In my forthcoming book, COURTROOM AND LAW FIRM STRATEGIES: Senior Advocates Share Their Practice Experiences, one of the series of questions I ask these “learned men” is: What distinguishes a good lawyer from a great lawyer?
My intention is to extract this aspect from the main book and turn it into a pocket book that students of law, young lawyers, senior lawyers and good lawyers aiming for greatness will pick lessons from. The idea, I discovered has been done elsewhere before me by Jim Durham, the Chief Marketing Officer at Ropes & Gray who is the author of The Essential Little Book of Great Lawyering, a little book which is advertised as “a classic pocket book, meant to be read on a train ride home from work or an airplane business trip.”
A quote from the book reads: “Good lawyers know the law;
“great lawyers know the law, but they also know and understand the client’s business. Great lawyers know what makes the client successful and they understand the client’s preferred form of communication.”
I asked Prof. Fabian Ajogwu, SAN, the big question: What differentiates a good lawyer from a great one? His response:
It depends on what you see as a good lawyer. For some, a good lawyer is the one who wins all his cases. But for me, a good lawyer is the one who practices his law with good ethics and professionalism. A great lawyer is the one who has made his mark. He has built people. One of the things I look at is that many lawyers have moved from my father Dr. Michael Ajogwu, SAN’s chambers to become Justices of the Supreme Court, High Court of Justice in England, Court of Appeal, Judges of the High Court, Attorneys-General and so on. As they say in the profession, “he has produced.” That makes you a great lawyer—the human component.
A great lawyer could also have contributed to the Bar. He has built a Bar Centre, helped younger lawyers and so on. It could also be that he had argued some landmark cases and achieved some landmark victory that has not been done before or is one of the significant turning points in the profession. It could also be that he has been able to share knowledge with people. He has contributed to the field of learning for humanity. So, different things make you great.
You will notice that in my definitions of greatness, I have left out money. Where he has earned a billion naira in fees doesn’t make him great. To further bolster this point, let me ask: Who was the richest man during the time of our Lord, Jesus Christ? The reason why you don’t know him is that it is not important. People will remember you for what you have done and not for your bank balance. That is why there is no record of who was the richest man in the Bible. As a Christian, you may have heard the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus was a poor man and was accorded a name. The rich man was not given a name till today. Like the “unknown soldier” during the trial of Jesus, the rich man has no name, he remains anonymous. So, in talking about a great lawyer, it would have to be your contribution to the profession or to the society or to learning, to law generally. It has to be a contribution that defines you as great. Not your receipt. Your receipt does not define your greatness. It is your giving that defines your greatness. That is my view. A lawyer like Aare Afe Babalola, SAN is a great lawyer. Not only has he excelled in his profession in rising to the enviable rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria, but in the kind of cases he has done. He has contributed to knowledge, written seven major law books which have enriched law practice throughout the whole country. The books are:
Injunctions and Enforcement of Orders, the only authoritative book on the important subject,
Law and Practice of Evidence in Nigeria,
Enforcement of Judgment,
Election Law and Practice in Nigeria, the leading authority on the subject in the country. The book is widely used by Judges, Lawyers and Politicians throughout the country.
Autobiography – Impossibility Made Possible.
University Administration in Nigeria, a book presented to the Committee of Pro Chancellors in 2005. The N.U.C. has printed the book for circulation among all University Administrators in the country, and
The Elusive Search for the Nation Nigeria
But more importantly, look at his Afe Babalola University, Ado Ekiti. He has invested all he has in something that would benefit humanity, outliving him and giving back to the society with the sole aim of leaving the university as one of his greatest legacies. This is coming from someone who always reiterates that he was so poor he could not attend secondary school and university as a young person because his parents could not afford the fees. His autobiography IMPOSSIBILITY MADE POSSIBLE tells his odyssey: how he educated himself up to university through correspondence courses, culminating in going to London University for a degree in law.
Then, look at what he has done, and what he has given and still giving. His greatness hasn’t come from the fees that he receives. It comes from giving back to society in the form of an educational institution like no other and in “the centre of the world”, as he calls Ado-Ekiti. He tells me that Ado Ekiti is the centre of the world. And I think I believe him. So, that defines his greatness. This is a call to others too who are successful in moving from success to significance. That is what Afe Babalola, SAN has done.
As a litigator, he has won many cases, and he has argued many novel cases. I do not have the statistics with me, but he has been counsel to not a few. He has been counsel to governors, banks and many blue-chip companies. He has been counsel to the poor, mostly pro bono. Above all, he has also been counsel to a Nigerian President in Election Petition. I think that is the highest stake litigation that you would do. I have had the privilege of being involved in Presidential Election Petitions up to the Supreme Court. It is high stake litigation. If you lose, they could swear in a new President or dash the hopes of your Client. So, I think some of those things are defining landmarks for the kinds of victories or cases one has done. I think he has done well.
I have a lot of respect for him. My colleagues that I know have respect for him. I have not taken statistics across, but you can say that clearly, he enjoys that respect within the profession. Nobody is perfect, but he has done his bit for the profession.