Dr Remi Olatubora (SAN) tells LESI NWISAGBO about his legal practice, contemporary legal issues, the state of security in the country and other issues.
How did you start your journey into the legal profession?
I had my Bachelor of Law at the University of Lagos. I went on to have a Master of Law and Master of Philosophy of Laws at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State. I have just successfully defended my PhD thesis at the same institution.
I was called to the Nigerian Bar on December 15, 1993.
My firm is based in Abuja and we have a regional office in Akure. I have over 15 lawyers and 10 administrative staff working with me.
Tell us about the books you’ve written.
Over the years, I have not only practised as a litigation lawyer, I have also written books. They include Electoral Law and Practice in Nigeria (2006), which was listed by the Council of Legal Education as a compulsory textbook on civil procedure at the Nigerian Law School. It has remained so to date.
In 2011, I wrote the Petition of Dr Olusegun Mimiko (a former Ondo State governor) and Issues in Nigerian Election Law. That was also a blockbuster and it was sold all over the country. I was the resident counsel that organised Mimiko’s petition under the leadership of Chief Wole Olanipekun for two years. We were in the election tribunal between 2007 and 2009 and I was the coordinating lawyer. I decided to write the book to properly articulate the issues thrown up in that particular election tribunal and their relevance to electoral litigation in Nigeria.
In 2015, I wrote Election Litigation in Nigeria, Volume 1 and 2. In 2019, the President of the Court of Appeal recommended it as a compulsory textbook for all election tribunals in Nigeria.
Also, I have contributed articles to a number of leading Nigerian university journals on law, and international journals on my area of research and practice.
What is your area of specialisation?
My area of practice has been majorly constitutional matters but we are presently developing capacity in commercial litigation, especially on issues around electronic money (cryptocurrency).
At what point did you decide to set up your private practice?
I underwent the National Youth Service Corps scheme with the defunct Allied Bank as a recovery/legal officer in 1994. I went on to work with Phillip Ndubuisi Umeh and Co in Lagos. I worked with the firm from the latter part of 1994 to 1996 when I left to start my practice in Ondo State. That was also around the time I ventured into politics. But I saw myself as more of a lawyer than a politician because the shenanigans that is seen as normal among politicians did not particularly resonate with me. Even when I hold political offices, I still feel that I am primarily a lawyer.
You have had some political appointments. Tell us about them.
I was a member of the Ondo State House of Assembly between 1999 and 2003, and I functioned as the Chief Whip. Also, I was the Chairman of the Ondo State Sports Council between 2009 and 2011. I left there to become the Ondo State Commissioner for Natural Resources. I was in that ministry between January and July 2011, before I resumed as the Commissioner for Education. I was in the Ministry of Education till the last 10 months of Mimiko’s administration when I was deployed to the Ministry of Justice to be the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice. I left the government in 2017 and returned to my private practice.
What is your view on the current state of insecurity in the country?
It is worrisome. There is a need for us to be more serious about the security of this country. Leaders should show patriotism. I have not seen enough patriotism in the leadership of this country; from the presidency to the least of all political offices. We must see ourselves primarily as Nigerians before thinking of the ethnic groups we belong to. If there is no country, there would be no platform for anybody to express his ethnicity.
What is happening regarding security is very worrisome. I think the security architecture of the country should be reconfigured. Over the years, some progressive elements have been advocating for state police and this cry has been on for over 30 years. Successive federal governments have frustrated that particular move but it is becoming very clear that every state and community must have some measure of security. If all those had been in place, the kind of lawlessness ravaging the country at the moment would not have been as pervasive as it is.
What are some of the major challenges that come up with running a legal practice?
One of the challenges is that it is very expensive to set up a good law firm. One also has to set up a library where one would have all the required legal books on the shelf.
Getting lawyers that would work with one as a principal is also a big challenge. When lawyers leave the law school, a large chunk of them don’t want to practise law. Only about 10 per cent of them want to practise law. Out of that 10 per cent, some of them would also want to start their own practices with basically no field experience. For the few (lawyers) that we scout around to have with us, after a few months, some of them want to go and set up their private practice. So, every year, senior members of the Bar keep training new sets of lawyers.
The major problem with many senior practitioners today is that we do not have enough competent hands among our juniors and associates. That is the unfortunate reality in the legal profession as of now.
You made mention of tutelage (apprenticeship to senior lawyers) for young lawyers and there have been debates on whether there should be a structured system of pupillage for lawyers after law school. What’s your perspective on that?
If I were to set the rules, I would require that a greenhorn from the law school should have a minimum of five years pupillage. With five years of tutelage, the new lawyer would have the opportunity of being around when papers in a new case are filed, when interlocutory applications are made, when the trial is conducted, when the final address is prepared, adopted and argued in court, and judgment is rendered. Even if a person wants to leave the legal profession to advise companies or go into corporate practice, they must first practise as a barrister. They should know how documents prepared by solicitors are rejected in court. They should have seen lawyers contesting the admissibility of documents and other things.
