From my forthcoming book “COURTROOM AND LAW FIRM STRATEGIES,” Yusuf Ali (SAN) speaking on the importance of pupillage pays homage to his pupil-master and mentor Chief Adegboyega Awomolo (SAN), from whose stable he imbibed the training to be a good litigator now running his own growing law firm: Yusuf Ali & Co (Ghalib Chambers) headquartered in Ilorin, with branches in Abuja and Lagos. He kicks off “Lawyers & Mentors”—an inspirational and educative lawyering column which will hopefully form a book:
With every sense of pride and utmost gratitude, I would say Chief Adegboyega Awomolo, (SAN), is my mentor, my teacher and master in the practice of Law. He is an advocate per excellence. A man from whom I picked a few tricks that come with experience. Tricks that no one would teach you at the university and at the Law School. Tricks that you learn on the job through mentoring and watching your master.
I made a Second Class Upper both at University of Ife and at Nigerian Law School. I was a university scholar and Federal Government Merit Award-winner for undergraduates in those days. The monetary value was 650 naira per annum which was a lot of money in those days. After NYSC, I joined the firm of Adegboyega Awomolo and Co. After a few years, I became a partner. Eventually, I left on May 31, 1994 to start Yusuf Ali and Co on June 1, 1994.
Pupillage is sine qua non to our profession. It is just unfortunate now that people are shunning it. I was in Chief Awomolo’s office for 11 years. I can tell you today that whatever God has turned me into, that period represents a watershed for me. Experience is never taught in any school. Law in action is different from law in the classroom. If your principal is a thoroughbred advocate like Chief Awomolo was and is still is, there is no way you won’t pick certain qualities of good practice. It is also not good for you to start your life as a professional by making your own mistakes and using it to learn. You must learn from other people’s mistakes. And you must also be with people who can point to the right direction of practice and moral rectitude. People you look up to, who can tell you: “This is not how to do it.” But if you start to learn from your own mistakes, you are not likely to do well in future. That is why we are saying there should be pupillage of three to five years.
As a pupil-master, Awomolo is somebody who would give you opportunities to actualize your talents. He is not afraid that other lawyers under him would become something in future and even be greater than him. And that is a very good quality you expect from a senior. A senior who will give you the opportunity and the enabling environment to actualize your God-given talents. He enjoys people who are hard-working. An advocate must be hard-working. Number two, he must know more than law. He must know a bit of psychology, economics, mathematics, engineering, medicine, even a bit of journalism. Because you will come across these categories of professionals in your practice. Either they would be giving evidence for you or they would be giving evidence against your position.
One of Chief Awomolo’s strength is his cross-examination skills. He is an expert cross-examiner and I learnt a lot from him. Cross-examination is the greatest weapon in the hands of an advocate to destroy the other person’s case and build his own case by discrediting the witness, by demonstrating that the witness is not saying the truth. I tell young, inexperienced lawyers that if they make mistakes in cross-examination, it is probably because they don’t even know the case they are handling properly. They have not mastered the facts properly. Two, they may not know where to stop. Once they think they are getting the witness or a witness is easy, they won’t know they would run into trouble with the witness. There is nothing like experience. No matter how brilliant you are as a young lawyer, you have your Achilles heel. Experience is what would guide you to know that this particular witness should be treated this way or that way. Experience teaches you which witness is dangerous, which witness would implicate your client. Experience is what will teach you the moment to stop, otherwise you will run into trouble, otherwise you will destroy your own case. I tell my young lawyers, to be a successful cross-examiner, you must know your case, you must be humble, you must present a friendly appearance to the witness or witnesses. You must be able to extract the truth even in difficult situations and be able to show or demonstrate to the court either the witness is lying, hiding the truth, in court to perjure, he or she is unreliable and so on. Anything you do, you must have a human face. You should not go there to disgrace or to harass the witness. It is not necessary. Even the most difficult witnesses, you can find ways around them. These are some of the things I learnt from Awomolo.
To be a great lawyer, you must start learning from great lawyers. They might not mentor you directly, but you can study them, read their books, if they have written. A great lawyer, to me, is the one who understands the purpose, mission and goals of advocacy. A great lawyer is one who is accomplished. His knowledge of the law and practice is undoubted. His knowledge of human psychology is also undoubted. But more than anything, a great lawyer advocate is the one who stands by the truth and justice at all times. He would not do anything just because he wants to gain a temporary advantage and mislead the court. The truly successful professional does not cut corners, he is relentless in the pursuit of excellence. He suffers self-denial and comfort to maintain his position among his peers. He doesn’t take a “No” for an answer. The “impossible” has no place in his lexicon. He understands that you can’t make omelet without breaking eggs and that the only place where wealth comes before work is in the dictionary.
Yusuf Ali and Co, Ghalib Chambers, started out on the first of June 1994 in a three-room rented apartment somewhere on Taiwo Road, Ilorin. We moved to our own purpose-built office in September 2001. And a few years after, we added another wing to the first wing. So we have our purpose-built chambers in Ilorin which is our headquarters. We also have another purpose-built office in Abuja as our Abuja office. We are over 30 lawyers in the two offices. We are into advocacy and litigation. Some of our colleagues have core knowledge in Arbitration, Commercial practice, Banking and Oil and Gas and other areas of law like labour, employment and so on. So, there are elements of specialization within the office. From day one, I was determined to go to the apex of the profession since I have chosen advocacy line. I started working my way gradually through until God answered my prayer and I became SAN, September 1997. One thing I have learnt is that once you are ready to pay the price, you are ready to abide by the rules, with time you will attain it. Being a Senior Advocate has impacted positively and tremendously. I don’t see it as the end of the game. I don’t see it as a destination. This is an opportunity to prove to those who made the award and to the whole world the best I can offer. I owe it to myself and the appointers and to God, to prove that one is not a fluke, to prove that one truly deserves the honour.
And that has been my motivating drive all these years. I want to build an institution that would exist in perpetuity.