Seven Things A Lawyer Must Factor Before Joining the NGO World!

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Introduction

In Law School, many students who take time off to imagine what their life will be when they graduate often see a big future ahead of them. This ordinarily refers to a job in a huge law firm—handling lucrative cases for big corporations, high profile personalities or working as in-house counsel for the many big government parastatals in town. Others envisage themselves in International courts or organizations like the United Nations. Ask them which subjects they will pursue and they will tell you Contract, Intellectual Property, Banking, International Law, etc. If you mention Gender, you will m most likely receive derogatory glances or be regarded as “unserious”.

Real Grad

The writer on his graduation day after attaining a Post-Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice from  Law Development Centre, Kampala in August, 2013 (PHOTO: Onyait Odeke)

After all, as they are told before and after joining school, “Law is a marketable course”, “Only the finest brains pursue law” and inside law school, one should do the “hard” subjects.

Changes in the Legal Profession

However, as years pass by, a lot of water has crossed the bridge, as they say. Things have changed! Uganda now has 11 Universities offering the Degree of Bachelor of Laws (LLB) Programme (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_law_schools_in_Uganda). This ordinarily means the number of law graduates has significantly increased over time. By necessary implication, this means that the number of legal practitioners has also increased. In fact, currently it is estimated at 1, 700 Advocates registered with Uganda Law Society (per National Legal Aid Policy Draft 6). Now, because there are many advocates in the country, many of whom are practicing, this means the competition in the market is high and the most (especially new) lawyers are really struggling.

Another development in Uganda was the introduction of the mandatory pre-entry exam to join the Bar Course by virtue of the Advocates (Professional Requirements for Admission to the Post Graduate Bar Course) (Amendment) Notice, 2010 (http://www.ulii.org/ug/legislation/statutory-instrument/2010 ) issued by Prof Fredrick E. Ssempebwa, the Chairperson, Committee on Legal Education and Training of the Law Council. This law significantly reduced the number of lawyers admitted to undertake this mandatory course that enabled them become Advocates. The effect has been that most of those who failed to join or have actually failed the course have had to explore other ways of “practicing” law.

Option for Lawyers

The circumstances discussed above have therefore created the need for an alternative platform for lawyers to plié their trade. This is where Civil Society, defined by Dictionary.com’s 21st Century Lexicon  as “the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens” or “individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government” comes into play.

The popular translation of Civil Society and slightly borrowed from the above definitions in the Ugandan context is NGOs—Non Governmental Organizations. Most of the NGOs in Uganda now, owing to the relative peace and stability are re-directing their focus from humanitarian work to areas like Human Rights, Access to Justice, peace & Reconciliation, Democracy, Good Governance, to mention but a few—most, if not all require knowledge of the law. This has therefore created a platform for many lawyers, who have not been absorbed by the mainstream legal practice to exploit their talents.

What to Note

But what does a legal career in the NGO world entail? Many think it is a walk in the park. May be? May be not? I will leave you to make this assessment. Below, I share my views on what I think it takes to pursue a career in this area;

Working Up-Country

According to the Draft Legal Aid Policy, about 85% of legal practitioners in Uganda are based in Kampala. Even the remaining 15% are based in towns outside Kampala. It is estimated that only 16% of Ugandans have access to legal services. Therefore, a job in an NGO dealing in Legal Aid Service Provision may “throw” you to Kotido, Amudat, Isingiro, Buhweju, Bundibuyo, Gulu, Moroto, Mbarara etc. The reason is very simple–this is where these services, though urgently needed, are hardly available. You now help to bridge that gap!

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Abbreviated as ADR, this is latest trend that most NGOs are interested in. Even the mainstream legal practitioners now prefer this. ADR as opposed to litigation is preferred because it is cheap, quick, less bureaucratic, informal and user-friendly. It is therefore obvious that a lawyer should possess good mediation and other dispute resolution skills if he/she is successfully work in an NGO. This also entails ability to work with community elders, (ignorant) LCs, and other “small” community people.

Financial Management

Many organizations are cutting costs and one of the ways is by downsizing the staff. Most upcountry offices may not have accountants or other support staff. So as a Legal Officer/Assistant or Programme Manager Legal, chances are high that you may head an upcountry station. This means, besides managing the human resource, you will also need to be abreast with basic accounting skills. This includes; making budgets and requisitions, adhering to procurement procedures, spending the money and accounting for it. You should be able to scrutinize receipts and other documents and prepare financial reports for approval by the Organization’s Head of Finance. Any unaccounted money should be refunded lest you become personally liable as the Head.

Monitoring and Evaluation

This is an essential and arguably the most complicated part of a job in an NGO. Tracking the progress of a programme, the milestones, the impact on people’s lives etc. can be such a night mare, especially for lawyers (We do not study these things!!!). This entails designing an M&E Logical Framework (LogFrame), Indicator Tracking Tables etc. Words like indicators, outputs, inputs, outcomes, and means of verification will be all over the place. Unfortunately, there is no way out. M&E is an intricate but crucial part of a project. It is getting more complicated now with many donors emphasizing on results. That is why many people talk of Results-Based Monitoring and Evaluation (RBME). So, you have to learn it!

