, I was fortunate to have the support of my mother, Princess Grace Adebisi Babalola, who was always present to help whenever I embarked on work-related travels. I also had nannies, who were there to lend a hand.

It is important for us, as women, to acknowledge that we cannot do everything all by ourselves. It is necessary to delegate certain responsibilities, both at home and at work. Even the Proverbs 31 woman, had help. Thus, I delegate some tasks, while taking charge of key responsibilities.

While working at Aluko and Oyebode, the firm was sensitive to the realities of young women starting families, and this made it possible for me to play an active role in the formative years of my sons.

On my social life, I work hard and play hard. First, I ensure that my law firm, Folashade Alli and Associates, has a welcoming and inclusive work environment, making it a joy to come to work every day. This is because you spend a greater part of your day at work than any other place, so it is essential to have fun at work. I also attend important social gatherings. Overall, in everything that I do, my family is my priority.

You have asked how women can get into more leadership roles. I will say, by making sure they put their best foot forward, because people are watching you. Be so excellent at every point, that people are compelled to search you out just to know more about you. Women must be proactive; we must support one another, and remain resolute in achieving our dreams.

I often commend the words of Aristotle. ‘Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution”.

You were a member of the NBA Committee on Judicial Remuneration and Conditions of Service. Despite the ground-breaking recommendations of your Committee, why has there been zero implementation of any of the recommendations, even the one as basic as the salary increase for judicial officers?

 Yes, I was a member of the NBA Committee on Judicial Remuneration and Conditions set up in 2023 by the NBA President, Mr Yakubu Chonoko Maikyau, OON, SAN who was the Chairman of the Committee with Mr Olawale Fapohunda, SAN as his Alternate Chairman. The 12-member Committee was set up, when the Revenue Mobilisation Allocation and Fiscal Commission(RMAFC) commenced the review of the remuneration of judicial officers. The Committee undertook its assignment by inviting the Bar, Judiciary, and Government departments to provide relevant data and information on the current state of Judicial Remuneration.

 We submitted a 144-page memorandum with recommendations that included,  

• The need to protect judicial independence to strengthen it, to ensure that the rule of law is upheld and Judicial officers are not subject to pressures while making decisions based on facts presented to them and relevant laws.

• The process of recruitment in the Judiciary, to ensure that only the brightest and the best candidates are brought forward to the Bench.

• The retirement benefits of Judges, considering that at their retirement they are prohibited by statutes from legal practice or venturing into business.

• The review of workload on judicial officers, during our research we found out that there has been a rapid upsurge of cases in all areas of law in the last decade

• A recommendation of a 300% increase in salaries and allowances in view of the fact that there has not been a review of their salary in well over a decade. We also proposed an upward review of current judicial allowances, and proposed a new set of allowances in consideration of the status and nature of judicial work. We proposed an upward review of the health, leave and rent allowances. New set of allowances we proposed include, life style allowance and long service allowance.

Currently, the Committee is making tremendous efforts, to ensure these recommendations are implemented. Last year, in the quest to ensure the implementation of these recommendations, the Committee had a meeting with President Bola Ahmed Tinubu and the Attorney-General of the Federation, Prince Lateef Fagbemi, SAN. I can authoritatively say that the AGF, has now taken the lead in achieving this review. His office is presently working on the legal framework, for the implementation. I am optimistic that his intervention will be made public shortly.

As a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators, what would you say are the main factors hindering the deepening of the arbitration practice in Nigeria? There still appears to be a preference for litigation, as opposed to ADR.

I do not think it’s entirely correct, that there appears to be a preference for litigation as opposed to ADR. On the contrary, ADR is gaining more acceptability each day in the business community, and is becoming the preferred mode of resolving disputes for commercial disputes, notwithstanding the fact that not all matters are arbitrable.

 A good barometer for this is the multi-door court system, which enables parties the opportunity to screen their cases which they have ordinarily commenced via litigation, for resolution through other means of ADR.

More States are adopting this multi-door court system, even as the pioneer Lagos Multi-Door Court is already in its 20th year. Parties who initially appear as litigants, are fast taking advantage of these court-centred ADR means of settlement. As the court rules and practice directions continue to encourage ADR, the trend of using the means will continue.

 The cost of arbitration is, however, one of the factors that have hindered the expansion of arbitration practice. Arbitrators’ fees are generally calculated based on the quantum being claimed by the parties. From my experience, nearly half of the appointments I am nominated for do not proceed to full hearing, due to parties’ inability to pay the tribunal fees. These have informed Institutes, such as the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators UK Nigeria Branch, to recently review their scale of fees for arbitrators.

