The National Industrial Court of Nigeria has ruled that the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners in Nigeria regulates individual lawyer’s conduct, not as a law firm.
The Court held that by virtue of the combined effect of Sections 2(1) and 24 of the Legal Practitioners Act, a law firm not being a legal practitioner, cannot come within the purview of the RPC for the purposes of regulating lawyer’s conduct in legal practice.
Delivering the ruling, the Justice Ogbuanya held that under the Legal Practitioner Act and Rules of Professional Conduct, a law firm does not practice law, and not also recognized as legal practitioner, that the processes filed by the legal practitioners who are not tainted by any potential breach of the RPC remain valid and nothing affects the right of audience of learned counsel who has no restriction to appear in court as legal practitioner plowing his trade in a law firm, to earn a living and professional standing in the legal profession.
In the suit marked Suit No. NICN /PHC/120/2021,(Mr. Wilson Udo Essien v. Unitech Drilling Company Ltd), the Presiding Judge, Hon. Justice Nelson Ogbuanya of the Port-Harcourt Division, handed down the decision while delivering Ruling on Preliminary Objection filed by a learned Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Wilcox Abereton SAN, challenging the appearance of lawyers from the Zenith Law Firm, on the ground that the lawyers from the law firm cannot be allowed to appear in court to represent the company whereas the two partners in the firm, (Christopher and Bassey), were salaried directors of the Defendant company sued by its erstwhile Managing Director.
The senior counsel anchored his objection on Rule 8 of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which restricts the appearance of lawyers in salaried employment and company directors on behalf of their employer/company.
The Senior Advocate argued that even if the affected partners do not physically appear as counsel in court or sign the court processes, the entire lawyers are affected as the law firm has been tainted by breach of the rules by the partners of the law firm who have been confirmed to be salaried directors of the Defendant Company.
He further submitted that since the Directors are the same persons running the law firm, that whatever taints them by the RPC applies to their law firm, including whoever they would appoint to represent them in court for the company where they are paid Directors.
In reaction, learned Defendant’s counsel G.Agi, Esq contended that the lawyers who filed the defense processes and appeared in court from the law firm should not be prevented from carrying out their legal practice in the law firm, on account of the partners of the law firm being salaried directors of the Defendant Company, urged the court to so hold and dismiss the objection.
Delivering the considered Ruling, His Lordship, Justice N.C.S Ogbuanya, held that the act of the law firm’s partners being salaried directors would not prevent the other lawyers in their law firm from plying their trade and representing the Defendant company in court.
Dismissing the objection, the court held that although individual legal practitioners can aggregate as a law firm, yet they are imbued with individual responsibility under the RPC, which is never collective within the legal regime of law practice in Nigeria.
“In consequence, as the said partners of the Zenith Law Firm, did not frank the legal processes filed for the Defendant, neither did they enter appearance in this proceedings, even though they are salaried directors, in absence of their franking any process or entering appearance, I find nothing against them to affect these proceedings, within the stipulations of Rule 8 of the RPC.
“As the provisions of Rule 8 of the RPC stands, merely being a salaried director/ in salaried employment, without more, is not enough to validly breach the provisions of Rule 8 of the RPC. It must be shown that the offending legal practitioner franked the court process or entered appearance as advocate in the suit. I so hold”.
“It seems to me that within the ambit of the RPC regulation of legal practitioners’ conduct, and despite the growing influence of law firms in Nigeria, the legal status of a Law firm is not more than a mere vehicle for carrying on legal practice in branded name.
“Thus, under the extant RPC, neither the law firms nor the aggregating legal practitioners in the law firm are held responsible for the misconduct of individual legal practitioners in the law firm, even if the offending legal practitioners are partners of the law firm, as in the instant suit. I so hold.
“In the circumstance, I find nothing prohibiting or restricting the legal practitioners who franked the court processes and appearing for the Defendant, practicing under the auspices of Zenith Law Firm, by which they carry on their business of law practice and the platform for representing the Defendant in this court on this suit. Accordingly, I find no merit in this Objection. Same is overruled and dismissed. I so hold. Ruling is entered accordingly. I make no Order as to cost”, Justice Ogbuanya concluded.