Report Writing

In one of my first Bar Course lecturers, we were told that one of the problems with lawyers is that on the whole, they do not write well and the biggest problem is that they have no clue that they do not write well.  Forget your legalese-riddled opinions. Reports in this context are just about summarizing what has been done in a given period, what has succeeded, failed and reasons for both, the operating environment, and other observations one has made relating to the project during that reporting period. This is an inevitable task in the NGO world because it is one way of tracking the project. But most importantly, it is one method of accounting for the money injected by donors to the project. In the past, a report primarily showed what has been done. However, presently, beyond the just the outputs, a report should portray the change that your intervention is causing hence the phrase “results-oriented reporting.”

Facilitation Skills

Despite the introduction of free universal education in Uganda since 1996, the literacy levels in the country have reportedly still been dropping. This means few Ugandans can actually read and write. It also implies that their appreciation of the law, human rights etc. are low. A lawyer therefore pursuing a career in this world should have strong facilitation. He/she should be able to demystify complex legal concepts for ordinary illiterate people who have never seen the inside of a class room.

Training

The writer facilitates a training of Land Adminstrators in Moroto District. May, 2014. (PHOTO: Iduwat Ochom)

Facilitation skills are also needed when you may be required to conduct trainings, workshops, meetings etc. Many NGOs run several trainings and in most cases, it is the staff who do this. It sounds but trust me, this may not be as simple as it sounds!

Humility and Willingness to Learn

Many lawyers presume to know everything—little wonder we call ourselves ”learned”—a very unhealthy trait in a working environment. When recruited as a Legal Officer/Assistant/Advocate or Programme Manager Legal Services (whatever fancy title your employer may choose), chances are high your immediate Supervisor may not be a lawyer. I have personally experienced this. Many NGOs, because there are few lawyers with the relevant Project Management experience have tended to recruit non-lawyers to do the resource mobilization and monitoring for them. Truth be told, many non-lawyers find lawyers to be arrogant (even when they may not be). It gets even more complicated if the boss has a low self-esteem. He/she may always try to despise ypour ideas or even frustrate them–just to exhibit their power! So as the “learned one”, I advise you to humble yourself, take notes when they speak to you and challenge them in a courteous manner. This has personally worked for me. It has enabled me acquire skills I had never known of since Law School. Not to mention the “lucrative” assignments and promotions.

Other note-worthy skills include; Team work, strong conceptual abilities, knowledge of stakeholders, minute writing skills, litigation, client management, among others.

The good news is that you do not have to go back to school to study all these things. In any case, which school offers programmes with experience? You just need the right attitude, presence of mind and the vigilance to learn at work. Like I have always shared my friends, the things we need to learn now, we have to learn them by doing!

So I ask, is a job in the NGO world a walk in the park?

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17 thoughts on “Seven Things A Lawyer Must Factor Before Joining the NGO World!

    • Hahahaha…

      Of course the money is there. I hinted on it somewhere and the truth is, it pays better than many Law firms, especially for starters. But the gist of the post is tell the skills or “survival tactics” in the NGO world. You do not need a specific skill to receive salary, do you?

      • I was asking about the prospect of minting some side dime. You and I know it’s hard for a lawyer to survive in this economy on salary alone. Unless you guys are paid handsomely enough not to bother about an on-job side hustle.

      • Well, many people in the NGO world also have side businesses. Many are partners or associates in law firms. So when they get a deal somewhere, they may delegate it to a colleague and get some “cut”. Salary is not so reliable. In most cases, you would have planned for it already. The only advantage is that it is guaranteed!

  1. Mutanda Ezra

    Very enriching read here Iduwat. I found it handy and mind tickling. More like weeks’ seminar worthy. Big up comrade

  2. KAR

    A good read; well thought-out and argued from an informed and well-researched position…it is 2022 (8.22PM) as I write this from my desk in office; I guess it gives the reader an idea! Thanks for writing!

  3. JMF

    Yes, and NGO work is a way God can use you to make a difference in the lives of many people. I was blessed to work with you and others at UCU to know that you ARE the leaders of Uganda.

  4. This a very good piece in terms of education and guidance to us young lad still in law school. It just made me get the urge to put in more effort and become a promising young counsel. The statistics and links, made you talk with evidence which is of paramount importance for any lawyer out there to resist humility and being caught off guard.

    However i read an article in The Guardian about careers for the 21st century law student (here is the link http://www.theguardian.com/law/2014/nov/26/careers-for-the-21st-century-law-student ) and it mentions a major field you missed out which is ICT Law and Policy. You have to agree Law is not always about working in Firms but also though other means which are mainly consultancy and NGOs. All those suggestions are indeed important and are a must read for a young lawyer in Uganda today.

    Thank you for your guidance counsel.

    • Hello Ibrahim,

      Thank you for your feedback. Indeed, ICT is equally becoming a game changer in the legal field. For this post, my focus was on those skills I considered too critical and mainly basing on my experience. That naturally means that my list is not exhaustive. I hope to update this as time goes by.

      Regards

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