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How To Excel In The Legal Profession, By Funke Aboyade, SAN

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You can’t meet Funke Aboyade, SAN without returning  home with a positive impression. In fact, we fell in love with her immediately she stood to welcome us. Cool, calm and courteous, she showed us round her beautiful office in highbrow Lekki area of Lagos after our interview and thereafter still saw us to the door.

Dressed in her vintage cute black gown, with a pair of black sandals, and minimal jewelry, Aboyade, Nigeria’s 16th female Senior Advocate, was really looking so graceful that there was no mistaking it.

Born 56 years ago into the great family of Ojetunji and Bimpe, both professors, the front woman of Aboyade & Co, ‘a modern multi-disciplinary law firm grounded in traditions of excellence, diligence and integrity’ bagged her LL.M from the prestigious University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, in 1985, with distinctions in several courses. Prior to that, she had obtained her LL.B from the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University, in Ile-Ife, Osun State), where she again did marvelously well.

Called to the Nigerian Bar in 1983, the beauty and brains who used to maintain a highly regarded column in ThisDay Newspapers (The Wig & Skirt) took Silk in 2013 and since then has continued to be an inspiration to both young and old lawyers.

Well-read and widely travelled, she spent a better part of Wednesday, October 30, 2019 sharing with YES INTERNATIONAL! Magazine Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, some of the commonest mistakes made by lawyers, how to excel in the legal profession and more. Much more…

Success, we know, is not served a la carte. For anybody to succeed in law, what must the person do?

I think it will be the same question for anybody to succeed in anything. But when you say succeed in law; are you talking about legal practice or legal journalism or in-house counsel?


Legal practice. Let’s narrow it down to legal practice.

Hardwork! I mean, there’s no substitute for hardwork. Focus. You see, it’s very easy to get distracted, especially as a woman. If you are married, you have children, there are a lot of distractions. And of course, everything is crowned by God’s grace. Because you can work hard, you can do all these things and still not be in a position to feel you have made a success of it. And then what you define as success depends; not everybody wants to be a Senior Advocate (laughter). Success, for some people, is oh, I’ve made enough money, I can build my house, I can afford the basics of life, maybe a holiday here, for some, and so on. So, it depends on what your definition of success is.


What makes a good lawyer?

A good practicing lawyer, you mean?


Yes, a good practicing lawyer?

Again, if you are going to court, you must read, you must be on top of the facts of your case, and you don’t just go to court thinking oh, my principal said I should take a date or you as a senior lawyer, thinking it’s not gonna go on, let me not read. So, you must read! You must be up-to-date with your Law Reports, with happenings in the profession, with current judgments concerning the issue or the claims that you are looking at. That’s it. You really must read. And also in court, your comportment, your conduct must be exemplary. Always know that there are people looking at you, younger lawyers, the judges also are assessing you if you don’t know. Some years ago, before I took Silk, I was at a function, a cocktail and an elderly gentleman approached me smiling and I didn’t know him. The function was at the Supreme Court. I was talking to someone and there was someone behind me and he was walking directly to me. So, he came up and said, “Chief (Mrs.)”. I’m not a Chief, so I assumed he was talking to someone else. “Chief (Mrs.), how are you?” And then he introduced himself, because I looked blank. He was one of the justices of the Supreme Court. You know once they are sitting in court and they have their wigs on and they are so far away, you can’t tell who is who. But to my shock, he was a justice of the Supreme Court and he said to me; don’t forget I hadn’t taken Silk then. He basically said he admired me and that anytime I appeared before them, they were very happy, they enjoyed my advocacy and that did I know that judges also discuss lawyers when they rise? So, to me, that was priceless. So, people, are looking at you. I didn’t know that. And it was just a chance meeting.


Now, of all the professions in the world, why did you settle for law?

I don’t know (laughing). I wish I could tell you from birth I had wanted to be a lawyer, but it is not so. Why did I settle for law? Actually, I wanted to be a neuro surgeon. Yes! And so, my field was sciences. I was very good in Literature in English, History, and I was also good in Physics, Biology, Chemistry. So, I wanted to be a neuro surgeon. I wanted to be the first female neuro surgeon in Nigeria, I had all these dreams, because my parents are professors, and very prominent in their fields and also first in their fields. So, I too wanted to be a neuro surgeon. But that said, I, as a child, read a lot of detective books and that galvanized me. Even till now, I watch crime programmes. I’ve read Enid Blyton, The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and 13 Books. I graduated to James Hadley Chase…So, I was always interested in crime or issues and resolving them, even though I wanted to be a neuro surgeon. Along the line, even when I did JAMB (Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board) and I was in the first set of Jambites, my subjects were science subjects, but I put in for law. I did, I think, Biology, Literature and Maths. Some funny combination. But I put in for law. My classmates were shocked, they thought I was going to be in sciences, but how it happened I really don’t know.


