Editor’s Note – Fanan, a graduate of Benue State University, graduated from the Nigerian Law School with a Pass and felt a crushing wave of disappointment and hopelessness. In this article, he talks to Legally Engaged about how he went from being walked out of an NYSC recruitment test because of his grades, to becoming a Monitoring and Evaluation Support Officer at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva, Switzerland.
What was your Law School grade?
Based on your perceived performance at the law exams, were you surprised at your grade?
This grade was quite shocking because from my perspective I had put in my very best effort into the exams and the preparation leading up to the exams. I could identify some areas that I could have probably performed better, but overall, I didn’t expect that specific grade.
How did you feel and what was your initial reaction to your result?
My first reaction was disbelief and then an overwhelming sense of disappointment. The law school environment reinforces the top tier law firm ideal, so even if you might have a broader sense of career possibilities before going in, once you get in there, the idea that getting into a top tier law firm is the ultimate, gets stuck in your psyche.
Realizing that this was not going to happen for me was indeed a painful reality at the time. But after a while, this feeling of disappointment gave way to strategizing, I actively searched for opportunities that might look beyond that particular grade and consider holistically, the things I had already done and could offer.
Were there setbacks in the early days of your career that flowed directly from the grade you graduated with? What was the most painful of these experiences and how did they (the various experiences) affect you negatively or positively?
My first setback was during the NYSC posting. I had been posted to a law firm in Abuja and a written test was scheduled for all the lawyers posted to the firm. I wasn’t allowed to sit the test, I was asked to leave. The feedback was that the firm’s policy did not permit taking on lawyers with my grade. I was very sad and bitter at the time, but in hindsight, this was the most significant course redirection of my career.
I had previously spent a gap year after my LLB studying French in Benin and Togo and this was already a very useful skill I had under my belt. I was intrigued by the signage of an NGO that had an office on the street where I lived as it was in French. I looked them up and found out it was a French international NGO operating in Nigeria in the field of pro-bono humanitarian legal assistance, I walked in and dropped my CV and was subsequently called in for an interview and offered to start. They had actually been looking for an intern but had not gotten sufficient responses to their ads. It was my first professional experience, was very fulfilling and has opened up so many doors. I am always thankful that I took that proactive step.
What are you doing now?
I currently work as a Monitoring and Evaluation Support Officer at the World Trade Organization (WTO) in Geneva Switzerland. I support the monitoring, synthesizing and communication of results from 67 projects supported by the WTO’s programme for trade capacity building in less developed countries. This builds on my previous experience working on project evaluation in two other international organizations in Geneva. The entry point into the system was getting an internship at the WTO after my LLM in International Economic Law, which was focused on international trade law and development.
What were the specific steps you took to set your career on the right course and when did you decide to begin taking these steps?
The first decision I made was to be proactive and not get beat down. Some rejections obviously hurt, but they hurt more if you choose to remain down and not get back up. I had taken this approach on impulse but in hindsight, I can see how most rejections could be interpreted as steering mechanisms to enable us to reflect on other alternatives that might be equally viable.
During the early days of my NYSC, I had already started looking at options for an LLM because I realized that to be even more competitive I might need another qualification, especially in a niche area. So I eventually chose international trade law and development, I chose to do the programme in a University that gave me the opportunity to do interesting fieldwork in rural Mozambique for my dissertation. I worked with rural producers in Mozambique for 3 months to uncover their challenges for export and researched on opportunities within the policy and legal framework at the WTO to address these challenges.
When I eventually applied for an internship at the WTO after my LLM, my profile was at the top of the pile. I was fortunate to be able to self-fund LLM in the UK, but I can recall the university had scholarship options for even students with Second Class Lower degrees. You also do not necessarily have to go abroad, if you do not have the means; there are brilliant LLM opportunities in Nigeria as well. I have a good lawyer friend who is about completing a Masters focused on Cyber Security in Nigeria and he’s doing really great things. I am already very excited about his future.
Which of those steps would you say specifically impacted the course of your career?
It has been a culmination of steps that have led up to each other in progression. But I would say working at the pro-bono humanitarian NGO was significant. It led to the realization of a possibility of development-oriented work in the international space, which was outside the top tier law firm ideal that I had internalized in law school.
My boss at the time was also a lawyer and she was and has continued to be an inspiration me.
My LLM and fieldwork in Mozambique which was directly related to the work of the WTO also led to my entry into the ‘international Geneva’ space. I have actively worked to improve my competitiveness; throughout the course of my NYSC, I took advanced French classes at the French Institute in Abuja, which took a huge chunk of my NYSC allowance but was totally worth it. I eventually sat the international French language exams (DELF B2) emerging as the best candidate at the time. I now work in French and English.
I also went on to graduate at the top of my LLM class. I have in addition done certificate courses in Project Management and Monitoring and Evaluation. Beyond all that, I am an avid reader and insatiably curious.
How long (roughly) did it take to overcome the “stigma” of your results – do you still get asked about them?
Beyond the rejections at the NYSC stage, I realized that my law school grades did not count in my profile evaluations and that this was a primary consideration mostly for law firms alone. I have in the majority applied to international organizations since completing my LLM and they technically do not ask for information on grades but look at the candidate profiles holistically.
In retrospect, do you think your career would have been better or worse if you had made better grades?
If I had made “better” grades at the Law School, I think my career would have been worse. Considering what I am doing now and how fulfilled I am at the moment, I would be unfulfilled in a law firm, top tier or otherwise. I say this from a completely personal and subjective perspective and with no ill-feeling to lawyers who work in law firms, are doing great work and find that sort of work to be a fulfilling path for them. It’s all very subjective, I must say.
How would you advise young law graduates with low grades, considering the socio-economic status of various persons?
Reiterating my earlier points, it is crucial to look beyond the inevitable disappointment, be proactive and think outside the box, beyond the ideals that might have been internalized through the course of law school.
There are also some foreign LLM opportunities for students with Second Class Lower degrees and also some great opportunities in some Nigerian universities. Other opportunities for professional development should also be explored.
In the event that the law firm path is the most personally fulfilling, I have equally heard of some encouraging news about great law firms in Nigeria that are beginning to look beyond grades in the initial selection process.
How would you advise law students particularly those currently struggling with low grades?
You no doubt have to work as hard as you can to graduate with the best grade you can get. But, in the event that this is not the case, you can still go on to create a meaningful and fulfilling career. Your grades alone do not define you, they only make it harder to get your foot in the door, but once you get in and work hard, the sky is the limit.
Some persons are advocating for policy change in legal education – that different classes of grades should be scrapped. Do you think this is necessary and beneficial?
This would be a very welcome development. However, I think the most beneficial would be the elimination of the policy of grading students on their lowest grade (if this is true), in place of grading on the basis of the average of grades obtained across all the law school subjects.