Six hundred and thirty naira (N630). This was the amount Andrew Bello, a Lagos-based lawyer, received in one of the months he worked for a law firm in Ikoyi.
His total salary was supposed to be N20,000 per month, but his firm deducted N500 for each day he got to the office later than 8 a.m. Living in FESTAC town, ordinarily at least an hour away from the office, and coupled with constant traffic congestion, he had little choice. And so he often went home at the end of the month with an average of N4000, while the manager’s gardener, he’d learnt, was paid at least N35,000.
When he asked why he was receiving only N630 that month, he was told the monies deducted were for lateness, practising fee, as well as seal and stamp.
“The boss even told me they just gave me that money out of generosity, that I’m the one who was supposed to pay them that month,” the 28-year-old alumnus of Benue State University recalled.
He was also given between N100 and N200 anytime he had to go to the court. Though it was never enough, he was asked to produce proof of additional amounts spent if he wanted his money reimbursed. From November 2016 to December 2017, Bello endured not only exceedingly inadequate pay but also generally poor working conditions at the firm.
A few months into the job, he travelled to Akwa Ibom for a trial and by the time he returned, his house had been demolished, with no debris in sight. He lost all his possessions, and had only two shirts, one pair of trousers, and one suit. So he went to his boss and pleaded for a week-long leave to recover.
“Err… I’m sorry for your tragedy but, if you miss one day, don’t ever come here again,” she had replied.
For two months after that incident, he slept on plastic chairs at a bar in Obalende and went to the office every morning from there. He then moved in with a friend at the Nigerian Law School. There, he facilitated tutorials between 6 and 10 p.m. on weekdays and earned an extra N20,000. He lived on the campus for three to four months before moving to squat with another friend in Ajah.
“It was terrible,” he said. “I would leave Ajah by 5 a.m., get to the office by 8 a.m. so I don’t get N500 deducted, finish from Law School by 10 or 11 p.m., go back to Ajah, get there by 1 a.m., and then I’m up again by 4 a.m. And after all that, at the end of the month, I was always in debt.”
Today, Bello works in-house for the Seven-Up Bottling Company and earns well over N200,000. “Most people like to say I paid my dues, but man! I didn’t have to pay that much,” he chuckled.
Asked if he would study law a second time if he had an opportunity to travel back in time, he said yes—but only “because of the course itself”. He added jokingly, “If it was by the people in the profession, I would pick Police Studies so that I can deal with them under the guise of anti-robbery or anti-cultism.”
Bello’s ordeal may be behind him but thousands of legal practitioners across the country continue to face a lot of difficulty in trying to eke out a living. Many law firms are reported to treat their employees shabbily, particularly when it comes to remuneration.
There are firms on the Lagos Mainland for example, sources say, that pay as low as N10,000, nearly half of the previous national minimum wage of N18,000. Then there are those who just offer to pay “something” at the end of the month, often defaulting for long periods.
It is also common for lawyers to be employed without written contracts or terms of employment, though this violates section 6 of the Labour Act that states that such contracts must be given not later than three months after employment.
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