Considering the fact that you never wanted to be a lawyer initially, what do you like most about being a lawyer now?

Not that I never wanted to become a lawyer; it just wasn’t a consideration. Although, growing up; I grew up with Chief Folake Solanke in the University of Ibadan, who became the first female Senoir Advocate; I grew up with Mrs. Williams, now Mrs. Akinjide, who is also a Senior Advocate, the fourth; I grew up with Mrs. Ajayi Obe, who is the second female Senior Advocate. So, I was with them and I think somehow they impacted my thinking, because I dearly love, especially Mrs. Solanke, who remains our neighbour in Bodija even after we all left U.I. I really wanted to be like her. But sorry I haven’t answered your question. What was it again?


What do you like most about being a lawyer?

I love it when I’m preparing for my case, I go to court and I have a good day and I have a good jostle with other counsels and I’ve been able to do something for my client.


What don’t you like about being a lawyer?

About being a practicing lawyer? Probably the delay in the justice delivery system. The delay can be frustrating sometimes and then when you are not a Senior Advocate as well, it’s doubly so because you can end up spending the entire day in court. So, I think the delay in the system is something the legal profession needs to address.


What is the greatest thing that law has done for you as a person?

I was shy growing up. I think I still am (laughter). However, being a lawyer who goes to court, I can’t afford to remain shy. I was quite shy; I only was troublesome with people I knew, but most people saw me as shy, quiet. But when you go to court, you cannot be shy, you have to get up and do your thing and it made me bolder, it made me develop a thick skin. I think as a practicing lawyer, if you survive that, you can survive anything. There are days when you go to court and the judge will shred you to pieces and this is done in the open court, with other people looking on. And at those times you wish the ground will open up and you will fall inside, but it doesn’t open. So, if you can survive that, you can survive anything.


What has law not done for you? It’s obvious that law has done a lot for you…

That’s an interesting question. What has it not done for me? But what is it supposed to have done that it hasn’t done? Let me throw the question back. I love law, I can’t imagine being in any other profession. So, when you say what has it not done for me, I don’t know! I’m not sure I have an answer to that.


What is the commonest mistake that most lawyers make?

That’s a wide question. Make concerning what?


The profession, their career?

Well, for younger lawyers, I think it will be not being patient. Sometimes they want to come in and just make it in a day. Rome wasn’t built in a day. They have to put in the hours, the days, the years; it’s a lot of work and sometimes many of them get discouraged simply because not a lot of chambers pay well and they just fall by the wayside. So, you find many potential SANs who have left legal practice and are pursuing their destinies elsewhere, maybe as in-house counsels or doing other things outside law.


You are one of the ‘few’ female Senior Advocates out there. For any lawyer, not necessarily a female, to become a Senior Advocate, what must the person do?

But the first part of your question was female; the second part is to be a Senior Advocate? The two don’t tally. Because to be a Senior Advocate, the rules don’t change, whether you are a female Senior Advocate or a male Senior Advocate…


Alright, for anybody who wants to become a Senior Advocate, what must the person do?

Well, you know, the rules are there. There are targets you must meet or achieve. I’m not quite sure what the details are now. In my time, you had to have six Supreme Court. I think it’s been reduced now. And the Court of Appeal was eight and then a number of applied-for-judgments. It changes sometimes, but that’s just the qualification. What hasn’t changed is character is key, which is why the Privileges Committee advertises every year – these are the candidates, the shortlisted, if any member of the public has something to say, let’s know. So, character is key. If you spent your entire career behaving like a cowboy, it will come back to haunt you when you apply.


There are obviously more male Senior Advocates than the female. How does it feel to be one of the female Senior Advocates?

You know, for me, maybe because of my background growing up in the university, it never occurred to me that oh, I’m female, I’m different, because nobody ever told me that. So, it’s only as an adult and growing up in the real world that I found out, yeah! I think now we have maybe about 600 Senior Advocates, dead and alive, out of which we have about 22 female Senior Advocates. So, that is quite a disparate ratio. How does it feel? Was that your question?