 Another factor that has hindered the growth of arbitration in the past ,was opportunity given to parties to apply to review an award under the old ACA – on grounds of misconduct, which opened a flood gate of opportunities for an award to be set aside for any flimsy ground. This meant that awards were not final and binding on the parties, based on guerrilla tactics sometimes adopted by counsel in arbitration proceedings.

 I am however, glad to say that, with the passing into law of the new Arbitration and Mediation Act 2023, awards can now only be set aside under limited grounds, such as where the award is void ab initio or inoperable. 

 In a country where people still believe so much in the adversarial system, even when it takes longer to settle disputes, how do we convince them to choose and trust in ADR?

 Recently there has been a major shift of preference from litigation to Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), due to the shortcomings of litigation in Nigeria. This includes amongst others, the amount of time it takes to conclude the trial of a case. Statistics have shown that it takes averagely 15 years at times to secure a judgement, if parties decide to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.

ADR has however, gained more recognition in the corporate world and parties are incorporating ADR into their agreements as a preferred way of resolving commercial disputes, primarily because it provides the parties with a significant degree of control over the dispute resolution process.

 Generally speaking, corporate organisations would rather handle their conflict resolution operations behind closed doors, affording them a degree of confidentiality, which is only available in ADR. They also enjoy flexibility, enforceability of awards, and preservation of relationship between parties to a dispute. Though it might occasionally be more expensive, ADR has a superior reward ratio than litigation.

 Furthermore, it is important to note that there are limitations to ADR. It is not applicable in the following areas; matrimonial disputes, tax disputes, guardianship for a minor or a disabled person, fraud or criminal proceedings, winding up of a company, matters linked to a trust deed or the Nigerian trust Act, labour and industrial relations disputes’, and disputes relating to public law rights.

In conclusion, the passing of the Arbitration and Mediation Act 2023 has further developed ADR. Under the Arbitration and Mediation Act regime, the delays that parties previously encountered have been eliminated. One of the provisions in the new Arbitration and Mediation Act recognises technology, as arbitration agreements do not have to be in writing on paper and electronic arbitral agreements are also binding on parties.

What, in your view, can be done urgently to make Nigeria an attractive choice and arbitration hub in Africa?  

 To make Nigeria an attractive choice and arbitration hub in Africa, I believe some key factors must be considered. According to the Queen Mary International Arbitration Survey 2018, some of the factors that are considered in choosing arbitration seats include: general reputation and recognition, users’ perception of the seat’s formal legal infrastructure, the neutrality and impartiality of the seat’s legal system, the national arbitration law; and its track record in enforcing agreements to arbitrate and arbitral awards. It is however, important to state that some of these concerns have now been addressed in the Arbitration and Mediation Act 2023, . The enactment of the Act is a step in the right direction, as it aligns arbitration practice in Nigeria with international arbitration standards.

 The disposition of the Nigerian courts towards arbitration, has evolved from scepticism to support for arbitration. Section 5 of the Act now makes it mandatory that Nigerian courts ‘shall’ enforce arbitration agreements by staying proceedings, when disputes that are subjects of arbitration agreements are taken to court. This new provision laid to rest the controversy between Sections 4 and 5 of the repealed ACA, wherein Section 4 made it mandatory for a court to enforce an arbitral agreement, while Section 5 made it discretionary. With this new enactment, there will be no legal basis for decisions in cases like UBA v Trident Consulting Company Ltd.

 Furthermore, the perception of Nigeria as a corrupt country needs to be addressed; allegations of corruption against members of the Judiciary, undermine trust and confidence in Nigeria’s arbitration eco-space. By promoting transparency, accountability, and judicial independence, Nigeria can bolster confidence in its arbitration ecosystem.

 Take us through the workings of the ICC Commission on Arbitration and ADR of which you are a member

The Commission on Arbitration and ADR, is ICC Disputes Resolution Services’ unique think tank. To enable thought leadership in the field of dispute resolution, it pools expertise and raises awareness and understanding on practical and legal issues in arbitration and ADR.

 The Commission’s membership consists of delegates appointed by national committees, as well as ICC Court Members from more than 100 countries comprising Lawyers, in-house counsel, arbitrators, mediators, law professors and experts in various fields.

 The Commission meets at least twice each year, to discuss and approve reports and guidelines. The Commission’s steering committee comprising Chair and Vice-Chairs along with other representatives of ICC Dispute Resolution Services, meet regularly during the year to discuss and agree upon the overall action plan for the Commission, including proposals to establish new task forces.

