ANTHONY IDIGBE, SAN, lost his dad the very day he was called to the bar—a day “fair and foul” as William Shakespeare puts it. His dad Chukwunweike Idigbe, a Supreme Court Justice would be happy his son continued his legacy resuscitating Punuka, a law firm he started as a lawyer. “The name Punuka is our family name,” explains Idigbe, a leading lawyer who has three Master’s degrees in Law and practices in Nigeria and Canada. “I decided to go back to that name. I had to start from the scratch because there was technically nothing there. It was in limbo since Dad died. I had to start from zero to rebuild.” Today, Punuka is one of the top commercial law firms in Nigeria. But for H.O. Lardner, perhaps, Idigbe won’t be the high-flying SAN he is today. He pays homage to Lardner, his pupilmaster.
In England where Nigerian law has its roots, law was never an academic profession. It was an apprenticeship kind of job. You attached to somebody and you go with him to the Inns of Court. There you listen to lectures from fellow lawyers who give lectures from time to time, then you have dinner with them and learn the etiquettes that make you become more sophisticated. And then you go to court with your principal, carrying books and somewhere in between you start drafting papers and at some point you become a qualified lawyer and they call you to the bar. The degree was never part of it. Over time, the requirement of going through a formal process of training to have a degree came up. The challenge is the assumption that once you have a degree, you then know how to practise law. It’s not true. I always advise people to undergo pupillage in the chambers of a good lawyer. I had the privilege of going into the chambers of Mr. H.A. Lardner for six years. I think that was very crucial, in addition to the practical experience I got in the university: being involved in Students Union’s litigations, moot trials and things like that at the University of Ife. And then when you added that to the law school, plus the exposure to a very good law chambers like H.A. Lardner Chambers for six years, I think those things helped to propel me. By the time I eventually joined a partnership and left to manage the family law firm, I was quite prepared.
I still think I was privileged to have been with Lardner. My father thought he was one of the best lawyers in Nigeria. When I went there I realized he was right. He was a very good litigator and I learnt all my skills or patented my skills in litigation and appellate court tactics working with Lardner. It was a very good foundation. When I look at what I am today, I attribute most of my success to that foundation. A very strong foundation in litigation and appellate court practice. As far as that time, I had the wisdom not to limit myself to just litigation which was mostly about land. I went to do my master’s at University of Lagos. When I finished, I came back to the firm and eventually decided to expand my scope. I had a deliberate strategy of wanting to know more about commercial law, since I was already strong in litigation and land law. So I joined a partnership called R.I. Kuku and Associates. I joined as partners. I didn’t stay long there. I left to start the family practice.
When we started litigation with Lardner, the situation was completely different from today because the litigation space was focused on the advocate. You were in full control of the process. You decided when you wanted to file your statement of claim. You only filed a writ, then you have to go to court to say when you want to file the statement of claim. You decided when defence would be filed. You conducted trial by surprise in the sense that you don’t frontload any document. The other side doesn’t know what you have. You keep it to your chest. And then when you get to court, it’s a war and you are bringing out documents which the other side was just seeing for the first time. It was the peak of complete reliance on the skill and tact of the advocate. And I saw Mr. Lardner at the very top of that mode of practice. But then, there was a shift and new court rules were introduced and we were required to frontload our documents upfront so that the other side sees it. The surprise element was removed.
Among my heroes of advocacy, Lardner is No.1. One of the things he taught me. He said: “As an advocate, you have to have the ability to tell the judge he is very stupid.” And then, the judge will say to you “thank you.” In other words, you must be able to have sufficient skill and courage to say the truth to the judge. And yet, the judge would be grateful for whatever point you are advocating. And that requires a lot of skill, a lot of tact, a lot of patience, in the sense that you have to be able to control your emotions, you don’t get emotionally involved with the case, you have to know when to draw back. You are not to be too aggressive. Lardner is No.1 advocate. There are some people I would have said were excellent advocates, class above him, but when I look at them, there are issues of value. There must be some value content in your advocacy. They use pressure, they even use intimidation of lawyers on the other side. So I wouldn’t place them that highly as I would have.
I like the advocacy of someone like G.O.K. Ajayi. He was a very calm, calculated advocate. I like the advocacy of Kehinde Sofola. I did some work against people like Gani Fawehinmi for instance. I wouldn’t call Gani Fawehinmi a great advocate. I will call him a great showman, because his advocacy is not just advocacy. He had a clear agenda that he was pursuing. So, it wasn’t pure advocacy. He saw the court as a forum for more political contentions.
ADVICE TO YOUNG LAWYERS
There is a little book by Lord Denning which I will recommend to upcoming young lawyers and law students. It talks about how to get into the profession and what to do to be successful. I think it’s a very good book. It’s a tiny pamphlet. To be successful in the profession requires tenacity. You must not have an eye for short-term money or financial reward. If I was looking for financial reward at the beginning of the crisis in 1984, I would have gone to pick up a job around 1988-89 when the Babangida Reforms started taking effect. You had these new banks coming up and offering fat salaries. I would have gone to take a job like many of my friends did. Because what we were being paid at Lardners was peanuts compared to what they were getting in the banks. But I stuck to legal practice because it was something I loved doing. Money was completely secondary. When I compare myself to my friends who went to all those places and who then faced instability and all that happened at the banks, I am happy that I was not persuaded by temporary financial gain and I find myself in a more stable profession which I enjoy.
Lawyers must develop knowledge in new and emerging practice areas such as Medical Malpractice Law, Non-Profit/Charities Law, Patent Law, Securities/Capital Markets, Administrative/Regulatory Law, Leveraged Buyout and Private Equity Law, Sports Law, Entertainment Law amongst others. I agree with the cliché that “There is no challenge more challenging than the challenge to improve yourself.” Brian Tracy, a Canadian-born American motivational speaker and self-development author says: “Excellence is not a destination; it is a continuous journey that never ends.”