Well, it feels good, it is an exclusive club. Even being a Senior Advocate at all and then being one of the few female ones. Although, like I said, generally, the truth is, I just see myself as a lawyer, as a Senior Advocate. But yes, it does come back. I mean, you are forced to acknowledge that yes, you are one of the few female Senior Advocates.


Is there really any difference between the male and female lawyers?

Well, in terms of intellect, no! In terms of maybe staying power, yes! But I personally believe in giving female lawyers a chance. Here, I think the female lawyers are more than the male lawyers. In my firm, yes! The only thing is, yes, life happens, you get married, you have children and of course we all know that most of the burden is on the female. So, there’s a chance of can you spend the night in the chambers, we have something urgent we have to file? It’s unlikely a female lawyer will be able to or even if she does, the children at home and if your husband doesn’t complain, you are worried. So, yeah, those are the issues. That’s why, typically, you find female Senior Advocates taking Silk at a later stage in their careers.


For one to stand out in the legal profession, what must the person do? If you want to be distinct, if you want to be unique, if you want to be exceptional, what must you do?

For me, you excel! For other people their paths are different; other people are activists, other people may use the media more – social media or main-stream media in a bid to stand out. Not only Senior Advocates, by doing the rounds on TV, radio talkshows…But for me, to stand out is just to excel and to be known for that. And then have a good reputation.


Tell us about your most memorable case and why.

Hmmm! I have to think about that. Because I’ve done a few…


Just one! We need just one.

Memorable good or memorable bad?


Either way, it could be good, it could be bad.

(Laughs) I’ve done a few. I think, for me, there was an eye-opening one, because I took part in the Elections Petitions four years ago, the last cycle and it was the Gubernatorial, Senatorial, State House of Assembly elections of Rivers State. As you know, it was very hot. Four years ago! So, that was quite an experience, I have to say. We were actually for APC, Mr. Peterside Dakuku. We won at the tribunal, we won at Court of Appeal and we lost at the Supreme Court. It was pretty exciting and that was memorable.


Can you recollect a memorable thing or incident that happened the first time you appeared in court?

The very first one, I cannot remember. But one of my earlier appearances in court, which I will never forget; I went to court as a young lawyer practicing with a reputable law firm. Both my principals were Senior Advocates. This was in the 80s. it was a Friday as I recall. I was young in the profession. So, I was asked to go to court. My seniors in the chambers could not attend and I appeared before a judge of the Lagos State High Court (Justice Bamgboye). Very elderly man. And I said we’ll need an adjournment. He said why and I said my seniors who had been handling this were otherwise engaged in the Court of Appeal. Big mistake! I did not know as a greenhorn that the Court of Appeal did not sit in those days on Friday. Of course, he threw it back at me. In fact, when I said Court of Appeal, everybody turned, I could hear murmurings and I was like (opening her hands). So, it was very clear, by the time he said what he said, that I was lying. So, that was memorable; it also taught me that if you are going to tell a lie, at least, lie well. Do your research (laughing). So, I never tried that again.


Anytime you lose a case, how do you feel?

It depends on what kind of case. No one likes to lose, but there was a time I was doing a lot of criminal matters and I remember in the Supreme Court one week acting for an accused person who had been sentenced to death and I remember being in court the following week, acting for the state against an accused person who had been sentenced to death. So, one week I was advocating for the court not to confirm the death penalty, the following week I was advocating the reverse. I felt awful. Which one will I want to lose? I want to win all my cases. I don’t remember how the judgment went in each case, but I felt awful. So, winning is not everything. If I had won my advocacy, that please confirm the death penalty on this person, I’m not gonna be rejoicing that I’ve won.


Anytime you have a case in court and you win, how do you celebrate?

You move on, next case, next…I tell you something, when I first took Silk, six years ago, I had three appeals that had been fixed before I took Silk and it was my very first appearance as Senior Advocate – Court of Appeal. I went and I argued those appeals, I lost all three! But guess what? I was on top of the world just to wear that gown. So, did I feel bad? No! Right now we are in the Supreme Court. In fact, just before you came, one of my counsels was here to tell me that one of the appearances has been fixed next week. So, it’s an ongoing thing. I lost, but I felt good.


What do you normally take into consideration before accepting any brief?

