Better A Lawyer Brain Drain Than A Lawyer In The Drain? 

By Hassan Olalekan Sherif Esq.

Better a brain drain than a brain in the drain.


The quoted words, which now form the crux of the current piece, were those of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, the youngest and sixth Indian Prime Minister. Perhaps it was made in the realization that, like Nigeria, India, with its large population of talented people, has seen its fair share of brain drain.

More curiously, why bother with top talent retention in the legal profession when there are already propositions that too many law faculties are churning out thousands of lawyers annually? And that there is already an acute admission problem at the law school, with law graduates having to wait one or two years before enrolling? And that in essence, there are too many lawyers in Nigeria!

A simple attempt at answering these posers will be that while the total number of lawyers enrolled in Nigeria is still less than 200,000, thousands have died, and many more retired from active practice, or moved on to other human endeavours. As a result, the actual number of active lawyers in Nigeria today is considerably lesser. With a population of over 200 million people, this figure still indicates a severe shortage of lawyers in Nigeria. And empirically, while the numbers show a shortage of lawyers proportional to Nigeria’s growing population, there is a more acute shortage of top legal talents and this poses a huge threat to the future of legal practice in Nigeria.

Understanding the Problem:

According to the African Union, approximately 70,000 skilled professionals emigrate from Africa each year. Africa is currently the world’s youngest continent, with between 10 and 12 million young Africans entering the labour force each year. Nonetheless, the continent can only generate about 3 million jobs per year. Therefore, due to a lack of economic opportunities, many young Africans are migrating to Europe and America.


In a 2017 survey carried out by Nigeria’s polling agency, NOI Polls, in conjunction with Nigerian Health Watch it stated  that most doctors seek opportunities abroad as 88 per cent of doctors were considering work opportunities abroad. On average, 12 doctors a week move to the UK. In the tech sector, the trend is not any different.


Legal talents are also not spared from this exodus as top-tier law firms are currently dealing with a major problem: the exit of most top-tier young lawyers in search of greener pastures abroad. Foreign employers are making enticing and irresistible offers, as well as the benefits of working in more stable economies abroad. As an alternative route, talented young lawyers who do not have offers are seeking scholarships for Master degree and other related academic pursuits.


According to a new report from the International Bar Association (IBA), a significant number of young lawyers – defined as those aged 40 and under – surveyed around the world are either leaving or considering leaving their current job within the next five years. Fifty-four percent of survey respondents said they were “somewhat likely” or “highly likely” to move to a new workplace, 33% wanted to switch to a different area of the legal profession, and 20% were considering leaving the profession entirely.


Psychological Explanations

Talent retention in Africa, particularly in Nigeria, is at an all-time low. It has spread to the point of being a pandemic. Every week, the country sees a mass exodus of some of its top talent, particularly from the health, technology, banking, and legal sectors. A variety of factors contribute to this dismal rate of talent retention.


From the prism of human psychology, this phenomenon can be better appreciated from the perception of these talented individuals. The Equity Theory has explained that individuals who perceive themselves to be either under or over-rewarded will experience distress, and this distress will lead to efforts to restore equity within the relationship. According to this theory, such talented individuals will seek to maintain equity between the input they bring to a job and the outcomes they receive from it in comparison to the perceived inputs and outcomes of others.


Major Challenges in Retaining Talent and the Viability of Staff Retention Strategies:


Pay is one of the major factors determining talent retention in Nigeria. Attractive remuneration packages fulfil the financial and material desires of the average talented Nigerian. Therefore, a competitive compensation package is one of the strong pledges that build strong commitment on the workers’ side. Conversely, dissatisfaction with salaries is equally one of the key factors undermining the commitment of workers to their companies and career, and consequently their decision to leave.


In this time and age, staff retention is a science and intentional efforts must be made. For any organization, specifically law firms, to retain their workforce for optimal performance, proper staff retention plans including but not limited to the following must be put in place: training, mentoring,  positive culture,  appreciation via compensation and benefits,  coaching/feedback,    provision of growth opportunities,    making the employee feel valued,    lower stress from overworking and creation of work/life balance, amongst others.


