6 Helpful Tips to Succeed at the Nigerian Law School
Before writing this post, I needed some guidance on when Nigerian Law School (NLS) Bar II candidates were set to resume. So I asked the open ended question on twitter. A young man responded “Who knows. We think it’s November though. Are you tired of waiting at home like me?”
I could almost feel his enthusiasm from his response. I replied, that thankfully, I had been there, done that. To think it’s been 5 years now.
Looking forward to NLS is often like being on a roller coaster - a mix of excitement and fear. And if we are being honest, a side dose of annoyance.
Annoyance that your roommate in first year, with whom you excitedly took endless photographs on matriculation day is already earning a proper salary, post NYSC - having read a four year course.
But then, excitement that you’ll finally get the chance to wear a wig and gown, and dare I say if you happen to come from the Eastern part of Nigeria, your mum will be referred to as ‘Nne Barrister’. As for you, the terms ‘Baby Lawyer’, ‘Junior Colleague’ and ‘Barrister’ could very easily take over your first name.
Slight fear however, at the many tales you’re likely to have heard - of how tough the exams are, and the rather disheartening failure rate.
Irrespective of all of this, I think that the one year spent in NLS presents an amazing opportunity and whether you’re in it to make a first class or to simply get a pass, here are a few things to consider.
Fresh Start… From Day 1
First, forget your undergrad grades. People have had 2:2s and then obtained a first-class at law school. Forget the courses you thought you liked or didn’t like in Uni. Go in with a fresh, clean mind.
As you probably already know, NLS is graded based on your lowest score. Not your average. Even if you had 80s in 4 out the 5, a 39% could lead to a resit. So you need to make sure that in all of the subjects, you are being consistent.
You know what they say about cooking an Elephant? Don't worry if you didn't, as I didn't either. But apparently, they say cook it in small pieces so it doesn't ever get too much to handle. That's a law school trick right there. There will seemingly be a ton of material to cover. If you leave it till the last minute, it'll get overwhelming. Attend classes, even if you didn't manage to get the pre-reading done. Issues discussed in class will stick in your head and when you go back to study, you'll understand better.
That said, make an attempt to study everyday! While some people have to sit at a desk to study, lying on the bed works well for others. Either way, it's advisable to make notes as you study. This ensures that nearer to the exam time, you're not exactly going about with textbooks and it's easier to read your shortened notes. Exams are typically one a day consecutively for 5 days, so not much time for in-between studying! You’ll come across people selling pre-existing notes. It’s okay to use these as a guide. But be careful about the contents and do not digesting these hook, line and sinker.
Focus on the Outcomes and Use Past Questions
Ok, we've agreed to study from Day 1, but how exactly are you meant to study? It’s one thing to study long and hard. It’s another to study smart.
Law school totally demands that you study smart. Bear in mind that although students in the different campuses get taught by different teachers, they all write the same exam, and will be graded in the same manner. Some lecturers may spend unnecessary time, dwelling on areas that might not be relevant. This is where the course outcomes come in - as these are standardised. At the end of every course topic, students are expected to be show that they have understood the outcomes. Let this act as your guide. Don’t be tempted to overlook any, even the seemingly easy ones. Legal drafting in particular is one that’s often difficult to approach - because there’s the tendency to assume that you know how to draft it in your head. Don’t assume. Get out your pens and paper, and practice your drafting!
The second and perhaps more important advice is to use past questions! One can’t over emphasise this. I wrote my law school exams in 2011 and I recall studying all of the past questions from 1991 to 2010. Yes, almost 20 years of past questions. Obviously you need to be smart in doing this, as a lot of it will be obsolete due to change in curriculum. But some of the basics are still the same, so start from the recent years. The advantage of this, is that is gives you an idea of how questions are set. And more importantly, the answers show you how question should be answered. It may be hard to believe, but sometimes, a question that says “List 5 …” for a 20 mark grade, really just needs you to list and not explain. Please, start studying these leisurely from day 1, if you can.
Final tip for studying smart is to study in groups! And not a large group of 20. These are often a waste of time. Find 3 - 4 people whose goals align with yours. Discus the outcomes, discuss the PQs. Have a go at drafting and marking your scripts.
Ignore the Fears!
Okay, so you’ve heard of the ambulance that's often kept outside the exam halls for students who may faint. There's a large amount of fear being peddled out there. I recall my mum getting worried and asking what sort of exam it was that ambulances had to be provided. Truth is, I can't even verify the authenticity of this, because I honesty didn't see the ambulance and I refused to get that fear in my mind. You'll also come across people who say they've written the exam five times. You'll come across people who cut off all communication and leisure while preparing for the bar exams. While this in itself is not a bad thing, you need to be careful that you're not acting out of fear. You will need to ignore this fear and stay positive, as your state of mind will definitely impact your performance. So, chill.