My colleagues who, from the onset, had pupillage with prominent and senior counsels had lot of advantages over us (that did not have pupillage). It was easier for them to become senior advocates earlier than us, because we had to ‘pick’ our own training along the line. But, they were in established offices where those things came to them as a matter of daily routine without any serious effort.
What do you think about the legal framework for cryptocurrency in Nigeria?
For now, the Central Bank of Nigeria has banned digital money. But, as far as I am concerned, that is not good enough. We have to be part of the changing world. Conventional banking is being phased out. In the next 20 years, a lot would be different from the type of banking we have at the moment. There are different platforms now for payment and in some years to come, I believe that there would be no need for one to be carrying money around. With one’s phone, one can do virtually anything. Basically, money would have become ‘digital’ by then.
However, digitalisation comes with its own challenges. Those are the areas we are trying to explore to ensure that no one is cheated.
What areas of legal practice do you think would be most impacted by technology?
I believe that the rules of evidence as we know them now would become archaic. There would be a need for us to carry out reforms because tracing transactions would become more complex. The documentary nature of evidence would also be impacted. When everything is done electronically, how would you get evidence to show in court, for example? If somebody gives one a receipt for what one buys, one would have paper evidence to show in court. Now that we are going to phase out a lot of paperwork, how do we prove certain transactions in court? In that case, how does one get judges to understand what one is talking about? It is not enough for one to understand, one’s colleagues must also understand.
Are you saying Nigeria is not yet ready for virtual court sittings?
No, we are ready. I was the one that represented the (Ogun State Governor, Rotimi) Akeredolu in court when the judgment on a petition was given about four weeks ago. It was done virtually. Everybody was in different locations but all on the same (virtual) platform and we got judgment. I once argued a case in the Court of Appeal, Calabar (Cross River) division, right from my office in Abuja. The COVID-19 lockdown and the necessity of having to do Zoom (online) meetings have taught us that we can use technology to increase the efficiency of law practice.
At the moment, the Supreme Court has championed ‘digital filing’. That means one can now prepare one’s papers, pay the necessary fees and send the papers to the court via email. The paper would then be processed and served electronically to the person on the other side. The challenge now is how to take evidence digitally through video conferencing. At the moment, it is limited to interlocutory applications, judgments and taking arguments on motions that are already filed. As time progresses, I believe that even evidence can be taken through the Internet. Perhaps, the witness could be at a particular location, and other individuals connected to the case would not need to be in court at all times. Also, if a lawyer would not be able to make it to court for some reasons, they could apply to appear in court through Zoom video conferencing, instead of adjourning the matter. Rather than having a long adjournment that would delay a matter, technology can be used to the advantage of all concerned.
What is the most memorable case you have handled in the course of your career?
The most memorable case I have handled would be that of ‘Ladoja V. Ajimobi’. It was the case that arose from the 2015 governorship election in Oyo State and I was hired as the counsel to (a former Oyo State Governor Rashidi) Ladoja at the Court of Appeal. On the other side (representing the late Governor Abiola Ajimobi) were leading senior advocates in the country, and I was not a SAN then.
I found that case very interesting because I had to confront a lot of big names in election litigation and we took it up to the Supreme Court. I found it very exciting and memorable.
For a lawyer who was not a SAN to be entrusted with a governorship election petition against legal giants was a measure of confidence in my professional capacity.
Some people believe that all lawyers are liars. What’s your take on that statement?
Those are stereotypes. One does not need to tell lies to succeed as a lawyer. Many of the legal practitioners that made it to the top are those that have truth as their watchword. One does not need to tell lies.
If, for example, one practises as a solicitor, one doesn’t need to go to court. On just has to prepare agreements and handle wills. There is no reason for one to tell lies in that situation. Even in courtroom advocacy, one does not have to tell lies. Laws are there to help one prosecute one’s case.
What people call ‘lies’ in law is when lawyers advance arguments. Members of the public see some issues as simple but the ‘simplicity’ they see may not be so under the law.
Lies have no place in law and those who make it to the top of the profession are those that uphold the truth. There is something called ‘goodwill’ and it is not limited to law. In every business, there is a place for goodwill, which arises mainly from the ethical standards one upholds. If a person practises one’s profession by telling lies, the system would leave one behind within a short time.
There is a popular saying that ‘one can deceive all the people some of the time, but one cannot deceive all the people all the time’. So, there is always a day of reckoning.
I neither believe nor subscribe to the view that lawyers are liars or that one needs to tell lies to practise law. The profession is an honourable profession and it does not require lies to sustain it.
How would you describe your personality?