In Nigeria, work-life balance, amid many discomforting factors, is very important, in that such talented employees or this case, legal practitioners can attach importance to the quality of life he/she is living due to the ever-increasing work pressure. Also, by providing training and development opportunities, workers may feel that the organization or firm is investing in them and opportunity for growth is provided hence these talented individuals may attach more value to the job they do. In the same light, a talented worker’s job satisfaction not only improves the retention of employees but also reduces the cost of hiring new ones. It must be observed that most employees do not leave organizations or firms – they leave bad managers.


The following factors are more likely to bring about a talented employee’s job satisfaction in a firm or organization: perceived fairness of the promotion system within an organization, salary increase, quality of the working conditions,   leadership,    social relationships and the  job itself. Law firms must observe that traditional staff retention strategies such as coercion, fear, intimidation and blackmail have been criticized as detrimental to staff retention. They are counterproductive and have never been fashionable.


Furthermore, the ongoing talent gap in the legal industry may continue to grow if law firms do not begin to observe proper management of people as organizational assets and the adoption of appropriate human resource policies and strategies, will greatly aid to retain a competent workforce, which in turn promotes organizational productivity and enhanced performance.


Firms and organizations should hire Human Resources Managers who understand that happy talented employees treat clients well, and that satisfied employees, in addition to their ongoing commitment, bring more prospects to the firm. This strengthens the relationship, increases loyalty, and achieves corporate organizational goals such as increased profitability. Firms should also recognize that providing workplaces that demonstrate the value they place in their employees, as well as the implementation of firm policies, can always reflect effective retention practices.


The Future of Legal Practice in Nigeria And the Way to Go:


The growing trend of brain drain in the legal profession endangers the future of legal practice in Nigeria. To retain top talent, law firms’ work cultures must change and more concessions must be made than ever before. Younger lawyers must be tasked with leading and managing the expectations of the millennial lawyers they are expected to lead into the future.


Startup companies, whose pay is generally higher than that of law firms, are competing for the best lawyers, making enticing offers that cause lawyers to reconsider their future in law firm practice. To effectively retain top talent, law firms must begin offering competitive pay, better remote working options, and very light work portfolios.


Similarly, there is need for merit to thrive over the culture of selection. The pertinence of having the best brains occupy the bench and enrich our jurisprudence with much-needed sagacity, cannot be overstated. In recent times, there appears to be a dearth in the judicial depth, substance and literary prowess hitherto witnessed in the judgments and reasonings of our courts.


There also appears to be a decline in the quality and standard of law practice in general. Talents who should spearhead the advancement and development of our laws have been drained to other climes in search of more favourable economic conditions and related needs. This low rate of top talent retention has also contributed to the falling legal professional standards: The apparent decline in the quality of legal education, combined with lower professional ethics standards and a weak regulatory regime for the legal profession, has resulted in an increase in indiscipline among legal practitioners, which in turn has an impact on the core mandate of justice delivery.


Finally, as the dynamics shift with the exodus of top talents, we must also recognize that great opportunities await those who remain behind, especially for those relatively competent, skilled and talented. Highly skilled, value-driven and competent manpower scarcity will drive bargaining up and will continue to dictate service conditions, including pay for the fewer good hands staying back.


An important point to include is more young lawyers are making a niche for themselves by practising from home and making good pay thereby erasing the need for mentorship in a traditional law firm. This trend is more likely to affect standard practice and reduce the prestige of the profession. While we fault these young lawyers, the bulk of blame must go to the legal practitioner regulatory bodies and their inability to persuade or move for better remuneration for new wigs and young lawyers.


Hassan Olalekan Sherif is a highly skilled and experienced lawyer with vast knowledge in the energy sector. He is presently a legal associate with J-K Gadzama LLP one of the leading law firms in Nigeria. He is a philomath based in Abuja and can be reached via +234 813 254 8364 or his private email address:


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