Oh one more thing, for those you are hoping for firsts class degrees. Some people say your campus determines whether or not you can get a first. I remember being downcast when I was posted to Enugu, because rumour had it that the Enugu campus hadn’t produced a first class candidate in years. And at that time, I really wanted a first class. Not for any particular reason, but because someone has said that my University of Ibadan first class degree was of no consequence and not adequate evidence of my abilities - until I obtained a first class at law school at well. Well, in my year, Enugu broke the record and produced three first class candidates. Ignore the fears and rumours.
Moot & Mock Trials; Court & Chamber Attachment
For many, the court and chamber attachment is time to catch up on studying - or get a mini break. I was guilty as well, as I chose to go back to peaceful Ibadan for the three month period. But it really shouldn’t be. It should provide an opportunity to visualise and see the practical aspects of all the theory you’ve been fed. The exposure could also help you decide what area of law you choose to specialise. Although I genuinely love advocacy - the entire court set up made me realise we wouldn’t be a perfect match.
In picking a place for chamber attachment, I later realised that you can be strategic. I attended a final stage interview at one of the top corporate law firms in Lagos. The managing partner asked why I chose to intern at a small litigation firm in Ibadan, if I was serious about a corporate law career. So yes, you may need to bear this in mind and consider how your chamber attachment could help you get a foot in the door.
Participate in Moot & Mock trials! It gives you a practical angle, and it’s fun. Plus if you’re like me, it may be the only opportunity you’ll get in a long time, to address a sitting judge while acting as legal counsel (in equity). Can I just chip in that my 'client' won the case?
Network, Network, Network
Whether or not you're hoping for a first or just a pass, please, don't let this amazing opportunity pass you by. On the average, you'll get to spend at least 6 months with about 300 other students . The mistake many people often make, is that they assume that every candidate there is straight out of Uni and all working their way to the top with not much to offer. Asides the naivety of that assumption, the reality is a lot of people in law school are much older and have so much life and career experiences and connection, you'll often find useful.
And even if most people are in your age range, few years down the line, they’ll end up practising in different parts of the world (or being involved in diverse activities). Whether you remain a lawyer or take other routes, your network is invaluable and this is a great opportunity. As a lawyer in Lagos, you may need a lawyer in Delta to assist on a matter. Your law school mates are often your first point of call. Don't spend all our time holed and studying. And don't spend all your time with the same people. For some reason, a whole lot of my classmates from UI were in Enugu with me, and I just ended up being in the same circles. Not too good.
Meet people, exchange details, emails and LinkedIn contacts. Create a social media group etc. Now, let's not forget all those IJGBs, who may have returned to take Bar I and II. We know how some of them often have useful connects and ideas! Asides this, make lasting and useful friendships.
Explore & Enjoy
In retrospect, my momentary sadness at being posted to Enugu other than Abuja was so uncalled for. Enugu was perfect. It provided an opportunity to explore. Thanks to that short stint, I’ve been able to tick Pine Forest in Enugu, off my list tourist attractions to visit in Nigeria. If you're in Enugu, go there. Students in Abuja, also typically find time to explore the Guarara water falls in Niger State. Wherever you are, make it count.
Asides this, get involved in other activities within your environment. I recall a Christian group organising a visit to the prison in the state. It was such a humbling experience for me, and one I won’t forget. If you’re lucky to be posted outside your regular zone, it also gives you an opportunity to learn about new cultures in Nigeria. It was fun to see a lot of people from other ethnic groups trying out the typical eastern dishes in Enugu Campus, and totally loving it. Like Nsala and Oha soups - from the federal and state kitchens. And when finally, a new restaurant serving Amala & Ewedu sprung up, I loved seeing easterners queue up for such meals. Seeing my Yoruba and Hausa colleagues pick up a few Igbo words, was also particularly delightful. So make time to explore these little things.
Finally, for me there’s always the angle of prayer! Pray for serious things like wisdom, good health and clarity, and pray for seemingly less serious things - i.e. that whoever marking your script will not be in a horrible mood!
In a nutshell, grades will matter. But as everything in life, some things will matter more. I think the highest number of professionals in Nigeria who have taken a different route are probably lawyers. Someone gave this story of the conversation between her and her kids:
• Mum: Dave what do you what to be when you grow up?
• Boy: I want to be a doctor like Daddy so I can help cure sick people
• Mum: That's good. Didi, how about you?
• Girl: I want to be a lawyer like mummy so I can be travelling and selling clothes!
Truth is for many of us, after the call to bar ceremony, the wig and gown is often dumped. So go ahead, and have a great one year. Do your best. Pass the exams. Get your name on the roll, and go on to live life and truly make a positive impact - in whatever way you may choose.
pS: I realise this post is for quite a niche audience, but I think there are some useful tips in there for us all. It was also first published on Bella Naija here