According to Pheona Wall and Ayuli Jemide, African lawyers do not get nearly enough credit when compared to their peers around the world. Pheona, who initially embarked on the path of medicine and who continues to have a strong passion for health, is currently the President of the Uganda Law Society (ULS) whilst Ayuli, a man who wears many hats, is the Chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association - Section on Business Law (NBA SBL). Although mostly domestic in focus, both ULS & NBA SBL have strong international relationships which they leverage particularly in regard to professional development , technical skills benchmarking and capacity building. In a virtual sit down with Cynthia Lareine, founder and lead strategist at Lareine Gold Consulting (LGC Africa), for an edition of LGC Pulse, a variety of topics were discussed. The purpose of the discussion was to encourage intra Africa connections (hence the session being entitled ‘when East meets West’) whilst also helping international lawyers to gain insight into the unique and transferable skills that African lawyers possess in spades.
During the discussion both guests shared some of the key developments they have observed within their respective domestic legal professions over the last 3 years. According to Pheona the biggest change was borne from “the discovery of oil in Uganda and we as Ugandan lawyers trying to take charge and use this resource effectively. The result has been some upheavals in the legal sector with many lawyers rushing to do their masters and upgrade their expertise in the oil and gas practice as well as trying to partner with international law firms who have specialised practices in these areas. The changes haven't necessarily been legislative rather it's been about significant shifts in commercial trends. There have also been interesting trends in Illicit financial flows in Uganda and a lot of legislation passed in these areas, as well as cybercrime and data security, an area in which many laws have been adopted. Another area of interest is the Intellectual Property practice in Uganda. There are a lot of creative works coming out of Uganda and the international market is opening up.”
From Ayuli’s Nigerian perspective, “The major development is that we have just reviewed the Companies Act. This has been gazetted and we have a Companies and Allied Matters Act, 2020. It is a huge act with 700 clauses. It has changed the landscape, not only for companies and stakeholders, but also vis-a-vis the way that business will be done in Nigeria. There are a few important things, like we now have the recognition of e-signatures. This is part of the move to get the Companies Act to work virtually without having to go to the registry. Another thing is that in the past you could not incorporate a company without two shareholders. Now you can incorporate with one shareholder and one director. A lot of things in the Companies Act will help change the business environment in Nigeria.”.
During the discussion, Ayuli & Pheona also talked about the greatest challenges & opportunities presented by the pandemic for lawyers in Nigeria and Uganda respectively.
Ayuli: “at our [law] firm retreat we were talking about what we learnt from COVID and working virtually. I asked a question about how much time did you spend commuting prior to this time? Lagos is a very busy, traffic ridden place, and some spend up to 5 hours a day commuting and are glad to have clawed back that time. I asked what have you done with that time that you have gotten back? Have you done something new that you did not have time to do before? Some people put the hours back into work, others started exercising, but generally people’s lifestyles have changed in a positive way.”
Pheona: “The challenge has been adjusting to the new way of doing things. It has been expensive for smaller businesses to adjust and ensure social distancing and things like that. In the beginning it looked convenient to work from home, but then the practical reality is that the infrastructure was not ready – due to the cost of setting up that infrastructure for a work from home business. There were other practical realities, for people like me who are working parents with children at home and now what does that mean? Children were previously at school and now they are home and how do you manage that?There was a challenge of the walk-in clients which were no longer walking in. Smaller law firms depend on walk in clients and that presented a huge financial challenge for them. Lots of big businesses cut expenses by cutting legal services. The opportunities are that you can put in more time. Things like a commute can be used to have a meeting and you can do a lot more with your time. You can trust staff more – learning to delegate more and stop micromanaging. Opportunity to learn how to manage time better. Time is really money now and it has turned everyone into consultants. There are opportunities to make us smarter on spending on our infrastructure and staffing and adjusting to doing business smartly.”
When asked their thoughts on what lawyers outside of Africa specifically within the UK, can learn from the African legal profession, their responses were insightful.
Ayuli offered the following “For me, one word. Resilience. Speaking from a Nigerian perspective, lawyers in Nigeria should be given a thumbs up called geniuses as they are still able to deliver despite some of our challenges. Some of these challenges are things like dealing with regulators despite the challenges. Regulators deal with things with a lot of subjectivity. Things are never black and white.”
Pheona’s opinion was that "it is all about creativity and flexibility. Things are not black and white for lawyers in Africa. Ugandan lawyers have become very flexible and become business enablers, problem solvers. Market is evolving and lawyers are now having to walk clients through their business, and this has made the lawyers more resilient and creative, and client centered. Not a lot of international law firms are client centered, but Ugandans are learning to think ahead of the clients and make connections that will birth business for us. African lawyers could teach international lawyers flexibility and creativity.”
When East Meets West - Full length interview