I am a member of Task Force Addressing Issues of Corruption in International Arbitration. This Task Force aims to explore existing approaches to allegations or signs of corruption in disputes, and articulate guidance for arbitral tribunals on how to deal with such occurrences. The Task Force benefits from close collaboration with the ICC Corporate Responsibility and Anti-Corruption Commission, and the International Bar Association (IBA).

Given the not-so-high level of computer literacy amongst Nigerian Lawyers, how prepared is the average Nigerian Lawyer for virtual court proceedings which appears to hold a lot of attraction in the quest for quicker dispensation of justice?

 It is true that there is considerable room for improvement, in terms of readiness by Nigerian Lawyers to adopt virtual proceedings. This should be easy, as the rigorous academic training and professional adaptability inherent in the legal profession stands members of the Bar in good stead. Even so, many Lawyers have adopted virtual meetings, e-filings, and even virtual hearings in their practice of law, although this is limited to Lawyers practicing in Lagos, Abuja, Rivers State, and certain areas of the Southwest, who appear to exhibit greater technological proficiency compared to their counterparts in other regions of the country.

As we all know, Nigerian Lawyers operate within the broader societal challenges, and are constrained by militating factors at the macro level, such as poverty, poor internet facilities, poor electricity supply, cybersecurity issues, and lack of investment in technology hindering the technological progress of the nation. The holistic resolution of these challenges will have a trickling down effect and positively impact other economic sectors, including legal practice.

 In the meantime, as a stopgap measure, I suggest increased sensitisation through the NBA branches of the various States in the country, as well as on-going training in modern IT skills for Lawyers via the NBA’s Continuing Legal Education program (CLE).

 What is the role and importance of mentorship in the legal profession in Nigeria? Should pupillage system be reintroduced?

Mentorship plays an essential role, in the making of a successful legal professional. Personally, I have had a lot of mentors and role models. This contributed to my success as a legal practitioner, by providing me valuable guidance that shaped my journey as a legal practitioner.

 Building a career in law can be a challenging process, and often times, what is taught in school differs from what obtains in practice. It is therefore, important to have mentors who are already where you desire to be and are willing to provide you with guidance in navigating the complexities of the legal practice. I am a firm believer in mentorship, and as a result, we operate a workplace mentorship program in Folashade Alli and Associates, where the senior Lawyers mentor young Lawyers.

 The importance of mentorship in any profession, cannot be overemphasised, as it gives young persons the opportunity to grow and deepen their knowledge and expand their horizons. Well-structured mentor-mentee relationships provide mentees a platform to progress in their careers, by enabling them  gain invaluable and in-depth knowledge of their profession. In the legal profession, appropriate mentorship is critical in cultivating not only the new wigs’ legal skills, but also strengthening professional ethics and building character by equipping them with the skills to navigate the intricacies of the legal profession.

 My firm, Folashade Alli and Associates, has a deeply ingrained culture of helping young people to succeed through mentorship. The mentor-mentee relationship, underpinned by impactful dialogues, is mutually beneficial, as both parties gain fresh viewpoints, approaches and methods. Our mentorship relationships shape our mentees’ thinking to solve problems, and think innovatively. By nurturing the mentor-mentee relationship, we foster an environment of sharing knowledge, experiences, and skills, as well as building robust and dependable relationships that last for decades, even outside of the office environment. In addition to the obvious benefits to mentees, our mentorship program has helped mentors to strengthen their leadership skills, as the focused engagement involved in the mentor-mentee relationship sharpens critical skills.

The pupilage system, like mentorship, is also a highly effective way of forming young Lawyers into sterling legal practitioners grounded in the ethics and practice of the legal profession. I am both a product and an advocate of the pupilage system. Pupilage is in fact, a formalised mentorship relationship with the aim of ensuring that experienced Lawyers can guide new wigs and young Lawyers through the early stages of their legal practice. The system has proven to be very productive, and this is the reason why countries like England and Wales have retained the practice over the years.

 The current training model for aspiring Lawyers in Nigeria, including the compulsory three months Nigerian Law School externship program is not sufficient to equip new wigs for legal practice, especially in view of law firm management. Reintroducing the pupilage system in Nigeria, is long overdue.

 Lawyers have expressed their total angst against the annoying practice of some big corporate organisations appointing non-Lawyers to positions that are supposed to be the exclusive preserve of Lawyers. What is your take on this?

Firstly, the trend of organisations appointing non-Lawyers to positions exclusively reserved for qualified legal practitioners, is an unacceptable regulatory violation. It is a practice that is criminalised by the Legal Practitioners Act.