For me personally I look at what has been presented, I look at the possibility of success. I’m usually very frank with clients. I’m not gonna deceive you because I want your money and say oh, no problem, we can do it and then at the end of day we don’t achieve the outcome you want. So, I look at those things, I look at the person who has referred the person, the client as well. Those are the factors. And also I make sure the client knows that I do not engage in any underhand, shady deal. I had a client who actually said to me, “Tell me how much, I will see the judge”.  And I said never. You know what? Take your case and go. He didn’t go, he told me subsequently, months later, that, that very statement endeared me to him. So, he stayed. We continued with his work. But I just made it clear that I don’t do that. I’m not going to do it for any reason.


Are there briefs that a lawyer must not accept?

Well, you know we have what is called the cab-rank rule. And essentially it is the obligation of a barrister to accept any work in a field in which they profess themselves competent to practice. Just like when you are waiting for a taxi in a queue abroad, there’s a taxi that enters; it has to take you where you are going. So, you can’t say I’m going this way and then he says no. That’s what we have in the profession. You are actually supposed to take cases that come to you. But I personally will not take a case that goes against my conscience. That is important to me. I have to be able to sleep at night.


In the legal profession, who are your role models and why did you settle for them?

I have quite a few and a number of them are either now deceased or old. Chief Folake Solanke, like I said. Justice Kayode Esho, now deceased, of the Supreme Court. There are quite a few of them. Justice Oputa (Chukwudifu), all those were knowledgeable judges. Even now, we still have several of them still sitting on the Bench. Yeah, it will be impossible to list all of them.


As a lawyer, what will you say stands you out, what differentiates or distinguishes you from the other lawyers?

It’s not for me to say. I wouldn’t know. Do I even know that I’m distinguished from amongst the lot? It will be for somebody else to say, but I want to imagine that if you’ve attained this height, then you must have worked hard. So, you are asking the wrong person that question.


In life, and in the legal profession, some people attain success and lose it. Where do you think that they normally miss it?

But that’s how life is! Everybody has their time. It’s like a cycle. Your time maybe now, it maybe later. I took Silk in 2013. The first person in my set to get it got it years before. So, everybody’s time is different. That said, some people do get it wrong sometimes when they become reckless. I mean, I’m sure you know a few Senior Advocates have been stripped of their rank. Quite unfortunate. So, sometimes people let success get to their heads and it’s not just SANs. Even as a lawyer, you’ve made money, you fail. There’s something called, if you are a student of Greek methodology, hubris. That is what happens. For some it just happens that way. You are up, and then you lose it all and you rise again. Everything, for me, is the grace of God.


It’s obvious that God has been nice to you, what more do you want from Him?

(Laughs) How is it obvious? When you say God has been nice, I will tell you, God is God. Whether or not He’s been ‘nice’, as you put it, He remains God and I can tell you this – a pastor of mine used to tell me ‘only a dead man has no needs’. Oh yes, you see people that look successful, they are driving the best cars, they occupy high positions in the society, in their professions, but there are things they also are begging God for. So, only a dead man has no needs. Even if everything were hunky-dory, you will still be begging God, please, don’t let me do anything that will take this from me, please bless my children, please bless my grandchildren, so there’s always something.


But is there really any specific thing that you would like or want God to do that He hasn’t done?

Well, it’s personal. Is there anybody who has everything 100 percent? No, tell me, do you? So, there will be things and even if He doesn’t do it till the day you die, He’s still God.

That’s quite deep and philosophical. So, what’s your philosophy of life?

It would have to be, maybe based on my own childhood. Genuinely, they were two things my parents always drummed into our heads. The first, in Yoruba, “ranti omo eni ti iwo se” (remember whose child you are). And always they would say a good name is better than silver and gold. So, for me, those are my philosophies of life. Although whenever my parents, especially my dad said “oruko rere san ju wura ati fadaka lo”, we would come back and say to him, but a good name with silver and gold is better than a good name without silver and gold. So, we had that argument going. But now I have come to realize that all is vanity. And I do believe a good name is better than silver and gold and remember whose child you are and then God in all things.


Finally, what is your own personal definition of law?

Law, to me, means the rule of law, properly operated, but with justice. I think it was Wole Soyinka who said justice is the first condition of humanity. I believe in that very much. So, yes, whilst we have laws, which need to be enforced, I believe they should be enforced with a human face.

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