I am a hard-working man and people often say so. I am also an easy-going person. I am a minister with the Redeemed Christian Church of God. I hold God in the highest esteem and I practise my profession with the absolute fear of God.
I am a family man and I’m deeply in love with my wife and children.
How did you meet your wife?
(Laughs). A friend, who is also a lawyer, was using my wife’s uncle’s office complex in Akure, Ondo State, as his chambers, and that was how I met my wife. Anytime I visited my friend’s place, I would see her. One day, I told my friend to inform her that I wanted to be close to her. My friend then asked if I was afraid of telling a lady that I liked her. I said no, that I had tried it severally. But, whenever she saw me going to my friend’s place, she did not respond whenever I greeted her. My friend then talked to her.
What were the qualities that endeared you to her?
She was well-dressed. Whenever she was on holidays, she was always in her uncle’s bookshop and I found her to be very beautiful. I observed that she liked to get things done properly and that attracted me to her. I found her to be a very hard-working lady. She used to be the first person to resume at the bookshop in the morning and she would stay there till late in the evening. Also, she was (and still is) a very beautiful woman. Those were the qualities that informed my decision to give her a ‘shot’.
It is said that African men are not romantic. Are you different?
I must confess to you that I am a typical African man. I am also a prince. I don’t behave like the typical gentleman who would carry his wife’s handbag at the airport or do things like that. However, I am a very loving husband and my wife can testify to that. There are some things I may be deficient in though because there is no perfect man in the world. I may not classify myself as a very romantic husband because my wife also complains but at least, she gives me credit for being able to pick the bills in the family and being available for them. My wife sees me as a very loving husband who does not shy away from his responsibilities as the head of the family.
Those are the points I have in my favour, but as for being romantic in the popular sense of it, that is one of my weakest points as a human being. But, I am improving. My wife testified to the fact that I am better now than when she first met me. Now that our kids have (grown up and) left the house, my wife tells me I am more romantic and available than when they were with us.
What do you love about being a lawyer?
What I love about being a lawyer is the fact that I have to update my knowledge almost every hour. I find it very exciting and that is why I took my time to bag several degrees in law. That enhances my quest to know more. Every day, there are new judgments and one would want to know the position of the law. Meanwhile, some of those judgments run into 200 pages and one has to read them all. Sometimes, they have a panel of seven judges, and one has to read the views of all of them.
I love the fact that the profession keeps one on one’s toes every day. All the degrees I have obtained enhanced my horizon and the scope of my knowledge.
What are the personal qualities that have helped you to get to this point of your career?
I am very determined. God has given me a very good head. When I set out to do a particular thing by way of advancement of my career, I work hard for it.
A case in point is the acquisition of higher degrees over the years. Even as a court going lawyer, I had to jump from different courts to Obafemi Awolowo University, where I obtained all my postgraduate degrees.
Also, I am very dedicated to the law profession. Every day, I have an unquenchable desire to know more about the law. I always have the urge to read additional books in my area of practice, and even beyond.
Did you influence any of your children to follow in your footsteps as a lawyer?
I did not do that directly, but two of my children got inspired by what I do. My first son, Ayodeji, is a lawyer too. He studied in England for his first and second degrees. He got inspired by his closeness to me. I also have a daughter who was inspired by me (to practise law). However, I never asked my children to study law because I am a lawyer. On the contrary, it was their personal desires to be lawyers that propelled them to go into the profession. One day, my son walked up to me and said, “Daddy, I am not interested in law. I prefer science”. Today, he is pursuing a career in aeronautic engineering, aircraft designing and avionics outside Nigeria.
What are some of the fond memories of your childhood?
The greatest one was when my father and I planned a ‘coup’ without my mum’s knowledge. I came (from school) on holiday. My dad got a job to take logs from our town in Ondo State across the waterways to Ebute Metta in Lagos. He wanted me to go with the logs as a ‘water boy’— those who supervise the logs en-route. My dad wanted me there to supervise things so that the other ‘water boys’ would not steal the wood on the way to Lagos. It was a common practice then for ‘water boys’ to cut off three or four of their employers’ logs, hide them somewhere, then report to their principal that they (logs) got lost during a storm. My dad wanted me to go but it was terrifying having to tell my mum that I was going to be on the water for 30 days, going to Lagos.
So, I agreed with my dad that after my mum had gone to the farm in the morning, I would go to the beach with the logs of wood that were already set for Lagos.
When my mother went to her farm the next morning, I packed all my bags and went to the beach. That trip took 30 days. Anytime I remember the incident, I find it funny that a father and son could pull off such a thing.
What was your mother’s reaction when she found out?
She felt very bad and disappointed. She was very scared because the waterways were and are still very dangerous. My mother once had (an unpleasant) maritime experience, so she knew how turbulent the waters were. The fact that I was just 14 was even enough reason for her to be afraid. We have relived this experience severally over the years and I still find it funny. (laughs).
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