The Legal Practitioners Act, specifically by virtue of Section 22(1), prohibits the direct or indirect impersonation of legal practitioners, and that is exactly what the instance of a non-Lawyer serving in roles modelled exclusively for Lawyers.

As Vice Chairman of the NBA Section on Legal Practice, the Section has had to issue cease-and-desist notices to several organisations, including banks and auditing firms that have been found guilty of this irregularity. In January, the Lagos and Ikeja Branches of the NBA issued a notice against the wrongful appointment of non-Lawyers by companies, into the position of legal director or any other legal role within these companies. The NBA urged erring organisations to immediately cease and desist from such practices, or face legal action.

The NBA has taken a zero-tolerance stance against this irregularity, and is determined to check this undesirable practice from its outset. Regulatory agencies also have a role to play in ensuring compliance. The Corporate Affairs Commission, for instance, could refuse the filing of company resolutions, which reflect the appointment of unqualified persons as legal officers within companies. Ultimately, strict enforcement of sanctions in cases of violation and non-compliance are key to checking this trend.

The incidents of Police brutality against Lawyers is on the rise, and some Branches of the NBA like Ikeja recently organised a protest march on this. How can a better working relationship be forged between Lawyers and officers of security agencies, to stem this tide?

The unlawful use of force by State and non-State actors is condemnable, and even more egregious when perpetrated by the Police, who resort to brutalising members of the public, and even Lawyers who are officers in the temple of justice. It speaks volumes when the Police lose all inhibitions inculcated in them by their training, and view an officer in the temple of justice as an easy prey, to be descended upon and brutalised. The protest march you mentioned is a testament to the deep revulsion of Lawyers to the numerous reported incidences of Police brutality, and even extra-judicial killings. The sad case of Mrs Bolanle Raheem, a female Lawyer, whose promising life was savagely cut short by a trigger-happy Policeman on December 26, 2022, is still fresh in our minds.

 As a profession, we have zero tolerance for such incidences. Hence, at the NBA we have taken measures against Police brutality on Lawyers. For example, the NBA has created an interface for constant engagement and interaction with security agencies, aimed at putting in place preventive measures against the occurrence of Police brutality.

 However, in addition to the measures already taken by both the NBA and the Police, it is important that a continuous education and sensitisation of the Police be carried out on human rights issues. There is also a need to look into foundational issues affecting the Police, especially its recruitment process, trainings, and welfare conditions.

Lastly, security officers guilty of  brutality should be prosecuted as a deterrent. However, this would be most effective where prosecutions are done publicly and speedily.

What are your views on the very worrisome increase in kidnappings, terrorism and banditry across the country? In the past few years, Nigerians have never had it this bad. What do you suggest as the panacea to this huge problem that the country is facing?

 The spate of criminality wracking the nation in the form of criminal gangs, terrorism, kidnapping, banditry, highway robbery etc is not only a security issue, it is also a social, economic and development issue. There is now a proliferation of small arms, which have landed in the hands of various non-State actors with varying motivations for engaging in these acts of criminality. The common thread that runs across this criminality is financial motivation, as huge payouts are extorted from innocent members of the public by criminal gangs operating across the country, largely with impunity, unchallenged by security forces. The impunity has emboldened young men, and woman, who have seen in these avenues a promising career in crime.

 This rising wave of insecurity gripping the nation portends grave danger for economic growth and development, as well as food security. It poses a challenge to the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by nations around the world in 2015, including Nigeria, at the United Nations. It is disheartening that Nigeria, already struggling to attain these goals, has become further handicapped regarding the capacity to attain the goals due to crippling insecurity.

 Urgent measures are needed to tackle the root causes of the rising insecurity, as it not only erodes national cohesion, but also our nation’s ability to meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Regardless of the root causes of insecurity, which many will blame on poverty and lack of opportunities, a firm response is required by the government at all levels, working in concert. The local governments, being closest to the citizens, must rise up to the challenge and be equipped to provide actionable intelligence to various security services, to combat the threat to our national security by the various non-State actors.

 The legal profession must continue to assist the Government in strengthening the legal, institutional and policy frameworks that underpin the security architecture, to tackle the root causes of insecurity. It must harness and deploy the law as an instrument of social engineering, by strategic engagement with relevant stakeholders through our professional body, the Nigerian Bar Association, as well as other platforms. We must constantly interrogate the interactions between law and security, and how the law can be fine-tuned to enable security forces respond vigorously to emerging challenges. To put it succinctly, extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. Is there a need to review extant laws, do we need to create dedicated courts with fast track powers? These and more questions need to be interrogated, with a view to strengthening our collective fight against insecurity.

Thank you Learned Silk.

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